Scott Cordischi, GoLocalProv Sports Editor
Providence, R.I. - They got together a week ago at Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington for the Brown Football Association's Golf Tournament just as they had gathered earlier this summer in Westchester, NY to celebrate the life of the late Dave Zucconi. But this group doesn't need a good reason to convene. They would probably do it to celebrate the life of Mickey Mouse. They are the uniquely close-knit 1976 Ivy League Champion Brown Football Team.
For those who do not follow Brown Football, this isn't just a story about success on the gridiron. Rather, it is a story about a camaraderie that is so strong, not even a pack of real brown bears could destroy it.
To understand the bond these men have you have to go back almost 40 years when many of them were in high school being recruited by Brown and other schools to play football.
"I was from the Lawrenceville, New Jersey area and I remember people's reaction when I told them I was going to Brown," said Mike Wallace '77. "They would say, 'you're going to Brown? They have an awful football team. They stink.'"
What those people didn't know was that they had a head coach by the name of John Anderson who was determined to change the culture of a program that, along with Columbia, was a perennial Ivy League bottom feeder.
"I remember when I got to Brown that annual Brown-Columbia game," said ESPN's Chris Berman '77 who handled the radio play-by-play duties for the team alongside Richard Dresdale '77. "We used to jokingly call it 'The Toilet Bowl' game to stay out of last place in the Ivy League."
That mindset changed because of what Anderson who told his players when they were on a recruiting visit to Brown. "To a man, we all remember being here at Pembroke Field House where coach Anderson had a professor speak to us and then he spoke," said Jerry Massa '77. "Anderson said to us, 'men, before you leave Brown, you are going to win an Ivy title.'"
Those were some bold words from Anderson considering the fact that in the nine years prior to his arrival on College Hill, the Brown Football Team went a combined 12-59-1 including 1-17 in the two seasons (1971-1972) prior to Anderson taking over. But Anderson didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. In his 11 years at the helm, the Bears went 61-39-3 which included the program's first-ever Ivy League championship.
"He wasn't the easiest guy to get along with," recalls Wallace. "Of course, we were a bunch of 18-19 year old know-it-alls so that didn't make it any easier. We had a nickname for him. We used to call him 'Blockhead'. But we were always well-prepared because that's the type of coach he was."
The 1975 season which saw the Bears go 6-2-1 was an indication that something good was happening on the gridiron at Brown and that, maybe, their time was coming.
"Because of our success in '75, we received some recognition in the Playboy College Football Preview magazine," recalls fullback John King '79. "I remember my mother wondering what the hell was going on when she found a stack of Playboys in my room before that season and I had to tell her that it was because we were mentioned in it." That's his story and he's sticking to it.
The 1976 season saw the Bears go 8-1 beating teams like Yale and Harvard which they very rarely did. "I remember some of the Harvard players calling us a dirty team," said Wallace. "That's because they were used to Brown being a paddy cake game on their schedule and we weren't. We were a physical football team that would hit the hell out of you and they weren't used to that."
Something else happened at Harvard Stadium, unbeknownst to the team at the time, in the press box immediately after their 16-14 win over the Crimson. Legend has it that Berman got into a fist fight with the Harvard radio guys after that game. Here's how he recalls the story.
"Beating Harvard for us was such a great thing and I remember how psyched I was after we won. Then I overheard their radio guys saying how 'lucky' Brown was," he said. "I didn't like that but they kept saying it. So, I reached my boiling point and pinned the two of them up against the wall and made them admit that we weren't lucky. They did, and that was that."
One of the team's signature wins was a 35-21 win over Dartmouth who Brown hadn't beaten in 21 years. One week later, the Bears defeated Columbia in New York for the program's first ever Ivy League title.
Like most young men who graduate from college, the first few years after leaving school, some would get together at a Brown football game in future falls. Most, however, were busy settling into new jobs, new homes and creating new families. Those important life events were enough to keep many of the guys from getting together as often as they would have liked in those early years, but that would soon change.
"For a while there, some of us would get together for an annual golf trip to either Florida or Arizona," said Bob Farnham '77 and All-Ivy and All-American receiver for the Bears. "We decided on Arizona so that some of the west coast guys could join us."
Then, a decade after that group of men brought Brown Football its first Ivy title, Massa decided that the time was right to get that group together for a 10-year reunion. The response was overwhelming.
Players from that team returned to campus and renewed acquaintances, shared a few adult beverages and acted as if they had won that championship ten minutes as opposed to ten years ago. Realizing how much they missed one another and how much they enjoyed being in each other's company, they have made it a point to stay close ever since.
In 2001, the entire 1976 team was invited back to Brown where they were inducted into the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame and where they were presented championship rings for their great accomplishment. An amazing 72 players returned to be a part of that great night, one of which was unfortunately not Charles Margiotta '79.
Margiotta had been back for previous reunions like the 10th and 20th, but could not make it to the 25th because of his untimely death on September 11, 2001. A lieutenant in the Staten Island Fire Department, Margiotta was off-duty that day when he saw the fire at the World Trade Center and rushed to help. He tragically lost his life trying to save others on that fateful day.
Margiotta is just one example of the many success stories to come from that '76 team. Most have gone on to have amazing careers which they believe Brown University started them on the path to.
Today, many of their children are now grown allowing them more time to do things like return to Brown and tailgate before a football game to support the program and the university they love so much. They return for the BFA golf outing each August where they ignore the rules of golf etiquette and play as an 8-some or a 12-some because they refuse to separate a group that has developed such an unbreakable bond.
Many of them have and continue to lend great support to the program by mentoring Brown football players so that they may be as successful on the field, in the classroom and in life as they are. They also lend their financial support so that Brown can compete with the very best the Ivy League has to offer.
Which leads us back to that gathering at former captain Scott Nelson's '77 home in New York this summer following a day of golf in the "Zucconi Classic." It was a day to golf, have fun, raise awareness for Brown football and, most importantly, to remember the great times and their great accomplishment.
"Mike Wallace deserves all of the credit for that night," said Nelson. "He and Jerry (Massa) have been the driving forces behind these events. I just offered to host the dinner party at my house."
Wallace also says that Chris Berman's involvement with the '76 team has also played a big role in the turnout at the gatherings but admits that there is one galvanizing force. "There's no question that winning that championship has only solidified our connection over time," he said.
With an oversized "1976 Ivy League Champions" banner serving as the backdrop at Nelson's house, current head coach Phil Estes looked at it and joked, "is it me, or does that 1976 championship banner seem to be getting bigger every year? I've won three championships here (1999, 2005, 2008) and all three banners combined aren't that big! Maybe you used those three banners to make this one bigger," he said.
Then, in a very serious tone, Estes admitted, "you guys from the 1976 championship team started all of this. You laid the foundation that we have been able to build upon and your support means an awful lot to our program."
He's absolutely right.