Countdown to Cortaca: The Road to MetLife Stadium Part 3

By Kerry C. Regan, May 13, 2019
Seeing it From Both Sides: Some of the biggest names in the Cortaca Jug rivalry have spent time with both programs.

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 multi-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 installment, we look at individuals who have played for both Ithaca and Cortland. Previous stories in the series can be found here.

The Cortaca Jug can inspire strong loyalties among players, coaches, and fans. For some, the idea of wearing both Bomber blue and Red Dragon red is a no-go.

However, over the years, several coaches have experienced the Cortaca Jug from both sidelines, including current Cortland Head Coach Dan MacNeill, who has taken part in 27 Cortaca Jugs dating back to his freshman year in 1975 when he suited up for the Red Dragons.

Although he never got the better of Ithaca during his playing career, one thing the four-year letterman learned in his college career was to respect the Bombers, particularly Head Coach Jim Butterfield, who by that point, had turned Ithaca into a national power. 

A few years after graduating from Cortland, MacNeill, who was working a physical education teacher, was struck by the urge to get into coaching. He began searching for a path back to the game, starting by reaching out to potential mentors, and seeing if they had a position on their staff. As fortune would have it, Butterfield, was looking for a graduate assistant to join his staff, and MacNeill jumped at the chance to be considered.

“I always knew, as a Cortland grad, that Coach Butterfield was doing something really special at Ithaca, and I wanted to be a part of that,” he said.

Their interview went so well that MacNeil was offered the position on the spot—and he immediately accepted. In 1982, he coached the Bombers’ junior varsity squad, and when they squared off against the Red Dragons, felt no awkwardness coaching against his alma mater. “I was all in on who I was working for and how I was developing my skill set as a coach,” he said.

The next year, MacNeill was promoted to receivers coach for the varsity, where he got a first-hand look at the Jug from the Ithaca sidelines. And he came away with a revelation about how the Bombers approached the rivalry. “When I played at Cortland, we assumed they didn’t take us seriously,” MacNeill said. “We always thought they would just show up and win. But Ithaca College took the rivalry very seriously. Even the junior varsity game was big.”

“I always knew, as a Cortland grad, that Coach Butterfield was doing something really special at Ithaca, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Dan MacNeill, current Cortland Head Coach, on joining the Ithaca College coaching staff in 1982.

That year, MacNeill helped guide the Bombers to a 7-3 record, and a 49-26 win in the Jug game. And although that was his last season at Ithaca, the lessons he learned from Butterfield stayed with him.

“Jim Butterfield had a profound impact on me as a football coach,” MacNeill said. “There are so many extraordinary things that I picked up from him, the process he used, his demeanor. I wanted to crawl into his skin. I learned how to be a head football coach from him, and he is always going to be a part of who I am.”

Dan MacNeill on Cortland Sideline

Winless against Ithaca as a player, Dan MacNeill has gone 13-9 in Cortaca Jug games during his time leading the Red Dragons. (Photo courtesy of SUNY Cortland Athletics)

MacNeill went on to be an assistant coach at Villanova for 13 years before being named Cortland’s head coach prior to the 1997 season and leading the Red Dragons in the then re-energized Cortaca rivalry.

“When I interviewed for the job all they talked about was beating Ithaca,” he said. “I felt one of the things I needed to do when I came here was to bring some perspective back into how those games are truly won. Jim Butterfield did a good of establishing confidence, and there really needed to be more of that here. Not to diminish the rivalry, but to put it in perspective.”

And the approach has been very successful for MacNeill, who has a 13-9 record in the Cortaca Jug. He says the rivalry is very healthy today, and that its stature is as great as it’s ever been—maybe greater. “We recruit in New Jersey and other states, and the recruits everywhere know about Cortaca, and they want to be a part of it.”

One reason the rivalry re-energized between MacNeill’s stints at Cortland was the efforts of Ithaca College alumni Dennis Kayser ’74, whose story of leading a Cortland resurgence in the late 1980s was told in a previous article in this series. Kayser, who played under Butterfield and also counted him as a mentor (“He was like an extra father for me”), remembers that in his playing days, the rivalry was special, the games clean and hard-fought, and the two schools traded victories from year to year.

“In my senior year, we won the jug in a wild game, 41-33, and I remember the jug being passed around on the field,” he said. “There was a picture of me in the student newspaper, The Ithacan, holding the jug up in the air.

“What I tried to instill in the players as a coach was what it means to play in that game and to win that jug. But I never felt like I had to over motivate the kids to get ready for this game. It was a natural instinct on their part. You could just tell it was Ithaca week.”

He’s been back to see two Cortaca games since leaving the head coaching position at Cortland, once on the 20th anniversary of Cortland’s undefeated regular season in 1988—when an undefeated Red Dragon team lost a playoff game to Ithaca 35-13—and again last year for that team’s 30th anniversary. And he plans to attend this year’s game at MetLife Stadium. Asked what side he’s sitting on, the coach became diplomatic. “I’m going to move around,” he said. “I plan on seeing some of my teammates—a group of 10 or 12 guys go back every year—and I’m also definitely planning on seeing a lot of players I coached at Cortland.”

Okay, but who will you be rooting for?

“I root for a really good game,” he said, “a well-played, hard-fought, physical game, and may the team that plays best win.” 

And that’s all we’re able to get out of him, at least, on the record.

Up Next

For some current and former Ithaca players, Cortaca isn't just a game—it's a family tradition. The next stories in our series examine the bloodlines running through the Bombers' rich football history, and gives them a chance to share their Cortaca memories.

Tickets and Merchandise

Tickets for the game are sold through Ticketmaster and at can be purchased at

Cortaca Jug 2019-branded T-shirts and other merchandise has arrived at the campus store and also is available on the website at: