December 1, 2004

Resurgent Red Reflects on Fall, Looks to Future

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It comes as no surprise that head coach Jim Knowles ’87 feels pleased about the way his first season at the helm of the Cornell football program played out. Defying all odds and most polls, he led the Red to a third-place finish in the Ivy League with a 4-3 conference mark. Under his guidance, five members of the team received All-Ivy honors, and the squad’s seniors ended their careers with a winning record in Schoellkopf and their heads held high on campus. Most importantly, though, Knowles breathed fresh air into the sails of a team stuck in the doldrums of three losing seasons, bringing excitement and respect back to Schoellkopf.

“I can say we came a long way,” he said. “Every member of our staff worked hard, every player worked hard too, to accomplish that. Winning was the payoff. The players finally got some enjoyment from that.”

Among those wins, a dominating 19-7 performance against Yale and a close 21-20 game versus Princeton stood out, but a 21-17 road loss to Brown midway through the schedule may have been the season’s defining moment.

Following a season-opening loss to Bucknell in early September, the Red returned to Schoellkopf for the fist time since its dismal 2003 campaign, during which it fell to 1-9. Ranked as high as second in the preseason, the Elis came to Ithaca expecting a win; few here anticipated otherwise. But Cornell prevailed in stunning fashion, displaying a potent offense and stout defense, the likes of which had been absent from the turf on East Hill since 2001. Hopes were high.

But as luck would have it, the Red returned to its losing ways, dropping its next four games, including one to the Bears. Despite moving the ball well and keeping Brown in check on defense, Cornell squandered a 17-7 third-quarter lead and handed the Bears a win.

What bothered Knowles most about the game was not the final score. Rather, it was the team’s lack of emotion. Following a Bears score that cut Cornell’s lead to three, junior Anthony Jackson returned a kick 37 yards with an electrifying run. The play put the Red on Brown’s 46 yard line in position to regain control of the game, yet the sideline displayed little reaction — indicative of a team destined to fulfill its own losing prophecy.

“There was a lot more baggage than I anticipated. After Yale, I thought we had a darn good team. I expected the guys to break open,” Knowles said. “After that kickoff return against Brown, I realized they were really carrying a fear of losing instead of having joy for winning. Watching the tape, there was no reaction on the sideline. It was like they were afraid to cheer, because they were afraid of getting their hearts broken.”

In the week of practice that followed, Knowles changed his tactics, and the team changed with him. He played music. He delivered fiery motivational talks. He backed off a little bit. The Red responded with a nail-biting win over the Tigers the next Saturday.

“I would have started using that philosophy earlier, if I could have taken a different approach,” Knowles said. “We just had to get the idea across of putting their hearts on the line. It was like a guy who’d asked a girl on a date 20 times and been rejected each time — they expected to lose.”

Wins against Dartmouth and Columbia followed, and, shortly thereafter, Cornell nearly pulled off a remarkable upset of Penn but fell short, 20-14, in the game’s final minutes.

Nonetheless, the score was a far cry from the humiliating 59-7 drubbing the Quakers had dished out a year before, and it showed just how far the team had come.

In recognition of the individuals whose contributions had enabled the dramatic progress, the Ivy League coaches awarded five Cornell players All-Ivy honors. Senior offensive tackle Kevin Boothe — arguably the league’s best offensive lineman — was a unanimous first team pick, his second award in as many years. Senior defensive lineman Ryan Lempa and junior safety Kevin Rex both earned second-team nods, while junior wide receiver Brian Romney and senior defensive back Sean Nassoiy received honorable mention.

Lempa, who led the team in sacks (4), and Rex, who recorded a team-high 86 tackles, helped anchor a defense which went from last to first in run defense. Romney led the team and ranked among the top five Ivy League players in both receptions (60) and receiving yards (760). Nassioy, who rejoined the team after battling cancer last season, finished with a league-leading four interceptions, including two in the team’s fourth-quarter comeback against Columbia.

The team as a whole became only the second in Ivy history to establish a winning record just a season after finishing 0-7.

For many fans, University administrators, alumni boosters, and even rival coaches, the turnaround came as a complete surprise. To Knowles, however, the team’s success was hardly unexpected — it was the only acceptable result. And it goes without saying that the former Red defensive lineman now has his sights and his team focused on an even greater goal: capturing an Ivy League crown. With a full year to focus on recruiting new talent and 14 starters returning — including Rex, Romney, and possibly Boothe — that dream may well become reality in 2005.

“All I have to say is, ‘Get on the train,'” Knowles said. “We’re going places.”

Archived article by Everett Hullverson
Sun Assistant Sports Editor