By Brett Yates
Now is the time of year when one cannot glance at a TV inside a restaurant or bar (the sort of restaurant or bar that never changes the channel from ESPN, I mean) without encountering a college football “bowl game” —the term used for the puffed-up, mostly meaningless cash-grab postseason exhibition matches designed to give any group of helmeted 20-year-olds who’ve managed to earn six or more gridiron victories in a given autumn the chance to finish their year with a trophy, albeit one that may bear the corporate logo of a Tax Slayer or a Go Daddy.
If you’re especially clueless about this college football stuff, as I am, you may wonder why you never see a team from Vermont in one of these bowl games. Is it because there is no college football in Vermont? Or is it because all the college football teams in Vermont are terrible?
As it turns out, the answer to both these questions is yes. Well, there is college football in Vermont, technically, but it is one of nine U.S. states that do not boast a program that participates in the NCAA’s Division I FBS—the highest level of college football, which includes all the schools that you see on TV playing in bowl games. There are, however, three postsecondary institutions in Vermont that fund varsity football teams, and these are Middlebury College, Norwich University, and Castleton State University, all of which play in NCAA Division III, and all of which have their own fine history if you’re willing to look for it.
The least storied program of these three easily is Castleton’s, inaugurated in just 2009 (222 years after the school’s birth), although the Spartans have quickly risen to respectability, notching a 7-3 record in 2014 and defeating rival Norwich to claim Vermont’s legendary Maple Sap Bucket Trophy (don’t ask me). With both schools competing in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference, this could shape up into an invigoratingly bitter rivalry—a worthy replacement for the famous lost rivalry between Norwich and Middlebury, whose precious New England Small College Athletic Conference decided after 1991 that they didn’t want their members rubbing elbows with the state-school lumpenproletariat by engaging in non-conference play.
Before the ban, Middlebury and Norwich battled 100 times for the Wadsworth Trophy, symbolizing the Vermont college football championship. In 1980, ABC broadcast the matchup live.
Now that the annual Middlebury-Norwich game has been canceled, it’s hard to say which team is superior—each has had success in its conference. The NESCAC is kind of goofy, allowing its members to play only eight games per season even though the conference has ten members, but we must give Middlebury its due: since 2000, the Panthers have won their conference championship three times and have had a losing record just once. Meanwhile, in six seasons in the ECFC, Norwich has won its conference twice and has not had a losing record—although, prior to joining the ECFC, the Cadets muddled through four straight losing seasons in the Empire 8.
Castleton State has, of course, not yet sent a student-athlete to the NFL. Middlebury and Norwich, whose football programs stretch back to the 19th century, have together produced fewer pro football players (five—two and three, respectively) than has UVM (six), which canceled its football program in 1974. Yet Vermont’s one big NFL success story belongs to Middlebury, where, after a Massachusetts native named Steven Hauschka was cut from the varsity soccer team, he took up placekicking at the suggestion of his roommate, a Middlebury football player.
Hauschka played three seasons at Middlebury and graduated with a degree in neuroscience in 2007 before enrolling as a grad student at N.C. State, where he used his final year of athletic eligibility to kick for the Division I Wolfpack. From there, he had to choose between going to dental school (Tufts, UCLA, Maryland, and BU had all accepted him) and signing with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent. He chose the Vikings—and then the Ravens, the Falcons, the Lions, and the Broncos, one team cutting him after another, until he found a home with the Seahawks, where he won Super Bowl XLVIII and is currently signed to a $9.15 million contract.
To my mind, in the great chronicle of Vermont college football, Steven’s story gives Middlebury the edge over Norwich—plus, Middlebury remains the rightful owner of the Wadsworth Trophy, with 49 victories over Norwich, compared to Norwich’s 44 over Middlebury (the other seven games were ties). We will never see either team in the Rose Bowl, but they’ve both earned a measure of gridiron pride.
In fact, it seems rather unlikely we’ll ever see any New England university in the Rose Bowl. The only vaguely relevant football school in the region is Boston College, which won a (disputed) national championship following a Sugar Bowl victory in 1940 but remains best remembered for Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary in 1984. BC hasn’t done too much lately, apart from losing to Penn State in the Pinstripe Bowl the other day.
The best thing that probably can be said about Vermont’s college football is that’s likely to be mostly non-destructive: the programs may be wastes of money, but the money they waste is sure to be relatively small, and the players at least are real student-athletes, not unpaid (or secretly paid) professionals-in-waiting. It’s no coincidence that New England contains both the world’s best universities and the nation’s worst college football: unlike the public universities of the South, M.I.T. never had to resort to compensatory, pig-skinned measures to generate prestige.