At historic Fordham University, the 2013 Rams are trying to put their school back on the football map.
Like it or not, the NFL is at the top of the American sports food chain. It makes the most money, has the biggest big games, and generally grabs headlines anywhere it goes.
Except in New York City right now, where the Giants are notably abysmal and the Jets, while better than expected, aren’t going anywhere. Under the radar, though, across the river from the bright lights of the Meadowlands, there’s one New York City football team worthy of your attention—the Fordham Rams.
After topping Yale last weekend, they have the first 8-0 start in school history. Fordham beat a Division-I opponent (Temple) for the first time since 1954. The campus is buzzing. At the risk of jinxing the Rams, an undefeated season isn’t out of the question.
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To be blunt, Fordham probably shouldn’t be good at football. It’s a Jesuit school with just over 8,000 undergrads known for its academics. It’s in the Bronx, which doesn’t really lend itself to gridiron greatness. The Rams play in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA) and compete against schools like Holy Cross and Columbia. Their athletic claims to fame are broadcasting alumni (Tony Reali, Bob Poppa, Spero Dedes, and Mike Breen among others) and the historic Rose Hill Gym. The best football player to come from Fordham in the past decade is John Skelton.
Oh yeah, and they once had a lowly guard by the name of Vince Lombardi.
Back in Lombardi’s day, Fordham was a perennial power. The famous coach was one of the “seven blocks of granite,” an impenetrable offensive line that nearly carried the Rams to a Rose Bowl. Fordham won’t let you forget that legacy. There are literal blocks of granite outside Coffey Stadium. Athletic facilities are found in Lombardi Hall. Today’s Rams get dressed next to Lombardi’s preserved locker.
Despite that tradition, Fordham football has struggled in this century. After three straight winning seasons beginning in 2001, the Rams finished under .500 in seven of the next eight. Athletic scholarships couldn’t be awarded by Patriot League rules. There was no buzz on campus; students, the lifeblood of any athletic program, really didn’t care.
At the start of the 2010 season, though, a key change took place. Fordham offered football scholarships for the first time. While it cost them a shot at the Patriot League championship, it began a culture shift. Football would be taken more seriously; better players would be (theoretically) on the way. The wins didn’t start rolling in though. That would take another change.
Following a painful 1-10 season in 2010, Fordham brought in Joe Moorhead as the Rams head coach. Not only did he cut his coaching teeth at Georgetown, Akron, and UConn, but he was a record-setting quarterback for the Rams in the ‘90s. Returning to his alma mater, Moorhead aimed to bring Fordham’s football program to the level of the rest of the school.
“You’ve got one of the top academic schools in the country, situated in the heart of New York City, the cultural and business epicenter of the Western Hemisphere,” he says. “As a player, my teammates and I would always talk about the potential of this place, and I’m just glad to have an opportunity to help the school realize it.”
In his first season on the job, the Rams began to turn things around. They alternated wins and losses for just about the entire year and finished 6-5, after losing two of their final three games by a combined 5 points.
“We talked about building a foundation last year and having accountability, attention to detail and effort be kind of the trademarks or the foundation, the pillars of success for us,” Moorhead said. “And I think the kids have bought into that.”
That’s exactly what happened. “This year, everyone’s seriously bought into the program,” says junior defensive back Jordan Chapman. “Coach always tells us to focus on the little things, give the extra effort, and not make excuses and everyone’s bought into that. That’s the biggest difference.”
A new culture of course comes with new expectations. Moorhead set high standards for his team. “We had a set of goals that we looked to in the preseason,” he said. “To retain both cups, the Liberty Cup [which goes to the winner of the annual Fordham-Columbia game] and the Ram-Crusader Cup [going to the winner of the Fordham-Holy Cross game], to have a winning non-conference record, to have the best record in the Patriot League, to qualify for the playoffs, and to win the National Championship.“
The players were up the challenge. “During spring ball and winter workouts, we all knew what we could do,” says junior receiver Brian Wetzel. “Coming from last year into this year, we knew we had a lot of potential. We could do whatever we wanted to do.”
The Rams opened 2013 with a 51-26 win over Rhode Island—not exactly a football powerhouse. Nevertheless, the win set a standard of success. “It was right around the beginning of our first game and I looked in the eyes of every one of my teammates,” says Chapman. “I saw the fire in their eyes. We knew we weren’t going to lose.”
Their next game came against the No. 8-ranked Villanova Wildcats—the Rams escape with a 3 point win thanks to a 4th-quarter touchdown run by quarterback Mike Nebrich.
Some buzz was starting to develop, but a trip to Philadelphia to face Temple, an actual D-I opponent, looked to be the end of that. It wasn’t. Nebrich completed a 29-yard TD pass with four seconds left in the game to seal a historic 30-29 upset.
“As a former FCS player and understanding what the kids’ thought process is, when you have the chance to play up against a FBS team, you kind of have a chip on your shoulder,” Moorhead explained. “You want to show you can compete against the best in the country.”
The next weekend, Fordham returned home to trounce cross-town rival Columbia, 52-7 in front out a sold out crowd on Homecoming weekend. 4-0. A week later, they comfortably beat St. Francis (Pa) 38-20. 5-0.
They came home to face No. 13 Lehigh. Not only was the game on ESPN, but the students took notice of their team. Coffey stadium was filled to capacity and some fans crowded into the adjacent baseball stadium to try to catch a glimpse of the action. The Rams responded, posting a 52-34 win. 6-0.
“I was really taken aback at times,” Moorhead confesses. “It wasn’t necessarily coming through the tunnel, but there were points during the game where I caught myself turning around and kind of doing a panoramic scan of the stands and looking across and seeing people sitting in the baseball stands. It was like ‘wow, we didn’t have this when I was here.”
The schedule then had a trip to Georgetown, potentially a trap game after the previous week’s spectacle. The Rams didn’t falter. 7-0.
In New Haven, Nebrich threw a 68-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage. Yale responded to tie the game 7-7, but the Rams then rattled of 17 straight points. Their defense forced four turnovers. When the game ended, Fordham led 52-31; history was made. 8-0
Statistically, the team’s performance may be even more impressive then their undefeated record. Both sides of the ball are clicking. Everyone is doing their job, just like Moorhead wants. Through seven games, Fordham has scored almost 41 points per game while allowing just under 22.
“It’s a team effort,” says Wetzel. “It’s not one or two people; it’s an 11 man thing. We talk about it every practice. If one person’s not doing his job and 10 other people are, it’s not going to be good enough. Every single player is doing his job every single play and that’s what makes us successful.”
“I think there’s a little bit of give and take,” Chapman adds. “The offense will be doing well one game and [the defense] will be struggling a little bit, but other weeks [the offense] be struggling a bit. It’s a give and take. That’s the way it should be.”
Even though the Patriot League now allows scholarships, Fordham can’t win the league title this season because they offered them before the rest of the league. They can’t receive an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs for the same reason, but are looking to claim an at-large bid. That doesn’t affect their goals, though. “We want to be a perennial Patriot League championship team that qualifies for the playoffs and consistently makes a run for the national championship,” Moorhead said. “And I think we have the ability to do that.
When talking about Fordham, it’s easy to default back to history. But at the end of the day, that’s all in the past. The current Rams probably can’t be the next Lombardis, but they’re not trying to. They just want to win and give their school something to be proud of.
“It’s sort of abstract history to these guys,” says Moorhead. “They see the seven blocks of granite monument and the Vince Lombardi pictures and all those things, but it’s so far in the past. They respect it for what it is, from a traditional standpoint. But it’s our goal to but Fordham football back on the map, in the capacity that we can now.”
Joe Kozlowski is an Editorial Assistant for TDdaily. Follow him on Twitter @JoeKozlowski_. Photo courtesy Fordham Athletics.