Every era has to have a starting point, a place of reference. For the modern history of Penn football, that would be the 1982 season, the Quakers' second under Jerry Berndt. They'd won one game the year before. After going 3-24-1 the three seasons before that.
But in 1982 they won their second Ivy League championship, and first since 1959. They finished 7-3, 5-2 in the Ivies. They beat Harvard in the next-to-last game, 23-21, after they missed a late field goal but got a second chance when Harvard was controversially called for roughing the kicker. Harvard coach Joe Restic said he thought Penn should do the right thing and forfeit the win. Yeah, sure. The Quakers lost the following week at Cornell, 23-0, to finish tied with Harvard and Dartmouth. But those details tend to get lost in most recollections.
They would win the title the next four years. The last three times they won it outright. And they have added 13 more since then, including each of the last two years, for three other coaches.
It's what they call a tradition unlike many others.
The Quakers (3-4, 2-3) aren't going to threepeat after losing their first three league games by a total of 11 points, including two on the last play (one of them in overtime). But on Saturday afternoon at Franklin Field for homecoming against dreaded Princeton (5-2, 2-2), the university is going to honor the 35th anniversary of that 1982 team as well as the 15th for the 2002 title team (9-1, 7-0) and the fifth for the 2012 champion (6-4, 6-1), which was the last of the nine Al Bagnoli won in his 23 seasons.
John McInerney was a first-team all-Ivy offensive tackle as a senior on that 1982 club. The youngest of his three sons, Pat, is a junior linebacker for these Quakers. Which means he and his father both have two rings, since his dad was a coach for the '83 team.
"Growing up, I heard all the stories," said Pat, who didn't play his first two seasons but has been getting on the field a lot (11 tackles, 7 solo, 2.5 for losses) the last three weeks because of injuries. "Every time we'd drive up I-76 and go by Franklin Field he'd talk about that extra kick and how they tore the goalposts down and threw them in the Schuylkill. There's a lot of history there. That was a special team. That's where all of this began. And now I'm a part of it. You can't talk the past up enough. To have all those great teams coming back is something else."
One older brother, Robert, played at Carnegie Mellon. The other, Michael, played at Yale. His sister Grace also played field hockey for the Bulldogs. Pat was the one who finally got it right.
" [My dad's] college roommate actually played a joke on him," he said. "He told him I had decided to go to Princeton. He was devastated. He was like, 'What are you thinking?' I had to calm him down. That would have made him too upset. We take that stuff pretty seriously. You never want to be a Princeton guy."
Especially this week. Should we mention that the Tigers, who shared the title with Penn a year ago, took last season's meeting at home, 28-0? Or that in 1982 they handed Penn its other Ivy loss, 17-14, also up there?
"It's funny," said the elder McInerney, now a successful businessman. "All anybody remembers from that year is the Harvard game. It's like we never played Cornell. It was an unbelievable season. And it comes up all the time. The NFL went on strike that year, so Merrill Reese was doing our games because he didn't have the Eagles. We were a story. We were in Sports Illustrated, NBC, a bunch of places. It changed our lives. And it definitely changed Penn football. …
"A guy who was on Harvard's team that year, he's now a CEO. I ran into him at a convention last year and he said to me, 'It still hurts.' We still say we played our last game against Harvard. It seems like yesterday. The Penn football alumni [are] really tight. There's a legacy there. We lived through a magical event. We were like pioneers. Amazing."
Freshman offensive lineman Nate Miller, a Massachusetts native, also has a connection to those days. His father, Jim, was McInerney's teammate.
"I know everything about that year, pretty much," Nate said. "I grew up singing the Penn fight song. I know they had some tough seasons leading up to '82. I'll remember those stories forever. We're just trying to carry on what they put in place. For us, in my family, it's been a bonding thing. I just want to be able to say I did my part before I leave."
The Quakers broke a four-game losing streak last week at Brown (2-5, 0-4), 17-7. After this they're at Harvard (4-3, 2-2) before closing with Cornell (3-4, 3-1) here.
"Last year's Princeton game left a bad taste in our mouths," said McInerney, who went to Penn Charter. "It's the rivalry you want to win. That doesn't change.
"We'd rather be playing for a championship. We had three games that could have gone the other way. But you still have to win the next week, regardless of the situation. We want to beat Princeton. We want to beat Harvard. And Cornell. They all mean a lot. We want to have a winning season and send the seniors out the right way. Because a lot of them have meant so much to what we've done here the last few years."
And one day they'll be having reunions for the 2015 and '16 teams too. Then McInerney can tell his own stories to his children.