November 26, 1994. Final score: Florida 31, Florida State 31.
Yet, the 1994 game between Florida and Florida State recalled another famous event from college football history. It explains why ties got outlawed. It explains why tying hardly feels like the avoidance of a loss for one side or the denial of victory for the other. It also explains why Bobby Bowden didn’t go for two at the very end.
Over a quarter of a century before The Choke At Doak, Harvard and Yale met in Boston. The 1968 Harvard-Yale game marked the first time since 1909 that both teams were unbeaten entering the matchup. It wasn’t a game with national championship stakes, but Yale was nationally ranked. The prestige of Ivy League football — much like service academy football — was still considerable. (The Ivy League was Division I-A football through 1981 before downscaling to a lower division.)
Who played in the 1968 Harvard-Yale game?
Academy Award winning actor Tommy Lee Jones did.
Decade-long NFL veteran and Super Bowl champion Calvin Hill — also known as Grant Hill’s father — played in that game.
In the urban Northeast, the game was significant in ways modern-day Ivy League football could never be. One could make the argument that this was the last transcendent Ivy League football game in a sport where Princeton played the first game 99 years earlier (against Rutgers in 1869), and in which Yale — in the late 1880s — became the first great juggernaut under Walter Camp, a man called “The Father of American Football.”
Why does that game have such a large place in college football history — and a strong connection to The Choke At Doak?
Yale led Harvard, 29-13, in the final minute of regulation. Harvard scored a touchdown, made the 2-point conversion, recovered its onside kick, drove downfield, scored another touchdown, and scored a second 2-point conversion to tie, all in that final minute. Watch that crazy final minute of play here:
The next day’s Harvard Crimson student newspaper contained the headline, “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.”
One wonders what the reaction would have been if Yale had led 29-15 and then 29-22 after a Harvard touchdown, creating a situation in which Harvard had the option of going for two in order to win the game, not to tie, as had been the case in 1968, down 29-27.
What if Harvard had the ability to tie and took the safe route? Would the student newspaper have been as glowing? Would the outcome have felt as satisfying for Harvard under that circumstance, one which never arose?
Nearly 11 years before The Choke At Doak, the nation got a taste of what it was like for a team to go for two when it had legitimate reason to settle for the PAT and a tie.
Nebraska — as it would continue to do for the next decade and a half — traveled to Miami for a bowl game against a team from the Southeastern United States. Once in a while, this team was outside the state of Florida — Clemson in the 1982 Orange Bowl, LSU in the 1983 Orange Bowl, Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl — but most of the time, Nebraska’s opponent in South Florida was either Miami or Florida State.
In the 1984 Orange Bowl, it was The U on the other sideline, playing in its home stadium, the Old Horseshoe In Little Havana. The reality that Nebraska was playing in its opponent’s own ballyard gave the Huskers added reason to claim that if they could play Miami to a tie, they deserved to be national champions ahead of Auburn, which won the 1984 Sugar Bowl that same night against Michigan.
Put yourself in Tom Osborne’s shoes: While trying to win the game was certainly bold and honorable — following the emotionally satisfying path (I would have gone for two myself) — it remained that playing for a tie wasn’t so much a response to the Orange Bowl game as it was a response to a full season. Narrowly and technically, Nebraska could have chosen to play for a 31-31 tie against Miami on one night in one situation in one hostile stadium. Viewed more broadly, though, kicking that one extra point would have given Nebraska a likely majority of Associated Press poll votes.
It would have given Nebraska a likely ceremony of some sort. It would have given Osborne — as a matter of historical record — a first national championship as recognized by one or both polls (AP writers, United Press International coaches). Nebraska would have been able to plaster a banner or plaque or both — and other markers of national championship glory — in prominent places on campus. All those formal, official or celebratory moments… all from a decision to kick an extra point.
It was so easy. It was so attainable. Some people certainly would have had a problem with it had Osborne done it, but the logic behind kicking the PAT was entirely understandable regardless.
That’s why Osborne’s decision to go for two was a risk, and hardly something to be dismissed as “not a real choice.” It really did risk something.
Bobby Bowden saw Osborne — like him, a coach who came so close to winning the national title on multiple occasions — fail to win a national title on that night in January of 1984. Almost 11 years later, Bowden had just won his first national championship. Osborne had not yet won his initial title. It would come just weeks after The Choke At Doak in the 1995 Orange Bowl, again versus Miami.
Was there a part of Bowden which said to himself, “I am not going to waste this comeback from a 31-3 deficit”? Was there a part of the riverboat gambler which didn’t want to play another hand? Was there a side of the Florida State coach which wanted to make sure that Steve Spurrier never won in Tallahassee as an opposing head coach?
Regardless of how you answer or approach those questions, there was something in Bowden which held him back and prevented him from going for two.
Some Florida fans were probably relieved that their reeling defense never had a chance to surrender a loss. Some Gator fans probably sensed how much of a troll move this was for Bowden, not seeking a scoreboard victory but choosing a low-stress path to a tie which felt like victory.
Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.
Florida State beats Florida, 31-31, roughly 26 years later.
Bowden’s decision might not have been profoundly satisfying at the time — not for anyone involved in the FSU-UF rivalry — but these 24 years later, it is easier to see why he did what he did.
Almost a quarter of a century after The Choke At Doak, Florida fans can’t think of this game without cringing at best, and without becoming ill at worst. Florida State fans think of one simple fact — Spurrier never beating Bowden in Tallahassee — and smile a rich smile normally reserved for victors, not a team which settles for a tie. It’s as though Bowden could look into the future and realize how history would remember this game, the worst collapse in Florida football history and one of Bowden’s great escapes.
Don’t say Bobby Bowden didn’t know how to play the long game, even if you disagreed with one of the most important in-game coaching decisions he ever made.
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