November 17, 2005

Football's Positive Thinking

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Robert Schuller once said that, “It takes but one positive thought when given a chance to survive and thrive to overpower an entire army of negative thoughts.”

But a little over two years ago at Schoellkopf Field, that one positive thought was not to be found. Columbia, a team associated with mediocrity, ran all over the Cornell football team en route to a 34-21 victory. I watched that day in the press box, as the Red players looked lifeless – after all, it lost its seven previous games. That day in the press conference, a pale-looking Tim Pendergast, Cornell’s former head coach, tried to focus on the positives of his team and the possibility of knocking off undefeated Penn in the final weekend of the season. He wasn’t convincing.

“We’ve been playing behind all year,” said quarterback D.J. Busch ’05 that day. “I don’t even know what it feels like to play with a lead.”

Pendergast must have known he was looking down the barrel of a gun that day. A week later, his team was humiliated 59-7 at Franklin Field. Soon, Pendergast was axed.

There are still some traces of the remnants from that disastrous 1-9, 0-7 Ivy season. There is still some sort of surprise when you tell one of your unknowing classmates that football won last weekend, and it was by more than a point and it was not against Columbia. The talk of winning Ivy League titles would have been nonsense two years ago – a pipe dream for Cornellians who could not wait until they can talk about hockey season.

But, times change in two years. Football is winning, most recently dominating visiting Columbia, 45-7. In fact, Cornell has won five games this season, including a consummate victory over defending champion Harvard. The team’s total defense is tops in the league and senior quarterback Ryan Kuhn and sophomore tailback Luke Siwula lead one of the best rushing offenses in I-AA.

However, the most striking characteristic you’d find when talking to coaches and players in recent times – statistics aside – has been the mentality around Schoellkopf Field. Unlike before, these guys expect to win.

Pendergast’s replacement, Jim Knowles ’87, knew what his main objective was – to build a winning tradition. But, it would be a tough goal to reach.

“It’s kind of like building a house, you know, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Knowles said. “I’m not a very handy guy and I’m not a very patient guy. Sometimes my wife gives me those kids toys to put together and she leaves the room and I scream at myself for four hours.”

Despite his inherent lack of patience, Knowles recognized that he needed to get everyone from the players to the trainers to fans on the same page. And although it has taken awhile, because of the nine victories Knowles’ teams have earned over the past two seasons, this winning mentality has started to pervade into Cornell’s bloodstream.

“We have to think and act like winners and believe that what we have here at Cornell … is all good enough to [make us] champion of the Ivy League,” Knowles said.

This positive attitude has transcended onto the field. When talking to senior co-captain Kevin Rex last week, he told me that the team is honestly expecting to win every game. This is in comparison to years past, when Rex said that the Red headed into each week with the mindset of trying not to lose.

“You want to get a winning attitude and a winning mindset,” Knowles said. “When those crucial situations come, you don’t want guys thinking, ‘what bad thing is going to happen now?’ But instead, [you want them saying], ‘Wow, I’m going to be the one making the play to win the football game.'”

Maybe the most obvious sign of the change of tide in Cornell football was this past weekend against Columbia. Last season, Cornell, although more talented, had to come back from a 19-point deficit in New York to defeat the Lions for its first road win.

This year, there was no question as to who was the superior team. After defeating another extremely beatable foe, Dartmouth, the weekend before, the Red, despite having no hope of earning an Ivy title, made sure that there were no mental missteps, dominating a hapless Lions squad last Saturday.

“That’s the first step at being a winner – win the ones you’re supposed to win and then you have to grab your fare share of the tight ones,” Knowles said.

It was a little ironic that Cornell, a team on the up, faced a side which resembled the Red just two years ago. The Lions, like the Red under Pendergast during that awful season, have no light at the end of the tunnel and will probably need a change of leadership to reinvigorate an obviously dejected team – which statistically has the worst offense and defense in the Ivies. Perhaps after this season, Columbia should look at Knowles’ and Cornell’s example as a guide to potentially restart a struggling program, because mere mentality has proven across the nation to be more important than a quarterback’s arm, a tailback’s speed or a coach’s gameplan.

Just look at Notre Dame during the Tyrone Willingham era and Charlie Weis’ tenure. Although the Fighting Irish recruits some of the most talented players in the nation, the team could not even manage to earn a bowl bid before Willingham’s arrival. Steve Spurrier has already started transforming the attitude of streaking South Carolina, while Pete Carroll at USC has the entire universe expecting a national championship every season.

But, let’s get back to Ithaca and the humble environs of the Ivy League. Knowles and his team will face Penn on Saturday at Franklin Field, where the demons of that 59-7 loss still linger. Watching the Quakers fall to Harvard last weekend in Cambridge, Mass., Penn looked extremely vulnerable and beatable – surprising for the casual observer since Penn, under Al Bagnoli, has fostered a winning tradition which Knowles is striving to match.

Knowles talks about his program making steps and beating the Quakers – vulnerable or not – would be a big leap no matter how much it’s downplayed. The Red has not defeated powerhouses Penn and Harvard in the same year since 1999, and besides beating bottom-feeders Dartmouth and Columbia on the road, Knowles’ squad has never taken down a truly top-notch opponent away from home.

But, how ironic would it be for Cornell to make a statement at Franklin Field, considering that it was the site of the program’s rock bottom two years ago?

“You may take one, two steps and now you’re at the final inch and there may be 10 little steps in there within that inch, and this Penn game could get us closer,” Knowles said.

And for the Cornell program, a Red win would add another large brick in football’s new two-year-old foundation – a winning tradition.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao