September 20, 2002

Transitioning From Uncertainty to Stability

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What a difference a year makes.

Last September, Tim Pendergast stood in front of a white board in Schoellkopf Hall and spent an hour illustrating what he wanted to bring to the football program. The list ranged from a running game to a sense of pride in the football program, from a completely new staff to a completely new philosophy.

In an interview with The Sun before the start of his inaugural season as the Roger J. Weiss ’61 Coach of Football, he said “I’m the caretaker. Schoellkopf has been around a long time. I have the opportunity now to maybe paint the walls a different color and fix some windows that are cracked.”

With a limited set of resources and an unlimited number of goals, Pendergast had the unenviable task of merging them into the 2001 football team. He inherited a squad that competed in the Ivy League championship game the year before; a squad that was 5-5, but could have just as easily been 1-9.

He had to restore balance to a team that depended on the arm of Ricky Rahne ’02, the hands of Joe Splendorio ’01, the two-minute drill, and an occasional blocked kick. A team that had lost its coach unexpectedly after the 2000 season.

Now without the talented class of 2001 and the benefit of a full recruiting season, Pendergast had to live up to the previous year’s expectations.

He began by preaching his philosophy, looking for converts among the 100-person roster. The team accepted the more human coach after playing under former head coach Pete Mangurian and his NFL mentality.

Still, even the veteran players like Rahne were rookies in Pendergast’s offense, and three-year starters such as Bryan Sacco and George Paraskevopoulos ’02 were new to the defense. The fact that Cornell did not name captains until four games into the season only magnified the greenness on the Red — by then the squad had already limped to an 0-4 start that would become 0-5.

Going into the final four games of the season, the paint on the walls began to dry. The defense tackled better, the offense ran more smoothly, and the team was able to generate the “big play.” Pendergast is quick to point out that his team split its last four games. It was too late to salvage the 2001 season, but a good basis on which the 2002 campaign could start.

A spring season and precamp later, the philosophy Pendergast introduced 18 months earlier has been imprinted on every one of Schoellkopf’s stones.

The football team is still young; Pendergast is the first to note that two-thirds of the squad are underclassmen. The total number of rookies, 42, is vastly fewer than last year’s 100.

Also, senior co-captains Nate Spitler and Nate Archer and the returning lettermen will assist in teaching those who must learn their positions on the field, leaving Pendergast to do what he was hired to do: Coach.

Mantras were drilled into all parties associated with the team last year:

“You have to run the ball to throw the ball.”

“We want to be undefeated every week.”

“We want our players to be championship athletes, students, and people.”

Those statements are not spoken anymore. They have been integrated into the fabric of the program as the tenets of Cornell football and aren’t necessary to reiterate. For those who want to know Pendergast’s foremost goals for the team, turn to page 11 in the Cornell Football Media Guide. In fact, that one page of a two-page spread is dedicated to the exact same ideas Pendergast believed an Ivy League program should offer. That page used to be adorned with the head coach’s pictures and biographical facts.

The windows have been mended and the halls painted, but more importantly, the foundation has been strengthened. Last year’s uncertainty has turned into this year’s stability. Whether that stability will win Ivy titles is another question.

Pendergast has a fitter, more focused, and more experienced crew than last year. He boasts of the talent at every position. He thinks that it should bring a better year than his first. And he undoubtedly is looking for the wins to come as much or more so than anyone else.

Sure, Pendergast is looking to have a successful team this year, but he also wants to insure that Cornell has a successful program. Everything last year put the blocks in place for this season. This year, the results will show.

Last year, the Cornell football team belonged to the senior class as much as it was Pendergast’s. This year it is his.

“Like any good organization, the Cornell University football program has and believes that we have a mission to accomplish,” the media guide says.

How will this second year of that mission end?

Archived article by Amanda Angel