The Harvard Captaincy: An Honored Tradition

-- By John Powers ’70, HVC Board Member

Since 1874, when Henry Grant '74 strode onto the gridiron to shake hands with his McGill counterpart, Harvard has had only one football captain. “I still get goose bumps every time I see our captain sprint out while the other four are walking out,” says Tim Murphy (pictured at right), The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football.

At the institution that co-created the country’s first intercollegiate sporting event and offers the largest varsity program (42 and counting), the captaincy has a distinctive status. “What makes it special is, our players choose their captains,” observes Bob Scalise, The John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics. “They’re not appointed by coaches as they are at a lot of other places.”

What makes Harvard captains particularly noteworthy is that they are elected by teammates of whom most held that position in high school, making them a ‘captain of captains’. “There were 109 players on our freshman football team,” recalls Joe O’Donnell ’67, who went on to lead the 1967 baseball squad. “At our first practice (coach) Henry Lamar said, ’Those of you who were captains, step out five yards.’ That was 50 or 60 of us. ’Now, those who were All-State.’ -- and another 35 stepped out. It was expected that everybody was at that level. That’s why you were at Harvard.”

Captaining a cohort of captains can lighten the weight of leadership. “It actually makes it easier,” says Brendan Bibro ’99, who headed the 1997 and 1998 football teams. “Everyone who plays football at Harvard is a driven guy. Everyone gets on page pretty quickly. It’s easy to captain those kinds of guys. Guys who are all-in, guys who have 100 percent dedication to the program.”

Since leadership skills are a major factor in admission to the college, candidates for captaincies are plentiful. “We had a very large senior class,” says Kevin Hampe ’73, who captained the hockey and baseball teams in 1972-73. “There were so many choices. Anybody could have been the captain.”

The captain’s role has become increasingly demanding in recent years. Longer seasons, off-season workouts, larger rosters and instant communication technology have added to what Char Joslin ’90 (pictured at left) calls ’the complexities of the commitment’.

“If you’re a captain now it’s tantamount to an extra couple of courses,” says Joslin, who co-captained the field hockey and ice hockey teams in 1989-90 and also played for the lacrosse team that won the national title. “We weren’t checking to see if the freshmen were on track. That was their own business.”

The role was decidedly simpler a couple of decades ago. “We didn’t have emails,” recalls Francie (Walton) Karlen ’94, who co-captained the field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse varsities in 1993-94. “There were a lot of phone calls and trusting that people were going to show up. My leadership style was to lead by example. Show up on time, work hard, take on the challenge.”

Playing three sports now, much less captaining them, is virtually impossible given the off-season conditioning requirements. “My training regimen was to have my parents remind me that it was the beginning of August and that I might want to pull out my hockey stick,” remembers Joslin, who was the first woman to be named first-team All-Ivy in three sports. “I ran to Baskin-Robbins, had a mint chocolate chip and ran back, a mile and a half each way.”

Shorter seasons made it possible to captain back-to-back sports. “You couldn’t do it now,” says Dave Fish ’72 (pictured below), The Scott Mead ’77 Head Coach for Harvard Men’s Tennis, who captained men’s squash and co-captained tennis in 1971-72 when there was less than a month between the sports and tennis season lasted only six weeks. “We got shellacked on our Southern trip, played our seven league matches and we were done.”

Now tennis season begins in September and goes late into April with nearly 30 matches and tournaments and trips to Florida, Texas, Michigan and California. “The day after the captains’ elections in May they’re reaching out to the incoming freshmen,” Fish says. “It’s a year-round deal. It’s ongoing.”

To help captains deal with the responsibilities of the position the athletic department annually brings them together for an informational session over lunch.

“We go over what good captains do,” says Scalise, who co-captained Brown’s lacrosse squad and coached Harvard’s men’s lacrosse and women’s soccer varsities. “We tell them that great captains take care of themselves and their position on the team. You’re not supposed to solve everyone’s problems. You’re supposed to know where you can refer them to help solve their problems, because there are a lot of resources you can go to.”

Two-thirds of Harvard’s varsities now have co-captains, which eases the burden for both. “Being a captain is very demanding,” says Siyani Chambers ’16-17 (pictured below),  who shared the men’s basketball position with Steve Moundou-Missi ’15 in 2014-15 and with Corbin Miller ’15-17 in 2016-17 after missing a year with a torn ACL. “I was fortunate to have co-captained with Corbin, which made it a little easier because we were able to share responsibilities.”

Spreading duties among multiple teammates is more feasible on squads that are top-heavy with upperclassmen. Last season’s men’s hockey team that advanced to the Frozen Four included seven seniors.

“The best captains have the ability to share leadership, to empower others,” says Ted Donato ’91, The Robert D. Ziff ’88 Head Coach for Harvard Men’s Ice Hockey, who captained the 1990-91 varsity. “That coupled with remaining true to the person that the team elected. I always try to explain to our captains: You were elected for being the person that you have been.”

The qualities that Harvard athletes want in their captains have changed little over time. “Someone who is personable, a strong communicator but not rah-rah,” says Joslin. “Someone who is modest and humble and willing to put the entire team on her back. Shows up early, leaves late and makes sure everyone on the team has a role.”

As captaincies have come to require a year-round commitment, communication is essential. “Reaching out to teammates not only during the season but also in the off-season, just to see how they are doing with non-basketball-related things,” says Chambers. “Letting your teammates know that you are available at all times if they have issues or questions or just want to talk about things.”

The telephone had not yet been invented when Henry Grant was football captain. And while Murphy embraces the one-man tradition, he understands how consuming the position has become nearly a century and a half later.

“The first thing I say to our captain on the Monday after the Yale game is that one thing you’ll find is that it’s lonely at the top… This is going to be a tremendous experience-- and an experience that you’ll be relieved to pass on.” Murphy says.