Published on Sept. 6, 2011
It may be preaching to the choir when emphasizing the importance of establishing a culture of winning in any collegiate program, but the sense of urgency for change is evident for the Cornell football team.
They enter their second year under head coach Kent Austin, and after a 2-8 and seventh place Ivy League finish in his first season, Austin is in the grueling process of turning the program around.
Although inheriting a team that has not had a winning season since 2005, or finished higher than second in the Ivy League since 2000, Austin’s philosophy towards establishing a new culture has not changed.
“The expectations are always the same,” Austin said. “They’re pretty high…I think in this profession you have to believe you can go out and win every game. It doesn’t mean that you always will. But our goals are pretty simple as a team and that’s just to be champions.”
Despite boasting 33 players that had never played a down of collegiate football in 2010, the Big Red found a hidden gem: quarterback Jeff Mathews. Mathews became the first player to start as a true freshman in the program’s history, and did not disappoint, a unanimous pick for the Ivy League Rookie of the Year Award.
The Big Red also return two of their top receivers from last season: Luke Tasker, who grabbed 39 receptions for 448 yards, and senior Shane Savage, who led the team in receptions (46) and yards (550). Mathews also has a third target with tight end Ryan Houska.
According to Mathews, it will be important to complement the offense with production from players like Tasker, Houska and Savage.
“We got to have more completions this year and definitely push the ball down field,” he said. “We want to have more explosive plays, and I feel like this off-season we worked on deeper routes…”
On the defensive side, the Big Red lost Emani Fenton to graduation, but senior Rashad Campbell, who started all 10 games at the other corner position and was fourth on the team in tackles (58), returns.
28 freshman join the squad, and the team is still very young, with only 23 seniors on the roster. And establishing winning ways in Ithaca remains a daunting task.
But Mathews and the rest of the team are aware of the expectations brought forth upon them, especially when asked if he knew that Cornell has never won an outright Ivy League title.
“We’re very aware of that in our locker room,” he said. “That we have never won an outright Ivy League championship. And that’s one of our goals. Always. Since Coach Austin’s been here, we expect to be a very good team year in and year out.”
Picked to finish seventh in the Ivy League, not much is expected from the Big Red, but within the program, expectations are always at a peak high, even if that peak overlooks a valley of critics.
The Big Red open the regular season at home against Bucknell this Saturday at 6 p.m.
For Austin, it starts with the ability to consistently play at a high level to establish a cultural identity within a program.
“It’s one thing to reestablish a culture of high expectations and a belief in the ability to win, but you need some good things on the field to happen to solidify that,” he said.
“To come in behind it and for that to really entrench into and to take hold of…I think that once that happens, which it will, then you are going to see the whole water level of excellence rise in this football program.”