This past Saturday we welcomed back to campus nearly 30 members of the 1996 Bucknell football team that captured the Patriot League championship. All three captains — George Howanitz, Brandon Little and Hall-of-Famer Richie Lemon — were back, and Carol Gadd-Marshall, wife of the late head coach Tom Gadd, came all the way in from Minnesota to help celebrate the 20-year anniversary of that memorable season.
We thought we would spend a few minutes taking a look back at 1996, which was capped off by one of the most dramatic victories in the 131-year history of Bison football.
First, the backdrop. One year earlier, the energetic Tom Gadd was brought in from San Jose State to help reinvigorate a program that had just celebrated the 30-year anniversary of its most recent conference championship, the 1965 Middle Atlantic Conference crown. In his first season, Coach Gadd’s squad went 7-4 overall and 4-1 in the Patriot League. It was a stunning turnaround for a program that had experienced just one winning season in the previous 14 years.
The Bison got out to a rather inauspicious start in 1996, however. A season-opening rout of Towson State (44-7) was followed by four straight losses to William & Mary (47-0), Harvard (30-7), Penn (30-21 OT) and Yale (23-21). A 10-6 Homecoming win over Princeton ended the losing streak, and then the Bison went on the road and defeated Holy Cross (38-7) and Lehigh (7-6) for a 2-0 start in Patriot League play.
A third straight conference road game (nice scheduling!) resulted in a 23-7 loss at Lafayette. The Bison bounced back with a 51-17 walloping of Fordham at home, setting the stage for a championship showdown with Colgate on the final day of the regular season at Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium.
What might not be remembered is that the championship scenario was actually somewhat complex due to some tragic circumstances. Bucknell and Colgate both entered that game at 3-1 in the Patriot League. Lafayette, which had already beaten the Bison, was 2-1 going into its rivalry game with Lehigh that same day. But the Leopards potentially had another game to make up. Their Oct. 12 contest at Fordham was cancelled after the death of Fordham player Bill Tierney during pre-game warmups. So a Lafayette win over Lehigh would have necessitated a makeup of the Fordham game on the following Wednesday to determine the league title.
Alas, Lehigh defeated the Leopards 23-19 in Easton, leaving the Bucknell-Colgate winner to be the outright champion.
Then known as the Red Raiders, Colgate was also hot at the right time in 1996. After finishing 0-11 the previous season and then starting the ’96 campaign 0-4, including a home loss to a Holy Cross team that would win only two games that season, the Red Raiders came to Lewisburg on a six-game winning streak. They were scoring more than 35 points per game during that run and, like Gadd’s Bison, had clearly found a formula for success after a number of losing seasons. The key ingredient in that formula might have been freshman quarterback Ryan Vena, whose insertion into the starting lineup coincided with the winning streak.
That red-hot Colgate offense was going up against a vaunted Bison defense that led the league in fewest points allowed, fewest rushing yards allowed and fewest total yards allowed. Something would have to give.
Early on it was the Red Raiders who were bending under the pressure of Bucknell’s offense, which featured some pretty good weapons of its own. The Bison had an all-conference senior quarterback in Jim Fox, with all-time rushing leader Richie Lemon in the backfield.
The Bison defense forced a three-and-out on the first drive of the game. Colgate countered with an apparent quick stop, but on 4th-and-1 from our own 36, Coach Gadd ordered up a fake punt. Up-back George Howanitz took the snap and rumbled up the middle for 32 yards. On the very next play, Fox connected with Ardie Kissinger on a 32-yard touchdown strike to make it 7-0.
Two drives later, Fox hooked up with Ronnie Rockett, and the Bison were off and running at 14-0 after one quarter. Momentum swung back in Colgate’s favor in the second period, however, and the Red Raiders tied it up at 14 on a pair of Vena-to-Corey Hill TD passes. Tight end Corey Young caught a short scoring pass from Vena late in the third quarter to give Colgate its first lead of the day.
The Red Raiders seemed poised to build on that seven-point advantage early in the fourth quarter, driving all the way to the Bison 23. But a holding penalty pushed them back, and on 4th-and-14 from the 34, Colgate passed up a long field-goal attempt in favor of a coffin-corner punt. The move worked, as Eric Kutschke’s boot was downed at the 1.
What followed was one of the most important drives ever for the Bison. Two hard runs by Chris Peer got us off the goal line, and then fullback Jeff Bombich caught a 30-yard pass out of the backfield. Fox later hit Rockett for 12, 15 and 14 yards, and then with 9:40 left in regulation — with backup QB Don McDowell also in the backfield as a trick-play decoy — Bombich took a swing pass out of the backfield and scored from five yards out, capping a 10-play, 99-yard drive.
The big plays on that drive came from unlikely sources. Peer was in as the featured running back after Lemon, a 4,000-yard rusher, had been sidelined by injury. Bombich had not touched the ball all day until that drive, and Fox kept going back to Rockett even though the sophomore had dropped several passes earlier in the game.
Erich Muzi and Jack Boyle intercepted passes in Colgate territory later in the quarter, but the Bison could not take advantage. After being stopped on 4th-and-2 at the Colgate 40 with 13 seconds left on the clock, Colgate hit a quick pass for 30 yards down to the Bucknell 30. After a timeout with 0:03 left, the Bison faithful breathed a big sigh of relief when Adam Federico missed a 47-yard field goal as time expired.
Overtime was still a fairly new phenomenon in college football. The Bison had just played their first-ever OT game one year earlier in Hamilton, winning 21-14 on a game-ending interception by linebacker Brandon Little. He would play a big role in this one as well.
Bucknell took the ball first in overtime, converted a big 3rd-and-15 after a sack, and eventually scored on a 3-yard TD pass from Fox to tight end Cal Wilcox.
At the other end, a sack by John Papadakis set up a 3rd-and-goal from the 12, but Colgate running back Anthony Caravetta ran it in from there, just stretching across the goal line. A PAT would force a second overtime, but sensing that Bucknell’s defense was tired, Red Raiders first-year coach Dick Biddle decided to go for the 2-point conversion. The Patriot League championship would come down to one single play from the 2-yard line.
“I just looked up at the sky and said, ‘please let something go our way,'” Fox would later tell the Daily Item. His prayers were answered, as Vena rolled to his right, then saw his pass into the end zone tipped away by none other than Brandon Little.
Chaos ensued as the Bucknell bench emptied onto the field in celebration. A trophy was lifted for the first time in 31 years. This past weekend, the members of the ’96 team traded memories of that season and others. Many of the guys looked like they could put on a uniform right now and play a few series.
One year later, the 1997 Bison made some more history, but a championship repeat was snatched away on the final day of the season — by Colgate. Bucknell started the year 10-0, but Colgate had also run the table in the Patriot League, setting up yet another championship showdown, this time in Hamilton, New York. And this time the Red Raiders exacted some revenge, winning 48-14 to spoil Bucknell’s perfect season. Still, the 10 wins remain a school record, and the ’96 and ’97 seasons will always go down as two of the best in Bison Football annals.