September 15, 2006

Ring That Bell in 2006

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A cobra, a rocket ship and a bell.

What do these things have in common? They’ve each been a central icon of the football team’s seasonal rallying cry under head coach Jim Knowles ’87.

In the first year that Knowles held the reins of the program, the Red had hit rock bottom after a 1-9 (0-7 Ivy) season — the worst performance by a Cornell squad in 28 years. To inspire his players to make a change, Knowles announced that the Red would unite behind the mantra, “Strike back!” He told the team to think of a cobra, rising up from its belly to take revenge on any and all that had tread upon it.

The result? A 4-3 record in the Ivy League — the best turnaround by any Ancient Eight team since Yale’s squad did the same in 1958. After this resurrection, the motto for 2005 became, “To the Top!” No longer was finishing middle of the pack acceptable. Knowles had helped the Red reestablish itself; now the team needed to serve notice that it would not be playing the role of conference doormat ever again. Instead, it would be a rocket ship, blasting its way to the pinnacle of success — an Ivy League championship.

While the third-place finish of 2005 wasn’t quite the top, it was another step forward — The Red finished the season with a mark of 6-4 (4-3 Ivy).
This year, Knowles took a different path to find the team’s touchstone. Instead of thinking up his own scheme to motivate the masses, he turned to the Red’s 16 seniors. This group was the last class that had been part of that dismal 1-9 season. They had been on the sidelines and on the field as freshmen during one of the lowest episodes in Cornell football history. But even after that brutal introduction to collegiate football, they stuck with it. For the past three years, they had given Cornell football everything they had. Now, Knowles was giving them the chance to demand something in return.

“It felt great to us that we were able to take part in it, and it gave us the total sense that this is our team and this is our season and this is up to us,” said senior captain Jonathan Lucas. “I guess ultimately it is up to us, because I guess no matter what, coach Knowles isn’t out there with a helmet and shoulder pads.”

So, what did the Class of 2007 choose as the team’s message to its opponents, its fans, all the doubters in the media, and everyone and anyone at all?

“Ring that Bell!”

It’s a simple catchphrase that might not mean anything if you’ve never been in the Cornell locker room after a win. But to these 16 seniors, it represents the final step in the renaissance of their football team.

When Knowles returned to the East Hill, he brought with him a new attitude and a fresh belief that Cornell could and would win against all challengers. He instilled pride in the program, leading the Red to a 7-3 record inside the friendly confines of Schoellkopf Field over the last two years. And he brought back carnelian tradition.

He told his players they would no longer be singing “Cornell Victorious” after a victory. There was a new song, a new way they would celebrate each win, on their way upward from the depths of that 1-9 performance.
Then he lifted a bell out of a box. Knowles explained that it would be with the team in every locker room, home and away, and one person would ring the bell when the team had sung the new fight song after each win. The victory would be inscribed on the bell, and there would be a new bell after every 10 wins.

According to senior captain Anthony Macaluso, it was one of many ways in which Knowles changed the way the team thought.

“[He told us,] ‘Every one of you deserves to be here and we deserve to be the best.’ And we strive to be the best,” Macaluso said. “Everything we did from then on was with one goal in mind: to become the best team in the Ivy League.”

Tomorrow night, a brand new bell — shiny, beautiful, and blank — will travel with the Red to Bucknell. The Red’s 16-7 win over Penn on Nov. 19, to end last year’s campaign, was the 10th time Knowles had coached Cornell to victory. It took two seasons to fill up the first bell; this year’s senior class wants to retire the second bell after one tour of duty.

For these seniors, hoping to come out on top in just seven conference contests isn’t enough. They know that settling even just a little bit, accepting even the smallest compromise, allowing a single doubt, can undermine success.

So they won’t allow any of that, and they won’t let any of their teammates or coaches allow that. The seniors are ready to take the final step towards returning Cornell football to its past glory.

“As a senior class, we decided that to get to our goal of the Ivy League championship … we have to win every game, so we have to ring the bell every game,” Macaluso said. “Every time we prepare, our goal is, come four o’clock on Saturday, to ring the bell.”

Olivia Dwyer is the Sun Sports Editor. Forever Wild normally appears every other Friday during the semester.