For those who think of college football as the domain of big-time programs, lavish halftime shows, polls, bowls, and what have you, the Harvard-Yale rivalry must seem small potatoes indeed. But this year the two schools are preparing for Saturday's centennial edition of ''The Game,'' and that reminds us of its historical importance.
As a competitive event, of course, it surely won't be considered the highlight of the season. Harvard has a chance to win or share the Ivy League title, but Yale, an out-of-character 1-8, is playing strictly for pride.
Those not connected with these bastions of learning, therefore, may not give a hoot about the proceedings. That, however, hasn't stopped blueblood alums from clamoring to overflow 72,000 Yale Bowl seats, or planning to view a closed-circuit telecast beamed to Harvard and Yale clubs in 30 cities.
Many, of course, attend the game in person because of the social trappings - the elegant tailgate picnics, alumni parties, and hobnobbing in reunion tents. The weekend activities have been described as a Wall Street Block Party and Raccoon Coat Parade.
Still, at the heart of all these goings-on is a football game that has spawned a deep-rooted rivalry, one that probably involves more students than any in the nation. In addition to varsity, junior varsity, and freshman games in various sports, the house or dorm intramural teams lock horns in full-contact, tackle contests.
Competitive instincts honed in the classroom ooze onto the playing field. Winning is important, which is why coaches Joe Restic of Harvard and Carm Cozza of Yale will receive well-wishing telegrams and phone calls from around the world.
It also is what prompted Tad Jones, the Yale coach in 1923, to engage in his famous bit of exaggeration during a pre-game pep talk. ''Gentlemen,'' he said, ''you are about to play Harvard. Never in your life will you do anything so important.''
This utterance is now as much a part of the game's lore as the unforgettable tie of 1968. The game's stunning conclusion, which left a Harvard Stadium crowd limp, stands as a hallmark to college football's exciting possibilities.
Apparently hopelessly beaten by a Yale powerhouse featuring future pros Calvin Hill and Brian Dowling, Harvard rallied for 16 points in the final 42 seconds, scoring the last touchdown and two-point conversion with no time on the clock, to deadlock the score and give the Crimson what its rooters refer to as the famous ''29-29 victory.'' Both teams, in effect, spoiled one another's perfect season, each winding up 8-0-1.
The ''Great Tie'' in some ways echoed the result of the 1881 game, which saw Yale declared the victor in a 0-0 tie. An ancient rule, which took safeties into account without assigning them a point value, was responsible for this outcome.
The rule, interestingly, was the brainchild of Yale's Walter Camp, a student representative to the annual rules convention and the George Washington of American football.
Camp was instrumental in much of the game's early development. Beginning in 1876, he starred for the Elis, playing six years before someone decided to limit collegiate eligibility. He went on to become coach of Yale's first gridiron juggernaut, an influential rules maker, and the foremost selector of All-American teams.
The first Harvard-Yale meeting, however, occured in 1875, one year before Camp arrived. The game, which in those days was a modified form of rugby, took place on a race track infield in New Haven and was won by Harvard, 4-0. Yale won 10 of the next 11 contests, however, to build the big overall lead it still holds in the series (54-37-8), but except for the early games the teams have really been about as evenly matched over the years as anyone could hope. Since 1908, for instance, the record reads 33 victories apiece, with five ties.
In all, the rivalry now extents over 108 years, with occasional interruptions in the early days and again for two years each during World War I and World War II.
The only postponement occurred in 1963, when the contest was pushed back a week because of President Kennedy's assasination. JFK's brother Ted, incidentally, scored the Crimson's only touchdown in a 21-7 defeat in 1955.
It was at about this time that the bloom dropped off Ivy League football, as fans turned with greater interest to the pro game and higher caliber college competition. The heydey of the century's first two decades, when the schools combined to produce 100 consensus All-Americans, had receded in memory, and only an occasional player, such as Dowling or Hill, garnered national recognition.
Some of the better known players, from the last 16 years are expected to participate Friday in a touch football tournament. Fun? Yes, but probably fiercely competitive too. Says Vic Gatto, now the head football coach at Tufts but still best remembered as the star Harvard halfback who scored the last touchdown in that 1968 game, ''You don't really think those guys are going to play touch, do you?''