When a Game is More Than Just a Game

By Patrick Bohn ’05, October 4, 2019
On the eve of a historic Cortaca matchup at MetLife Stadium, alumni reflected on what the game means to them.

By Patrick Bohn '05 and Kerry C. Regan

IF YOU’VE CHOSEN to read this article, there’s a good chance you already know something about the Cortaca Jug. You know it’s the nickname given to Ithaca’s annual football game against the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Cortland. You might even have heard the origin story of the jug itself — how in 1959 Ithaca captain Dick Carmean ’60 and Cortland captain Tom Decker talked about creating a trophy prior to that year’s game, and Decker subsequently picked up a stoneware jug at a yard sale in Homer, New York.

This year, both the jug and the game are moving from their upstate New York home to a much bigger venue — MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey — after the National Football Foundation invited the schools to play there in celebration of the 150th anniversary of college football. It’s there that the rivalry will take on a collaborative twist: the Bombers and Red Dragons will attempt to break the all-time Division III single-game attendance record of 37,355. But this story isn’t about the upcoming game or attendance records. This story is about the Cortaca you might not know about — the one that also takes place on the sidelines, in the athletic training and locker rooms, and spills over to the campuses and the towns. It’s a story of strong family ties, shifting family allegiances, and the family-like connections that grow with a team and in a community when a game is more than just a game.

"Family Circles"

You might think that for the players and coaches who have bled Bomber blue in Cortaca games over the years, the strongest memories would be the on-the-field action — the big tackles, long runs, and crucial decisions that determine the Cortaca Jug’s mailing address for the following 12 months. And you’d be half right. But for those who took part in the games, those plays all added up to something bigger: a sense of family that resonated among the players.

“During my freshman year, we were down on the goal line at the end of the game, driving for the winning touchdown,” said quarterback Josh Felicetti ’06. “I tried to run it in and got tripped up at the two-yard line, and we wound up not scoring and losing 16-12. I think about that play every day.

“My junior year, we were up by a point in the second half, and I scored on a one-yard run,” he continues. “When I got to the sidelines [IC’s former head coach Mike Welch ’73] hugged me and told me he loved me. I told him I loved him. It was a really special moment.”

The familial nature of Cortaca wasn’t just confined to the players however. Former President James J. Whalen believed in the idea of the Ithaca College family, and that belief permeated the college during his tenure — which coincided with the height of the Cortaca rivalry. Similarly, the idea of family also resonated strongly with former head coach Jim Butterfield and his players, especially during Cortaca week.

“From James Whalen, to the trustees, the deans — everyone was pulling for you that week,” said Mike Scott ’89, a running back on the Bombers’ 1988 national championship team. “You didn’t want to let the family down by losing Cortaca.

“I remember that, heading into Cortaca week, our locker room manager ‘Cagey Dave’ [Dave Ankrum] and our field room manager ‘Bobcat’ [Bob Hart] would remind me of how many yards I’d run for in Cortaca the year before,” Scott continued. “And I would be thinking that I didn’t even remember how many I’d run for. That’s how much the game meant to them.”

illustration of a football game inside a jug

What happens off the field is just as important as what happens on the field. 

Players from both schools also realized that the Cortaca result had a major impact not only on their campus, but in their respective towns as well. As Scott said, “You did not want to lose Cortaca and then go out to eat at the Pine Tavern that night because you’d hear it from people.” Paul Parker ’90, Scott’s backfield running mate in 1988, can attest to that — literally. That year, the previously undefeated Bombers lost a heartbreaker to the similarly undefeated Red Dragons, 21-20. Parker’s mother and sister had traveled to see the game, and after returning to Ithaca from Cortland, they wanted to go out for dinner. Instead of going with them, Parker decided to head back to his room for the night, but he gave his family members a tip before he did: “I told them, ‘You probably want to eat somewhere outside of Ithaca,’” he laughed. “I’m actually not sure where they ended up.”

Decades later, former players returning for Cortaca still feel those family bonds. In some ways, it’s like time has stopped. “I remember seeing Coach Welch before a game one year,” Scott said. “He looked exactly the same, and when we caught up, it was like we’d never been apart. When I come back for a Cortaca game, it’s family all over again.”

Marc Hudak ’90, an all-American center and captain on the 1988 team, who also spent a year on Butterfield’s staff, knows first-hand how important the idea of the Ithaca College football family was to the coach: “It was a core philosophy of his,” he said. “We sort of refer to it now as the ‘Bomber Brotherhood,’ and regardless of when you played, we are all connected in this way. About 60 of us got together last year for the 30th anniversary of our 1998 national championship, and it was great seeing everyone.”

Hudak added that he expects the brotherhood to show up in force at MetLife stadium in November. “I am sure we will have several hundred former football players show up for this year’s Cortaca game, and it will be great to see them,” he said.

Cortaca Bloodlines

While many former players speak fondly of the family-like atmosphere surrounding the jug, for some, taking on the Red Dragons is part of their family tradition. Bobby Garone ’15 doesn’t remember attending a Cortaca Jug game when he was just two years old, but his family sure does. “I was walking around with my parents, and everyone was screaming the F-word,” he said. “So I started screaming the F-word and running around.”

One of those parents was Bob Garone ’87, an all-American center for the Bombers who helped Ithaca go 4-0 in jug games when he was a member of the team. It’s no surprise Bob passed on to Bobby and his brother Nick ’20 an appreciation of the rivalry — although he did not pressure either of his sons to attend Ithaca. In fact, when deciding where to play college football, Bobby’s final two schools were Ithaca and Cortland. When he was only offered a walk-on spot for the Red Dragons, he chose Bomber blue.

Unfortunately for Bobby, his teams didn’t have the same success his father’s did: they dropped all four contests during his career as part of a seven-game Cortland winning streak from 2010 to 2017. One of those games was a 27-3 loss in 2011, which happened to be Nick’s first Cortaca game.“Once I saw my first Cortaca, I realized how big it is and how crazy the rivalry really is,” he said. “I couldn’t even hear myself think.” 

“To have my two boys play in the Cortaca game — watching them play in a game I played in — that’s something special to me.” 

Bob Garone ’87, an all-American center for the Bombers

And although Nick didn’t get to see older brother Bobby claim the jug, those games clearly had a positive impact. When it came time to pick a college, there was really only one choice: “My brother played here, my sister and my dad went here, and I’d been coming [to games] since 2011,” Nick said. “I felt comfortable here.” The third Garone family member to take part in the Cortaca Jug, Nick is a captain for this year’s squad. He’s also moved the family win-loss record back to the positive side, as the Bombers have gone 2-1 during his first three years. That’s a source of pride for his older brother.

family with football player

The Garone family is a staple at Bomber football games, where Nick '20 (center) plays linebacker, cheered on by (from left) brother Bobby '15, father Bob '87, sister Carly '16, and mother Lori.

“One of my regrets is that we never beat Cortland,” Bobby said. “So it’s really been rewarding to see [Nick] beat them a few times.”This year marks the 12th time that a member of the Garone family will play in a Cortaca Jug game. And it’s the eighth and final time Bob will see one of his sons take part. “To have my two boys play in the Cortaca game — watching them play in a game I played in — that’s something special to me,” Bob said.

The Cortaca rivalry is also special to the Heinzelman family, which counts three Cortaca participants among their ranks: Tom ’75, his son Kevin ’10, and his nephew Keith ’95. And according to Keith, the consequences of picking the wrong side would have been dire.

“I realized that the best way to get thrown out of the family would have been to attend Cortland,” Keith said. “My uncle was all about beating Cortland. Playing football for them was outside of his realm of consciousness.”

Keith made his uncle happy, choosing to become a safety for the Bombers. Tom would take Kevin and his brother, Mark, to Keith’s games to watch their cousin. During those visits, he would often tell his sons matter-of-factly: “This is where you will go to college.”

football player with two kids

Keith Heinzelman ’95 (center) surrounded by his cousins Mark (left) and Kevin ’09 after a game.

Mark wound up eschewing that edict and attending Holy Cross, where he played football for four years. But it was Kevin who truly danced with the devil — or Dragon. An offensive lineman, he was recruited by Cortland. In fact, Kevin’s recruiting visit to Cortland was during the 2004 Cortaca Jug game, meaning not only was he on the opposing sideline during the game but his father, Tom, sat in the Cortland stands as well — for a while anyway. “At halftime, he went to the Ithaca side and sat with his friends,” Kevin said. “I can only imagine how painful [sitting on the Cortland side] must have been for him, but he was incredibly supportive.”

Thankfully for the Heinzelman clan, Kevin saw a 47-22 Bomber victory that day and, when Kevin made his visit to Ithaca, something clicked. He decided to continue the family tradition of being a Bomber and help them retain the Cortaca Jug.

“Something just felt right,” he said. “I felt at home there. There’s something about Ithaca and South Hill and Butterfield Stadium that I wanted to work my tail off to be a part of.”

Being a part of all that naturally means getting to compete for the jug. As Joe Scalice ’06 recalls about visiting South Hill as a recruit, that can make all the difference.

“[The coaches] had the Cortaca Jug out, and they talked about it — the last game of the year, the biggest little rivalry in the country with 12,000 people at the game,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow, Division III played in front of that many people. The storied tradition going on that long.’ It was fantastic. That’s something I wanted to be part of.”

family with a football helmet

(From left) Mark, Kevin '09, mom Linda ’75, and dad Tom ’75 were all smiles after beating Cortland in 2009. (Photo submitted)

Joe wound up a first-team all-American performer on the offensive line and was part of the dominating Cortaca win Kevin Heinzelman saw in 2004. Also in attendance at that game? Joe’s younger brother, Matt Scalice ’09, who, along with the rest of Scalice family, went to all of Joe’s games. Those contests left such an impact on Matt that when it came time to choose where to go to college — and play football — the choice was obvious.

“I didn’t even do a tour,” Matt said. “I’d been to so many games with my brother, I didn’t need to.”

Matt’s decision to go to IC worked out well for the Bombers, who got another all-American, this time at linebacker. For the younger Scalice, winning the Cortaca Jug was one of the highlights of a standout career. “You get total support from the whole campus community,” he said. “As a player you’re supposed to look at it just like any week, but you could tell there’s something special about winning that game.”

Outside the Lines

Cortaca Jug games aren’t just the domain of the players and coaches. Anybody who has been to a football game — especially a Cortaca Jug game — knows that countless other people are involved. And for them, the Cortaca memories are just as indelible.

Lynn Bacon Steenberg ’78 was the first female athletic trainer to work with the football team. Steenberg was a physical therapy major — the athletic training program was not accredited at the time — and a multi-sport athlete in high school who was naturally drawn to working in athletics, football in particular. But at the time, the staff in football locker rooms was dominated by men.

female athletic trainer

Lynn Steenberg '78 was the first female athletic trainer to work with the football team.

Kent Scriber ’72, [former head athletic trainer and athletic training program director], introduced me to the program,” she said. “And Coach Butterfield was extremely supportive of women working with men’s sports. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Steenberg worked with the football team during the 1976 season, which was one of the three years her boyfriend (and later husband), Matt Steenberg ’77, MS ’78, was on the squad. “I’d been to Cortaca before, but I realized pretty quickly that I preferred being on the sidelines to being in the stands,” she said. “There was more energy and excitement in the air.”

Cindy Trowbridge agrees. Currently an associate professor in the athletic training program at the University of Texas, she served as an athletic trainer for Ithaca football from 1994 to 2001. “I went to the University of Colorado during a period where they won a national championship in football,” she said. “And, although I’d been told about Cortaca, I never thought I’d experience something with the intensity of the Colorado–Nebraska rivalry. But I remember looking around at my first jug game, and I thought, ‘It really is that serious.’”

The palpable feeling of excitement hits everyone involved with the game.

“I remember being on edge and hyped up when I was working during Cortaca,” said Sarah Piebes ’06, who was an athletic training major. “After all, I was still a student, and I’d been working with these guys since August. But I had to remind myself that I couldn’t participate. I had to be a professional, which meant controlling my emotions and helping the players I was working on stay focused as well.”

Keeping players focused is always a challenge when it comes to athletes who may be out of the action due to injury. But it was even more challenging during Cortaca.

“We had to be extra vigilant,” Trowbridge said. “The players were much more pumped up, and the extra adrenaline could mask pain and make it harder for them to recognize fatigue. We also had to be on the lookout for players downplaying a possible injury because no one wanted to miss Cortaca.”

As if that wasn’t difficult enough, with so many fans in attendance, athletic trainers were plying their trade in cramped quarters. “I remember my first game at Cortland,” Trowbridge said. “Their stadium at the time didn’t have a natural barrier between the stands and the sidelines, and the fans were right on top of us. A fan could tap me on the head if they wanted to.”

Trying to do your job in front of more than 10,000 fans is a daunting task. And the pressure didn’t end when the players, coaches, and staff retreated to the locker rooms at halftime. In fact, for members of the college’s cheerleading and dance teams, that’s the time when everything ramps up. Even though they’d been working and perfecting their routines for months, this performance was different from any other.


Cheerleaders at a Cortaca game.

“[Cortaca] is so much more overwhelming than the typical home game, and there is a lot more pressure on the cheerleaders to perform,” said Alyssa Orlando ’14. “But because there are so many happy people cheering you on, you can’t help but enjoy it.”

In fact, for some half-time performers, the extra fans mean extra energy.“Cortaca is one of the times you can really feel the school spirit coming from so many students at once, all directing their energy and attention towards one thing,” said Avalon Singer ’18, who was a member of Pulse, the college’s hip-hop dance team. “Being on the receiving end of all of that during the biggest football game of the year was a special moment. Dancing during the half-time show took months of preparation, learning choreography and practice. I would say that for many of us, myself included, Cortaca was an event we looked forward to.”

The Payoff for Switching Sides

The passion with which so many members of the Ithaca College community approach the Cortaca Jug might make the idea of crossing to the Cortland side unfathomable. But over the long history of competition between the two schools, several individuals have sported both Ithaca blue and Cortland red.

Current Red Dragons head coach, Dan MacNeill, a Cortland alumnus, served as an assistant coach on Jim Butterfield’s staff for two years in the ’80s, and Larry Czarnecki ’76, a former all-American and assistant coach for the Bombers, also served as Cortland’s head coach from 1983 to 1985 and then later as a long-time assistant coach. 

football coach demonstrating a throwing motion

Dennis Kayser '74 guided quarterback Rich Keefer to All-American status. (Photo by SUNY Cortland Athletics.)

But of all the IC-Cortland crossovers, there’s one you need to know about if you want to understand why the 2019 game is going to be played in an NFL stadium in front of 30,000 to 40,000 fans: Dennis Kayser ’74 played for Jim Butterfield and even remembers holding the jug aloft at South Hill field after the Bombers won 41-33 in 1973. But it wasn’t until he switched sides and became Cortland’s head coach in 1986 that he became arguably the most critical figure in the evolution of the rivalry.

Although Butterfield turned Ithaca into a national power by the mid-1970s, Cortland’s program did not follow suit, which left the jug game lacking something. Crowds at Cortaca were solid, though other Ithaca home games drew more fans. And not only did Ithaca win almost every year, but the scores were often lopsided as well, with 30- and 40-point Bomber victories not uncommon.

But Kayser, who has called Butterfield one of his mentors, quickly turned around the Red Dragon program, instilling a culture of discipline and accountability. Wins followed, and by 1988, Cortland was one of the top teams in the country — along with Ithaca.

“We were playing in front of 8,000 fans. The only thing holding them back was a snow fence. It was so loud I couldn’t get the players’ attention to get the game started.”

Mike Welch ’73, former head coach for Ithaca College

That November, the two teams met at Cortland’s Carl A. “Chugger” Davis Field for what was really the first iteration of the Cortaca Jug as we know it today. Contrary to the games of the past, Welch, who at that time was an assistant coach, remembers the atmosphere that day as frenzied.

“We were playing in front of 8,000 fans,” he said. “The only thing holding them back was a snow fence. It was so loud I couldn’t get the players’ attention to get the game started.”

That day, Kayser’s team was victorious over his alma mater 21-20 (though the Bombers would get revenge in the NCAA playoffs). By switching sides in the rivalry, an Ithaca College alumnus had not only given Cortland the biggest win in school history, but he had, in the words of Welch, “turned the game into a national phenomenon.”

The game continued to grow in prominence and size in the following years. In a preseason article in 1991, Sports Illustrated writer John Walters wrote: “The biggest little game in the country could turn out to be Ithaca versus SUNY Cortland by the shores of Cayuga Lake on Nov. 9.” He was prescient. Cortland came into the game the top-ranked team in the East region, but the Bombers prevailed 23-14 in front of a then-school-record crowd of 10,903, en route to their third national championship.

Crowds of more than 10,000 fans then became commonplace, and for alumni not fortunate enough to make it back to South Hill for the game, viewing parties began popping up in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where typical noon Eastern Standard Time kickoffs meant the “Cortacal” festivities began in the early morning hours.

But even time zone changes haven’t been enough to slow the growth of the Cortaca Jug reputation. So now, 33 years after Kayser switched allegiances and gave the jug a jump-start, the two programs will set out to make Division III history. “Cortaca was always intense,” said running back Bob Ferrigno ’81. “And moving the game to MetLife is going to make it even more so.” 

Watch the 2019 Cortaca Rivalry Replay.