Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Because the Ivy League does not hold any form of playoffs, conference matchup have an increased meaning, such as Cornell's tilt with Columbia, which is known as the Empire Cup.

October 7, 2020

The Evolution of Ivy League Football

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While Ivy League football teams compete in Division I, their competition falls under the umbrella of the FCS instead of the FBS, which carries more prominent programs.

Prior to this shift, Ivy League football programs were among the most well-regarded in the nation. During the early origins of football, Princeton and Yale dominated in the 19th century and ultimately combined for 55 national championships.

In fact, seven Ivy League schools have claimed national championships with the lone exception being Brown. Cornell has claimed five national titles, with the most recent coming in 1939. As it turned out, that championship proved to be the Ivy League’s final national title.

The Ivy League began to coalesce as the eight presidents signed on to the Ivy Group Agreement in 1945, which set the standards for the schools’ football programs, including the provision of prohibiting athletic scholarships.

“The members of the Group reaffirm their prohibition of athletic scholarships,” the agreement read. “Athletes shall be admitted as students and awarded financial aid only on the basis of the same academic standards and economic need as are applied to all other students.”

This agreement extended to other sports starting in 1954. Over time, the conference continued to dig its heels in relation to scholarships. This ultimately hurt the Ivy League’s prominence as it struggled to compete with other major conference programs that morphed into national powerhouses.

While the Ivy League offered unparalleled educational opportunities, other universities offered actual scholarships and also served as more reliable pipelines into the National Football League.

The final nail in the coffin occurred in 1981 when the NCAA set criteria on home attendance and seating capacity, which four teams in the Ivy League could not meet. The conference considered adding two schools to avoid an ouster from Division 1-A (now known as Division 1 FBS), but in 1983, the Ivy League’s football teams were downgraded to Division 1-AA (now known as Division 1 FCS).

While most FCS teams compete in a 24-team bracket tournament to determine a national champion, Ivy League squads do not compete in any form of playoffs. Instead, the team that stands atop the Ivy League standings at the end of the season earns the conference title.

Robin Harris, the executive director of the Ivy League, said the conference was nowhere close to establishing a playoff system, explaining that the current presidents are comfortable with how the Ivy League champion is crowned. Discussions about a possible bowl game have also stalled.

“The issue becomes who would our champion play, with other teams committed to other postseason opportunities,” Harris said in an interview with Yahoo Sports back in 2019. “And then there’s a lot of other factors that would go into it. We have not even gotten past that hurdle.”

As a result, particular conference showdowns have emerged as mini bowl contests in and of themselves. In the Cornell-Columbia rivalry, both teams have vied for the Empire Cup since 2010. In addition, whenever Cornell and Penn meet on the field, they compete for the Trustees’ Cup.

Prior to the Red’s contest against the Quakers in 2019, then-junior wide receiver Phazione McClurge noted the significance of these particular conference games.

“This is our everything,” McClurge said. “The Ivy League is the Ivy League. We don’t have any playoffs, so this cup is our trophy — our bowl game.”

Though Ivy League teams lack the same relevance that they did a century ago, they have settled into a rhythm since their incorporation into the FCS. While some may advocate for a playoff system, others are comfortable with the longstanding tradition of the Ivy League.