CEDAR RAPIDS – On the surface, it was an unremarkable game to end a pair of unremarkable seasons.
But there’s historical significance to Cornell’s 32-23 win over Coe on Nov. 13, 1999, beyond the fact it was D.J. LeRoy’s final game as Coe’s head coach and the 109th meeting in college football’s oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi River. Believe it or not, it was the last time the Rams won.
The rivals tee it up for a 122nd time today at 1 at Ash Park in Mount Vernon.
“I don’t want to say anything too much, but it is pretty mind blowing that it’s been that long since we’ve won,” said Joe Wallace.
Wallace was a junior 185-pound nose guard for Cornell. The Mount Vernon High School assistant principal and athletics director remembers nearly everything about the game.
Cornell ran out to a 26-10 halftime lead and scored a late touchdown to cement the win. Running back B.J. Shelly had three touchdowns to outshine some guy named Fred Jackson.
Yeah, that Fred Jackson. The Buffalo Bills star was a freshman at Coe who actually was a backup to senior Jason Juran.
Cornell finished the season 3-7 and Coe 4-6.
“We were coming off a loss to Upper Iowa the week before,” Wallace said. “At that time, Upper Iowa was not very good in the Iowa Conference. Going into the Coe week, we didn’t exactly know how that game would go. But it’s Coe, and we knew we had to give it everything we’ve got. We put in a couple of wrinkles. As a football player at Iowa City Regina and Cornell, I can’t remember having a better feeling after winning than after that game.”
“That was our fifth win in a row against Coe,” said Coach Steve Miller. “They won the next two, and I guess I saw the light and retired.”
Miller was involved in 30 Cornell-Coe games as a player, assistant coach and head coach at the school. He remembers a lot of details about that ’99 win: a key Coe fumble inside the Cornell 5-yard line and the play of his quarterback Terry Gammell.
Gammell rushed for a team-high 67 yards and a touchdown and threw for 224 yards and a TD.
“You know what, he had been a journeyman kind of quarterback in our program,” Miller said. “But he just played a fantastic game.”
Unlike Wallace, Miller said he’s not completely surprised Coe has won the last dozen meetings in this historic series. The last three, in particular, have not been pretty for Cornell, with Coe posting wins of 56-7, 47-7 and 77-7 last season.
The schools left the Midwest Conference together for the Iowa Conference in 1997. While Coe has enjoyed success in the IIAC, Cornell did not and decided to return to the Midwest Conference beginning this season.
“If you really look at it over the last 12 years, Coe really did a great job of rising to the challenge of playing in the Iowa Conference, and we didn’t do as good a job. There are a lot of reasons for that,” Miller said. “You always went into this game thinking the underdog had a chance to win, going back from when I was a student and moving on into my coaching career. You don’t get that feeling right now.”
Miller was asked if Cornell has to win for this game’s significance to return to its previous level.
“Eventually they do, yeah,” Miller said. “They’ve got to get there and win a couple of times for it to be as big a rivalry as it used to be. No doubt.”
“It’ll always be a rivalry, that contentiousness there,” Wallace said. “It’s the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi. I still think the Coe-Cornell rivalry is vibrant and alive. But it’s hard to call it a rivalry when it’s been so one sided of late.”
Cornell will be a decided underdog again today. The Rams scored late to beat Lawrence last week in their Midwest Conference re-opener, with Coe pounding Monmouth, 33-6.
Monmouth was picked preseason by MWC coaches to win their league. Lawrence was picked last.
“It’s always special being a part of that rivalry,” said John Crane, an old Regina teammate of Wallace’s and a sophomore linebacker in 1999. “One of these years Cornell will end this losing streak. Hopefully it won’t take another 12 years.”