Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Interview with Roger Dennis, Part 4

Old Blue Rugby... A winning tradition

The looonnnng-running interview session with former wide receiving and special teams star Roger Dennis '66 contines today.

Parts 1, 2, and 3 are available: part one, here for part two, and here for part three.

Jake: Buff Donelli was the coach during your career, what are your thoughts about his abilities and do have any favorite stories about him?

Roger Dennis: I have tremendous respect for Coach Donelli. He was an honest man; a man of integrity. I think I was an enigma to him. I was an anti-war, anti-establishment kind of person who had quit college in the middle of my sophomore year, let my hair grow long, and hitchhiked up and down the East Coast.

When I came back to school and wanted to play again I don’t think Coach knew what to make of me. I think he honestly believed that my political views and ‘unusual ways’ would make me undependable as a football player. So he had me running third string when my abilities didn’t warrant that, and I truly don’t know how much I would have played if the guys ahead of me hadn’t gotten injured.

But the point I want to make is that Coach Donelli was just being true to his beliefs; he wasn’t being mean-spirited; he wasn’t trying to punish me for my beliefs. He just didn’t understand who I was and didn’t know if he could count on me as a player. So I respected that.

While I respected and liked him as a person, I believe Coach was too ‘old school’ in his coaching philosophy. He always thought we had to establish our running game, but we really weren’t equipped to do that. With the personnel we had, we should have been primarily a passing team.

Jake: What games stand out the most in your mind, wins or losses, from your Columbia career?

Roger Dennis: Second game of my sophomore year. I played a little in the first game but was slated to play most of this game. I caught the opening kickoff, ran it back to the thirty-something yard line, got tackled right near our bench, heard something go ‘pop’, and my soph season was over. Achilles tendon.

Cornell game in my soph year. Though I sat on the bench in street clothes I’ll never forget Archie Roberts driving us 80 yards in the final minute and nineteen seconds to win this game!

First game after I returned from my year off. I was third string till a couple days before this game; got moved up to second string when Tom Chorba got hurt in practice. Fairly early in the game Captain Ed Malmstrom got hurt and I got the chance to play. I helped us win by catching eight passes for something like 106 yards, two touchdowns.

Rutgers. We lost this game – pretty sure it was 38-35. Ended up with eight catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns. What stands out the most is catching two consecutive ‘TD passes’ from Archie, first 36 yards, then 41, and having them both called back. Ironically Archie and I were the culprits. On the first he stepped across the line of scrimmage as he passed; on the second I flinched a split second early. On the next pass he called for a shorter one – twenty yards across the middle, and we completed that too. I wish I had suggested to him in the huddle to call the same play we did the first two times (our ‘option’ pass), because I believe it would have worked again. (The option pass would end up being a ‘down and out’ or a ‘down and in’. I would run almost full speed straight at the defender till I was about a yard and a half away, then cut/turn one way, cut/turn back, then back again – all sharp, instantaneous cuts. By the second or third turn I’d have a step on the defender and I’d take off full speed in whichever direction had opened up. Archie would see if I was headed left or right and then launch a beautiful right-on-target pass.)

Early in the eighth (Penn) game I hurt my knee, and so I missed the last two games of the season.

First game of my Senior year. We lost to Lafayette by a touchdown. This might sound conceited, but to this day I believe we would have won this game if I had played wide receiver. I was in amazing shape – I was so fast, so strong, so psyched to have an outstanding season. I strongly believe that I would have run at least two passes into the end zone that day if I had had the chance. But Coach Donelli had decided that with Archie gone we were no longer a passing team, and so I was no longer a receiver.

Fourth game – versus Yale. Because of injuries I returned punts in this game. Set a single game punt return record, which I believe is still standing. Returned one for a TD, lateralled to Leo Makohen off another punt return for a second TD, and scored the third TD on a run from scrimmage. Helped Coach win his 100th game – 21 to 7. Ivy Back of the Week and All-East for the week. Unfortunately I caught the flu a couple of days after this game and lost the speed and strength I had had for the first four games. So the rest of the year was really a washout for me, because I was not only being played out of position, but I had also lost my edge physically.

Brown game. Last of my college career. Finally, for this one game, the coaches agree to let me play wide receiver. So what do I do? Drop more passes in this game than I think I would have in the entire year if I had been playing the position regularly. I believe I dropped four or five. Very embarrassing. I did manage to catch four, including one for a touchdown – which made my mom real happy. (She said I had promised to score a TD for her.)

Jake: Even with Roberts, the Lions never really challenged for the Ivy title. What was the key ingredient that was missing on those teams?

Roger Dennis: Creative thinking! We were weak in certain areas, and we didn’t play to our strengths. You should build your offenses and defenses around the strengths of your players – if you have a 160 pound scatback and a 230 pound straight ahead power runner don’t keep sending the quick guy inside the tackles and the slower guy around the ends. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but in a certain way that’s what we did.

We should have been primarily a passing team. We had one of the best passers in the country, and we also had quality receivers in Bob Donohue, Jerry Hug, and myself. With some creative thinking we could have devised a blocking scheme that would have kept the sacks to a minimum. Instead of ‘mix it up with pass and run’ we should have mixed it up with different types of passes, or different sets, different formations. I think we could have had a really outstanding offense, which would have kept the defense off the field.

*We should have been a pass first, run to keep them honest, team.

*Archie could have run and thrown on the run.

*We could have gotten the ball to me in the flat and via other short passes, where I could have added yardage with my open-field running ability.

Furthermore, I believe there was a mental piece; a lingering belief, (which most players would not admit to feeling), that we will probably not win. Most guys were probably not even aware of it – it’s not a thinking as much as a feeling. It can’t be a thinking because athletes are not ‘allowed’ to think like that; you always have to think that you’re going to win. But I believe that, over the years, a lot of Columbia guys have had an unconscious (or not) feeling of “I don’t really believe we’re going to win.”

I think that, if we had run the creative, ‘outside the box’ kind of offense that I described above, we would have shared an excitement and a belief in ourselves that would have propelled us to a lot more victories.

I fully got to understand the psychological impact of not really believing in yourselves when, after college, I played rugby for the Old Blue; and the exact opposite feeling was in place! To this day, playing for and being a member of the Old Blue is one of the greatest and most meaningful experiences I have ever had! We were the best rugby club on the East Coast, and we knew it, and the other teams knew it. When we walked onto the pitch, both we and the team we were playing knew we would win. Even in those very rare instances when we didn’t win, we STILL knew that we were going to win!

By the way, the 1961 championship football team, under Captain (and Old Blue founder), Bill Campbell’s leadership, did not have negative thinking. They believed in themselves! They were fully committed to winning the Ivy championship, and they knew they could do it!


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