September 19, 2008

Earning it Back: The Quest to Regain the C

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Jim Knowles ’87 rarely speaks before he thinks. He’s not afraid to collect his thoughts for a moment, twirling the giant, jewel-encrusted Cotton Bowl ring he got while serving as linebackers coach at Ole Miss. For once, though, a reflective pause had left him empty handed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Knowles paused again.
“What’s that one quote?”
Pornography. That’s what Knowles was thinking about. More specifically, Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 comment — “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”
Knowles leaned back and laughed at the phrase, the ring coming to a conclusive rest.
“Yeah, that’s it. I can’t define it, but I’ll know what it takes to get that ‘C’ back when I see it.”
What on a football field could possibly be compared to pornography, though? The stark-naked, bright red helmet the football players are all wearing, for starters. Gone until further notice is the traditional, boxy, stuffy “C” on the side of each helmet. [img_assist|nid=31930|title=Chasing victory|desc=Senior quarterback Nathan Ford will drive the Red’s pass-happy offense at Bucknell tomorrow.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“We didn’t lose them,” Knowles said. “We just took them off temporarily. Hopefully that won’t last very long. … We had a couple of losses last year that were not only lopsided, that happens every now and then, but we got physically dominated. Pushed around, you know. We won’t stand for that.”
Knowles doesn’t mention any games specifically, but it’s not hard to pluck the contests he’s talking about from last year’s results. There was the 51-12 loss to Yale, when Yale ran over, around and through everything in its path for 293 yards and five scores on the ground. There were the six turnovers against Princeton. There were the seven turnovers — five of them fumbles — and 59 points given up to Dartmouth, a team the Red usually dominates. Finally, as if to add insult to injury — something Cornell had plenty of by the end of the season — Penn bullied its way to 329 rushing yards.
“There’s a lot of ways to win or not win a ball game, but we have to be able to compete physically at the line of scrimmage and take care of the football,” Knowles said. “I felt there were a few games last year where we didn’t do that. And if you don’t play like that, you don’t deserve to wear the C, quite frankly, and you have to earn that back.”
Being physical at the line of scrimmage means stopping the run, and taking care of the football means avoiding the turnover. While Cornell ranked a mediocre 58th in the 116-team Football Championship Subdivision in run defense, it was next to last in turnover margin.
“Football at Cornell goes back to 1887, you have to be able to have some respect for that and the product you put out there,” Knowles said.
So, the coaches took away the C and went back to the basics. Full pads, full scrimmage, full contact, every day. For once, this was your father’s football.
“We would line up with two tight ends or two backs and play old high school style and just smash each other,” Knowles said. “That helps, I think, in the toughness category.”
The team broke with tradition and elected captains during the spring semester in an effort to develop leadership over the summer. With more captains’ practices over the summer, players were more encouraged to set goals.
“A bunch of us stayed over summer to work out, came together as a group,” said senior safety Tim Bax. “Defensively, we kind of put our head out there, just in practice, finishing every play, not letting them get the extra yards. A lot of it’s a mental thing. When things are going tough, you’ve got to just buckle down and act like it’s not.”
The coaching staff kept them honest.
“[We] set goals for them in the weight room or in certain areas,” Knowles said. “Then we made them accountable and actually put up slides so we could see, ‘Oh these guys met six-of-eight goals, and these guys only met one-of-eight goals.’”
Knowles has set his own goals, too, and won’t make excuses for not meeting them. He’ll admit that he didn’t expect to sport a run-of-the-mill 20-20 record after four years of coaching at Cornell. He’ll tell you that he’s not exactly sure why his teams went from featuring a top-10 rush defense his first two years to ranking in the lower half of the country’s teams. The one lesson Knowles has learned is that it’s hard to change the image of a program. Cornell is two years shy of a generation passing between Ivy League titles.
“It just takes a long time to get everyone to believe in all the same things,” Knowles said “It is certainly a process to change the culture of something and turn it around. It takes a lot longer than I expected.”
And that culture starts with the players. It starts with earning back that C. It may be just a decal, but it means much more to the coaching staff.
“It would have to be this upcoming week [that we get the C back],” said a hopeful Graham Rihn, a senior linebacker and co-captain. “It’s been a thing of sort of earning your C. It has to happen before the first game.”
Does it, though? Would Knowles really start the season without it? Can he?
“Yeah,” Knowles said, smiling broadly and laughing. “There’s a real possibility.”
So after some 45 minutes of peppering Knowles with questions, what started as, “I don’t know,” has actually become clear. It may not be defined succinctly, but the definition is there nonetheless.
Knowles will address the C when he’s convinced the Red is capable of controlling the line of scrimmage, stopping the run and taking care of the ball. He’ll change it when the players assert themselves on the field and stop letting other teams push them around. He’ll slap that C back on the helmet when his team embraces its Cornellian heritage.