FOOTBALL PLAYERS come to Penn to try to win Ivy League championships. That's been the DNA.
But when you lose the last four games as a freshman to finish 4-6, then go 2-8 as a sophomore and start your junior year 1-3 with a new coach, well, maybe some doubts creep into the picture.
That's what the Quakers' Class of 2017 had to endure.
"It honestly made me sick to my stomach," said senior offensive tackle Nick Demes. "After (the 2014 season) we were ready to hit the refresh button. We were ready to leave it behind. But I don't think we ever looked at it as an incredible challenge, or anything we couldn't do. That's not how we wanted our years at Penn to go. We weren't about to be the Penn team that let that happen. And they'd just won a title the year before we got there.
"You go through a period of introspection and reflection. This program hadn't had a losing record in how many years, and we just did it twice in a row. It felt like we were letting down the players and teams that had come before us. When it goes wrong, you can let it pile up on itself. You act like a beaten dog and put your tail between your legs. At some point we just said we're not going to deal with this crap anymore."
They closed with six wins a year ago to end up in a three-way tie for first with Harvard and Dartmouth. Now they've put themselves in position to do it again.
The last time Penn (6-3, 5-1) won back-to-back titles was 2009-10. It's something the Quakers have only done two other times in the last three decades (1993-94 and 2002-03). On Saturday afternoon they'll be at Cornell (4-5, 2-4). A week ago they beat Harvard (7-2, 5-1) at Franklin Field, 27-14, by scoring two touchdowns in the last 15 seconds.
Harvard hosts Yale (2-7, 2-4), while Princeton (7-2, 5-1) is at home against Dartmouth (4-5, 1-5). There are no tiebreakers in the Ivies.
"You want to be here," said Demes. "It's late November and we're playing games that matter a lot, that might get us put on a wall somewhere."
Ray Priore can become the second Ivy coach to get a ring in each of his first two seasons. Dartmouth's Jake Crouthamel actually began his career by winning three straight (1971-73). But the Big Green had also won the title the two years before he took over. So this would be different. Three of Penn's previous four coaches won one title in either their first or second season.
"Last Friday doesn't mean anything if we don't finish," Priore said. "Getting their attention is not going to be the problem."
In the 2015 finale the Quakers beat a one-win Cornell team in West Philly by 13.
"I just got a text from one of my captains telling me they're going to have a meeting before practice," Priore said the other day. "Amen. When they start doing it by themselves then you know you're really reaching them. They get it . . . It really took a lot of trust. We talk about that all the time. If you don't have it, it's really hard to get the message across. This is a team of no rules, other than to do the right thing. We try to make football the best two hours of their day. That econ class or physics class can't be real exciting. So come out and enjoy yourself. They've bought into it.
"If you stay the course, you have a chance. We knew we had to do everything close to right to be successful. It comes down to the little things. We hit our little bit of turbulence. How do you respond to that? We stayed with it. We know there's always somebody out there that can get us. Last year it was Dartmouth (41-20 at home in the Ivy opener). This year it was Princeton (28-0 on the road the week before Harvard). That was embarrassing. But we came back. We don't think we're that much better than any other team. But we found a way."
These days, 2014 seems like a bad dream. Yet the reality is the landscape can change that quickly. In either direction.
"Disappointing doesn't even begin to describe it," Demes recalled. "We wanted to do something we're all proud of. We had a resiliency about us. I don't think a lot of the outside pressure, or whatever you want to call it, has much of an impact. When we come out on the field it's not about championships. It's just doing our jobs as well as we can. We're going to play our butts off, with each other and for each other. I'm looking forward to playing next to my guys one more time.
"Our legacy is going to be the work ethic we put forth the last couple of years, how we changed the culture of the program. That's what we want to be remembered for. The other stuff is secondary.
"It's where we want to be, at this point in time. It could be a great bus ride home. Or it could be an absolutely horrible bus ride. But we're as hungry as ever."
Their place on the wall is waiting.