When the 2006 Hall of Fame inductees are introduced to the hometown crowd at halftime of the football game against Dartmouth this Saturday, head coach Jim Knowles ’87 and the Red will welcome back two of their own. James Van Buren ’55 and John McNiff ’91 will return to East Hill as they bring a little of the luster Cornell enjoyed during their careers back to Schoellkopf Stadium.
“It’s huge that the football program gets recognized in that way,” Knowles said. “We consider ourselves the most visible program and we’re really trying to step up to represent the University, so I think that helps.”
In their respective eras, Van Buren and McNiff were two football players that stood out from the crowd. And while their playing days were separated by nearly four decades, the memories each has from their playing days in carnelian and white share a common theme.
“I had just a great time at Cornell … we had fun and that was the main thing,” Van Buren said. “We didn’t win all the games we wanted to, but we had a good time doing it. It’s hard to say anything more. It was just great people we were associated with.”
In his days as a guard for the Red, Van Buren and the gridders won enough games to claim two unofficial Ivy League titles in 1953 (4-3-2 overall) and 1954 (5-4). Van Buren earned three letters in his time on the squad, starting every game from 1952-54 besides the first four games of the 1954 season, which he sat out due to injury. During his career, he was named to the All-Ivy second team and was awarded as an All-East honorable mention by the Associated Press in 1954, as well as adding second-team All-East honors from the United Press and International News Service to his long list of accolades.
“I was very honored and still am,” Van Buren said of receiving word that he had been selected for the Hall of Fame. “Goodness knows, there are several teammates that had a lot to do with any success we had.”
During the time he was making tackles and blocking for the Red, Van Buren helped Cornell earn victories over some of the most storied programs in American collegiate football, including wins over Jim Brown’s Syracuse team as well as Michigan and Ohio State. However, these days Van Buren is more likely to be found watching his grandson’s Little League baseball game than college football, although he is an avid follower of Cornell’s progress on the gridiron.
“I look every week to see how the Big Red does,” Van Buren said. “I was really excited this week when they beat Princeton because I always thought that would be a thing to do. I’m just always sorry when they lose to Yale because that was the one [team] I liked to beat every year.”
After earning his undergraduate degree at Cornell, he went on to Weill Medical School and moved to Atlanta, where he has practiced internal medicine ever since. He currently works for Emory University. He and his wife will attend the Hall of Fame ceremonies with their five children.
Like Van Buren, McNiff was pleased and surprised when he was informed that his name had made the final list of Hall of Fame inductees. The letter from Cornell carrying the good news sat unopened for several days, as McNiff thought it was a thank you note from the Cornell Fund.
“I thought at first that my friends were messing with me,” McNiff recalled. When he finally got around to opening the envelope, however, he was “ecstatic. It’s a great honor. … I’m grateful that the powers that be chose me.”
After what he accomplished during his time on the East Hill, McNiff should have had an inkling the Hall of Fame invitation would end up in his mailbox sooner rather than later. At the end of his career as a running back, McNiff left Cornell third on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,557 yards, a mark good enough for seventh all-time in the Ivy League 15 years ago. He topped the century mark in rushing yards 11 different times, with a career-best 189-yard game against Harvard in 1990. In 1989, he earned Ivy League Sophomore of the Year honors — since renamed Rookie of the Year — as well as All-Ivy honorable mention honors.
The team’s greatest success came in McNiff’s fourth year with Cornell, when the Red went 7-3 overall and split the Ivy League championship with Dartmouth when both squads finished 6-1 in the conference.
“My greatest memory was winning the championship in 1990 and the students storming the field and tearing down the goalposts,” McNiff said. “It was a great time to be [at Cornell].”
McNiff finished second in the voting for Ivy League Player of the Year that season, and was given a fifth year of eligibility after sitting out the 1988 season with an injury. He made good use of it, earning the team’s MVP award as well as taking home MVP honors at the 1991 Epson/Ivy Bowl All-Star game in Tokyo, Japan.
The former standout will find a familiar face on the sideline this Saturday, as Knowles was the running backs coach when McNiff was in uniform for Cornell.
“So really it has nothing to do with him – it’s all a function of my coaching,” Knowles said with a smile. “John was a great player. I mean, John could take the game into his own hands when he wanted to. I really admire the way he played and he really deserves the honor.”
McNiff will travel to Ithaca with his wife and two daughters this weekend. After graduating from Cornell, he had a brief tryout with the Minnesota Vikings before moving on to work in the financial services field. He attended graduate school at Columbia, and currently works as a bond trader for Lehman Brothers. He lives with his family in New York City.
“Cornell University has given me a lot and opened a lot of doors [for me],” McNiff said. “If I could do it all over again I would in a second.”
For both Van Buren and McNiff, this weekend is a chance to return to their old stomping grounds and remember the challenges and successes of their own collegiate careers. They’ll also have the opportunity to watch their current incarnations take on the Green.
“I believe in what [Knowles] is trying to get done there and take the program back to where it was 15 years ago,” McNiff said. “It’s great to come back and relive the glory days.”