If there is a shared sentiment among the thousands of men who played football for Carmen Cozza, it’s that his influence continued far beyond their college years. To many players, he was both mentor and father figure; someone who cared sincerely about their success on and off the field.
“He cared about you as a person and wanted you to be successful at Yale and in life,” says Patrick Ruwe ’83 B.S. ’87 M.D., former offensive guard and current orthopedic specialist who served as the team doctor for many years. “He was fiercely competitive and wanted to recruit the best people, but he also cared about your family and your dreams.”
Cozza passed away last January at the age of 87, and many of the players he mentored will be on hand to celebrate his life on Saturday, Nov. 10 at 9:30 a.m. in Coxe Cage before the Yale-Princeton game.
Named head coach at age 34
Cozza was promoted from assistant to head coach of Yale Football in 1965, at just 34 years old. His move to Yale was his first to New England, although he’d played baseball in the minor leagues and had served as assistant football coach at Miami University in Ohio, where he’d played both football and baseball in his college years. His head coaching career at Yale commenced with a loss to UConn, but waiting in the wings on the freshman “Bullpups” team were Cozza-recruited Yale football legends Bruce Weinstein ’69 B.A., Brian Dowling ’69 B.A., and Calvin Hill ’69. B.A, the first Ivy League player to be a first round draft pick in the NFL.
Over the next three-plus decades, Cozza would cement his legendary status, winning 10 Ivy League championships, coaching 19 winning seasons, and earning a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. But as a person, say those who knew him, he remained the same: loyal and unassuming. After retiring, Cozza provided color commentary for radio coverage of Yale games, often hitching rides with Ruwe. “He’s such a humble man,” Ruwe recalls. “There’s this Hall of Fame coach waiting for me in the driveway with his bag in his hand.”
“Carm was a great football coach, but he was much more than that,” says Penelope Laurans, senior advisor at the university and, along with Ruwe, an organizer of the Cozza memorial celebration. “He was a great educator of young men. They revered him, and he taught them enduring life lessons.”
Coaching with care
When he was first recruited to Yale, Ruwe remembers being in awe of Cozza’s office, with its two Heisman trophies and pictures of Yale’s championship wins. His junior year, Ruwe was named team captain, and was invited into Cozza’s office for the second time. “I was a midwestern kid from central Illinois,” Ruwe says, choking up at the memory. “Coach Cozza called my mom and said ‘I’ve got your son here. He’s been elected to be the next football captain by his peers.’ It was such a special moment, that that’s how he chose to announce his captains.”
For Jack Ford ’72 B.A., raised by single mother alongside three siblings in the small town of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Cozza served as a father figure. “When I got to Yale, I was awestruck by the physical structure — and then, by Carm. The image he projected, I felt as if I’d wandered onto the top of Mt. Olympus.” Ford went on to earn a law degree from Fordham, his application aided by a phone call from his coach, and then to a successful broadcast career, most recently as a CBS News correspondent and current host of “Metro Focus” on PBS. He’s also a commentator for Ivy League football on ESPN and has taught an undergraduate seminar at Yale for the past decade. Eight years ago, Ford was undergoing knee replacement surgery and the nurse told him he had a phone call. It was Cozza. “I’m 60 years old, and he’s still looking out for me,” Ford says.
Playing Cozza’s way
Bruce “the Tree” Weinstein says Yale football has had a lasting impact on his life thanks to Cozza. “When I look back at major influences in my life, other than my parents, I think more about Yale football than anything else,” Weinstein says. “Carm was a role model. He said: ‘When you score a touchdown, act like you’ve been there before.’ I took that to heart.”
When he, Dowling, and Hill joined Yale’s varsity team their sophomore year, they kicked it off with a win over UConn followed by a 56-15 win over Dartmouth. The wins continued for the entire ’67 season, ending with a 24-20 win over Harvard that earned Dowling the nickname “God.” In 1968, the powerhouse team would continue its winning streak, for a total of 16 straight wins, only faltering at the last fateful 1968 matchup with Harvard, where the rivals tied 29-29.
Coming into the 1969 season, Cozza was graduating those star seniors, and Ford says the team was projected to be in the bottom of the league. But it was an opportunity for Cozza to develop his young talent, and, Ford adds, “many believe it was his best coaching year.”
That season, the Bulldogs played the University of Pennsylvania in a muddy, rain-soaked faceoff in New Jersey. Yale was in the running for the Ivy League title, but spirits were down as they had just lost to UConn. “Carm rallied us. He got us to believe in ourselves,” Ford said. During the game, Ford intercepted a pass and ran it 77 yards for a touchdown. “As I came down the sideline and got into the end zone, I held the ball in the air,” Ford recalls. “My first thought was ‘Will Carm be angry with me?’” He flipped the ball to the ref and ran to his coach on the sidelines, heart pounding. Carm put his arm around Ford and said “Great job. I’m proud of you.”
Yale won 21-3, and shared the Ivy League title that year with Princeton and Dartmouth. “No one saw that coming,” Ford says.
After the Princeton game, Ford recalls that Cozza told the team: “When everybody doubted you guys, I believed in you, and you believed in you.” It’s a message many of Cozza’s players have carried with them into their adult lives, and a testament to the legacy of caring that Cozza has left behind.
The memorial celebration for Cozza will be held on Saturday, Nov. 10, at 9:30 a.m. in Coxe Cage at the Yale Bowl, 257 Derby Ave. Among those participating will be Brian Dowling ’69 B.A., Calvin Hill ’69 B.A., Jack Ford ’72 B.A., Jon Reese ’90 B.A., Patrick Ruwe ’83 B.S. ’87 M.D., Steve Skrovan ’79 B.A., Ronald Vaccaro ’04 B.A., and Cozza’s three daughters. All are welcome.