The 61st Cortaca Jug football game between Ithaca College and Cortland State University will be played on its biggest stage yet this fall — MetLife Stadium, the home of the National Football League’s New York Giants and New York Jets. To shine a light on this historic matchup, we will run a 10-part series in this space leading up to game day on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. We’ll cover all things Cortaca — interviews with Cortaca Jug legends, plans for alumni gatherings around the nation, ways the game is being incorporated in academic programs and other topics. In this second installment, we look at how a former Bomber, Dennis Kayser '74 turned Cortland's football team into a national championship contender, giving the rivalry a much-needed jolt, and leading to a pair of showdowns in 1988.
Most long-time rivalries have their ebbs and flows, and 60 years of battling for the Cortaca Jug is no exception. While the games are tightly contested today, the rivalry entered a prolonged uncompetitive stretch in the mid 1970s, when Ithaca College became a perennial Division III national championship contender, while Cortland State struggled. From 1973 to 1986, the Red Dragons had only one win over the Bombers (1981) and only one winning season (1982).
“I told our players it wasn’t a rivalry anymore."Dennis Kayser '74, former Head Football Coach at SUNY Cortland
That’s the program Dennis Kayser, ’74, inherited when he was named Cortland State’s head coach in 1986. Having experienced Cortaca as a member of the Bombers in a more competitive era, he was blunt with his squad about its state at the time. “I told our players it wasn’t a rivalry anymore,” Kayser said recently in a phone interview from his retirement home in Hilton Head, S.C. “For Ithaca College, the game was a warm-up to the NCAA playoffs.”
Despite being just 33 years old and a first-time head football coach, the physical education major and cum laude graduate came with solid experience. He had coached football, lacrosse or both at five schools: Princeton, Union, Springfield, Dartmouth and Albany State, where he also earned his masters’ in education administration. “I learned under a number of great head coaches about different systems of offense and defense, and different ways to solve problems and manage young kids, and I drew from each of them to develop my own personal coaching philosophy,” Kayser said.
In addition, he noted that his time at Ithaca gave him an understanding of what Cortland’s potential — and problems were. “I had a history playing against Cortland, so I had something of an insider’s view of the school and their potential for football,” Kayser said “What I found was that academics and football were behind social life as priorities. There was a lack of discipline. Losing was too readily accepted. We needed to change the culture.”
Laying Down the Law
At his very first players meeting, he established himself to his players as, in his words, “a law-and-order” coach.
“I told them there’s only one way to do things, that’s the right way,” he said. “We’re going to be first class in everything we do. We’re going to look, act and play liked winners.”
Kayser’s new policies addressed everything from being on time for team meetings and practices, to taking hats off in buildings and never swearing.
Some squad members didn’t like the strict rules and left the team. Partly as a consequence the Red Dragons “didn’t have the players we needed to win that first year,” according to Kayser. The team finished 1-9, including a 40-12 loss to the Bombers.
That Ithaca team was coached by College Football Hall of Famer Jim Butterfield. “I was so fortunate to have had Coach Butterfield as my coach and mentor,” Kayser said. “No matter what the situation, he knew how to connect with us.” But it was Butterfield’s wife, Lois, whose comments Kayser remembers from that first matchup. “Dennis,” she told him after the final whistle had sounded, “That was the closest 40-12 game I’ve ever seen.”
Despite the rocky start, Kayser did see signs of progress that year. “We had a number of games we were really in, really battling hard, but we just didn’t have enough to get it done when crunch time came in the fourth quarter,” he said.
The Red Dragon Resurgence
That began to change in 1987. By then, most of the players who weren’t fully committed to Kayser’s program had either graduated or left the team. Kayser’s recruiting built on his new foundation, putting a premium on character. “You win with good people,” he said. “If you don’t have good people, you’re not going to be able to rise up at critical times and make the plays you need to be successful.”
As time passed, players bought into the program and took over some of the leadership the coaches had been providing. “I was probably a little heavy handed when I came in,” Kayser acknowledged, “But as more players assumed responsibility, I was able to let off the throttle a little bit. It was a process, and if I had to do it over again, I would do it the same way.”
The results spoke volumes. That year, Cortland finished above .500 for the first time in five years, with a 5-4 record. The Cortaca Jug featured another big Ithaca win — this time by a score of 37-15. But that was all going to change next year.
In 1988, the Red Dragons stormed out of the gate, winning their first eight games of the season, many in blowout fashion. Over on the South Hill, the Bombers were also 8-0.
Mike Welch, ‘73, who would later become Ithaca’s longtime head football coach, was one of Butterfield’s assistants that year. Contrary to the Cortaca games of the past, he remembers the atmosphere that day was 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, the Cortaca tides shifted drastically. Under Kayser’s leadership, the Red Dragons proved they weren’t content to be the Bombers’ playoff warm-up game any longer, as they defeated Ithaca in a 21-20 classic.
“That game changed the whole rivalry,” Welch said. “The Cortaca Jug Game was now on a national stage."
“That game changed the whole rivalry. The Cortaca Jug Game was now on a national stage.”Mike Welch '73, former Ithaca College Head Football Coach, on the 1988 Cortaca Jug game
Kayser remembers that win as “a great moment” for the team and the rivalry. Cortland finished the regular season 10-0, qualified for the NCAA playoffs for the first time in school history, and defeated Hofstra University in the first round.
The storybook season didn’t quite have a storybook ending, however, because the next week Cortland faced Ithaca again. This time, the Bombers came out on top 24-17, en route to the program’s second national title. “I was disappointed we couldn’t go further,” Kayser said, “But it’s tough to beat a team twice in the same season, three weeks apart.”
A Lasting Legacy
The Red Dragons' 1989 season didn’t manage to reach the heights of the magical fall of 1988. Cortland began the year 8-0 again, but lost the Jug matchup, and then fell in the first round of the playoffs, finishing 9-2. That season was also Kayser’s last as a coach. Intrigued by new challenges in the business side of sports, he joined Nike before heading to the NFL to work as a liaison between teams and equipment companies. His subsequent coaching activities have all been volunteer — coaching his son’s and daughter’s basketball teams, and assisting with a West Palm Beach high school football team that made it to the state championship in 2017.
Leaving Cortland wasn’t easy, he said, but he was satisfied that he had built a solid foundation, and confident that his assistant, Dave Murray, could sustain the program’s momentum as head coach. And he was right. Murray’s teams qualified for post-season playoffs in five of the next six seasons and his 1992 squad took home the Jug by stunning the defending national champion (and previously undefeated) Bombers, 22-20
For Kayser, having experienced the Cortaca rivalry at one of its lower points, seeing the 61st game played at MetLife Stadium is especially rewarding. “It was a big game in my day,” he said, “But I think it’s even bigger now.”
Welch, a football and lacrosse teammate and fraternity brother of Kayser, as well as a lifelong friend, gives Kayser credit for that. “He went in and changed the culture and built a strong football program that could compete with some of Ithaca College’s best teams—and beat us in a game that made the rivalry a national phenomenon.”