A Weekend of Wins

By Kerry C. Regan, October 23, 2020
The Bombers’ 2019 Cortaca Jug victory was not IC’s only triumph during the historic weekend.

When Andrew Vito ’21 hauled in a touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter of the 2019 Cortaca Jug, he secured the final points in the Bombers’ 32-20 victory over SUNY Cortland in front of an NCAA Division III single-game record 45,161 fans. The victory was IC’s third straight in the rivalry, and soon after the final whistle blew, the Twitter hashtag #ICVictory was celebrating the historic win.

But the football team’s success wasn’t the only thing for the Ithaca College community to celebrate that weekend. From devising solutions to unique logistical challenges to executing a philanthropic campaign on short notice, beating the Red Dragons on the scoreboard was just one of the many wins that took place over the course of several days last November.

Much like the Bombers’ victory on the gridiron that day was the culmination of a year’s worth of often unseen effort from players, coaches, and staff members, each of these other victories only occurred thanks in part to a year-long effort, led by the Cortaca Jug Steering Committee, that established various working groups to oversee every aspect of the event. Working together for 12 months, individuals from every corner of campus played a role in one of the biggest weekends in Ithaca College history.

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IC Victory: Getting off the Ground

Marc Hudak ’90 is no stranger to winning. A former captain and center who played on IC’s 1988 Stagg Bowl-winning team, Hudak saw a lot of success on the gridiron. And he’s remained involved with the game since hanging up his cleats.

Serving as the chairman of the New York Chapter of the National Football Foundation (NFF) a nonprofit organization that promotes and develops amateur football in the United States, Hudak is always looking for ways to grow the sport he loves.

“From the NFF standpoint, I thought it would be fun to do something special for the 150th anniversary of college football,” he said. “I thought, ‘why not bring this great small college football rivalry down to the Meadowlands and put it on display for the rest of the country as part of our anniversary celebration?’”

But the move to bring Cortaca to MetLife wasn’t solely about football for Hudak. Another aspect that appealed to him was the chance to help his alma mater provide substantive, high-profile opportunities for its students.

“Susan Bassett ’79 and the leadership of the college really embraced the idea. They are the unsung heroes here, because this wouldn’t have happened if Susan didn’t get behind it and take it to President Shirley M. Collado, and she didn’t subsequently support it.”

Marc Hudak '90

Hudak knew the idea would go over well with the NFF. And with other members of the committee connected with MetLife Stadium, he was confident securing the location was doable.

But nothing would happen without buy-in from Ithaca College. That turned out not to be a problem.

“The thing that happened that was really special is that associate vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics Susan Bassett ’79 and the leadership of the college really embraced the idea,” Hudak said. “They are the unsung heroes here, because this wouldn’t have happened if Susan didn’t get behind it and take it to President Shirley M. Collado, and she didn’t subsequently support it.”

“From an institutional perspective, this puts IC on the national stage,” Basset said in an interview in March of 2019. “Giving us broad visibility and potentially enhancing our reputation with our many constituents in the New York metro area.”

With the full support of the college, the Countdown to Cortaca at MetLife Stadium was officially on.

IC Victory: The Largest Gathering of Ithaca College Alumni in One Place

One of the goals of moving Cortaca to MetLife was to break the Division III single-game attendance record of 37,355, set by the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University in 2018.

But achieving that goal meant that, unlike traditional Cortaca Jug games, where students make up a majority of those in attendance, alumni were going to need to come out in force.

That was, at least initially, a tricky prospect. Despite the fact that the college has approximately 17,000 alumni in the tri-state area, getting them in the stands was going to take a lot of work. But Jon Gregory ’10, associate director of alumni relations for affinity programs, was confident that it was going to be a success.

“Whether it was a gathering of the alumni chapter, or students traveling to the city to meet with alumni, we engaged in a year-long campaign promoting Cortaca 2019 as something you didn’t want to miss.”

Jon Gregory ’10, associate director of alumni relations for affinity programs,

“It was a Field of Dreams approach where if we built it, they would come,” he said. “It was going to be a massive gathering of alumni, but also a chance to show everyone what Ithaca College does well, and what we’re capable of, as an institution.”

But just like Kevin Costner’s baseball diamond in a cornfield wasn’t built in a day, neither was a record gathering of alumni.

“We knew we had a year to promote and plan it, so at every New York City-based alumni event we had, we included a plug for the game,” Gregory said. “Whether it was a gathering of the alumni chapter, or students traveling to the city to meet with alumni, we engaged in a year-long campaign promoting Cortaca 2019 as something you didn’t want to miss.”

And that went well beyond the game itself. Because, as Gregory, pointed out, “A lot of alumni might not remember the scores of the games that they attended as students, but they remember the people they were with, and the community they were a part of. That was the experience we wanted to mimic.”

Hudak had just the plan for that: Friday Night Lights — a gathering of hundreds of alumni in one spot the night before the game.

Because so many alumni had reserved block rooms in the Hyatt House hotel in Jersey City, New Jersey for the weekend, the hope was that holding the event there would be a convenient draw. That hope proved prescient. Once word spread, the event quickly reached capacity.

“We needed a rallying point for alumni, especially the ones who were traveling,” Gregory said. “Watch parties are often a way for alumni to re-engage with the college, so Friday Night Lights served as that sort of experience, and it was a first-class way that tipped a cap to the collaborative effort that was needed to make this happen.”

A child running through an agility ladder

Fan Fest, held before kickoff on the day of the game, provided everyone a chance to be a star. (Photo by Charles McKenzie)

Of course, one event does not an experience make. So Gregory and others set about coming up with other ideas to draw in alumni.

Sport is a great equalizer and a way for people to come together to connect without watching the game,” Gregory said.

One way that connection could happen was Fan Fest, an interactive IC and football-themed experience featuring an opportunity to run on a turf field, try on helmets and shoulder pads, and listen to music from Chris Washburn ’08, known as DJ Washburn.

“That was our way of turbocharging the idea of memories beyond the game itself,” Gregory said. “We wanted something for everyone—the 4-yearold child of the alum, or the alum from the class of 1960.”

They also, he said, wanted to tap into tailgate culture surrounding football. The office devised a tailgate contest, whereby smaller groups of fans could tailgate and win prizes for having the best menu, best Ithaca College spirit and best overall tailgate.

“Everyone had that moment where they could step back, look at this sea of 45,000 people and say, ‘This is my college, and I’m proud to be part of this community.’” 

Jon Gregory '10

The ideas all engaged the alumni, who scooped up tickets by the thousands. So many former Bombers converged at MetLife stadium, that not only was it the largest gathering of IC alumni at one place, it became an unofficial alumni weekend.

Any alum who was there that day could look around and be proud to be part of Ithaca College,” Gregory said. “Everyone had that moment where they could step back, look at this sea of 45,000 people and say, ‘This is my college, and I’m proud to be part of this community.’” 

IC Victory: Student Transportation

Of course, Cortaca isn’t Cortaca without a large and boisterous student body in attendance. But when the move to MetLife was first announced, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome was ensuring students would be able to get to New Jersey. Even when Cortaca Jug games are held at Cortland under typical circumstances, transportation can be a challenge. The prospect of getting students bused down Route 13 to Cortland isn’t an easy undertaking.

If you can imagine how much more difficult that prospect becomes when the number of students who want to take the bus to the game swells to 600, and the number of miles those buses need to travel jumps from 25 to 220, you’d have a sense of what Ron Trunzo, associate director of residential life and judicial affairs was dealing with as the head of the five-person Cortaca Transportation Committee.

Trunzo and his team knew that the biggest challenges were going to be related to timing. When you’re looking at a four-hour round trip, promptness is necessary. And early Saturday is not a time when most college students are awake, let alone ready to board a bus. So, he and his team hammered home the importance of students being ready to go in time for the buses to pull out at 7 a.m.

While many students arrived as early as 6:15 a.m., as the clock inched toward departure time, some were still nowhere to be seen. So, the 24 campus community members who had signed up to be chaperones made phone calls to track them down. By the designated departure time, everyone had arrived.

Of course, that was only half the battle. In many ways, coordinating the return trip was going to be just as tricky. But Trunzo and his team were prepared. They had collaborated with the college’s IT department to create a group texting service that could reach all 600 students. They also devised an incentive: the first 25 students to return to the buses were put in a drawing for an IC goodie bag.

IC Victory: Experiential Learning Opportunities

One of the core tenets of the Ithaca College strategic plan is to provide experiential learning opportunities for students. And the Cortaca Jug game provided the perfect laboratory for that, ensuring that the game was just as valuable an experience for students as it is for the players and coaches. Students in all five schools took part in various experiential learning opportunities.

Annemarie Farrell, associate professor and chair of the department of sport management, served as the chair for the experiential learning working group, which is no surprise to anyone who has seen her in action.

Students in her fall 2018 course From Cortaca to Fenway, Understanding Sports Fans were required to produce a final project with a Cortaca theme, while in the spring semester, her Sport Marketing and Sales class were tasked with developing a marketing plan for Cortaca weekend.

“Professor Farrell emphasizes curriculum to career; she wants what we do in class to help us in our future careers. And that’s what this was.”

Marco Fontana '20

“For us, Cortaca was a lab,” Farrell said.

The learning opportunities didn’t stop there. Her students were tasked with running the on-campus ticket sales operation for the game. Led by Marco Fontana ’20, a group of students oversaw the sale of 2,785 tickets to IC students, faculty and staff. The operation was so professional that it earned the students some international recognition: The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) selected the School of Business as one of the 25 highlights of its “Innovations That Inspire” member challenge

“Professor Farrell emphasizes curriculum to career; she wants what we do in class to help us in our future careers,” Fontana said. “And that’s what this was.”

In addition to Farrell’s students, Peter Raider ’23, who works for the college’s athletic communications department, helped produce the department’s pre-game video promotions for social media, as well as others that appeared on the jumbotron at the game.

Raider also teamed up with Nate McCoart ’13, director of technical operations at Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment, who took on game-day production of Cortaca, to produce several videos that were shown at the stadium on game day, including one that played as the Bombers took the field before kickoff.

Another series of videos shown during the game focused on the physics of football. These 15-second videos were a joint production of IC’s Office of College Communications and the college’s physics department. Assistant professors of Physics and astronomy Colleen and Preston Countryman scripted the videos, which used football to explain basic concepts of physics, and recruited four students to appear in them. 

All told, dozens of students were given unique experiential learning opportunities at MetLife stadium, illustrating that for many, Cortaca was much more than a game.

IC Victory: The Cortaca Giving Challenge

The MetLife Stadium scoreboard wasn’t the only one members of the Ithaca College Community had their eye on during Cortaca. And by the time the football game kicked off at 1 p.m. on Nov. 16, the numbers on this other scoreboard had started to spin.

Four days earlier, the two schools had announced the first annual Cortaca Jug Giving Challenge, where members of each campus community could pledge a donation to their school’s annual fund. The school who secured the most donations throughout the week would be declared the winner.

When the schools agreed to the competition in late October, Erik Braun, associate director of the Ithaca College Annual Fund’s Blue and Gold Society, knew it would be a challenge to devise a campaign in such a short amount of time. But with a background in political fundraising, he’s used to executing plans quickly and successfully.

In just one week, Braun’s team came up with a communications plan to promote the challenge, including the best ways to reach out to various constituents of the IC community and ask for their support.

“Being fairly new to IC and Cortaca, I was surprised at how competitive people were. When people would ask me about the challenge and I told them it was a competition with Cortland, they would say ‘Oh, I’m going to give because we’ve got to win.’”

Erik Braun, associate director, Ithaca College Blue and Gold Society

“I have experience with these types of quick turnarounds,” he said. “This was definitely a challenge. At IC, we’re more focused on cultivating long-term relationships with individuals rather than these types of giving challenges. But I’ve got to give credit to our team, they did a fantastic job. When we sent out our first emails about the challenge, the response rate was 300% higher than we’d received on emails we’d sent earlier in the year. The excitement was evident from the start, which was great to see.”

IC surged out to an early lead in the contest. But like football games, giving challenges aren’t won in the first quarter. They’re also a team effort.

“As the week continued, we engaged with the offices of student affairs and campus life to promote the challenge to students,” Braun said. “We also connected with Natalie Daffinee ’09, associate director of social media strategy in the Office of College Communications, to promote and amplify it through social media.”

Braun’s team pulled out all the stops during the weekend of the game. During the Friday Night Lights event the night before and the Fan Fest the morning of the game, iPads were made available to attendees so they could give easily. Braun and others were armed with business cards affixed with a QR code that would take a person directly to the giving page.

“Being fairly new to IC and Cortaca, I was surprised at how competitive people were,” Braun said. “When people would ask me about the challenge and I told them it was a competition with Cortland, they would say ‘Oh, I’m going to give because we’ve got to win.

“Cortaca was a showcase for the college’s ability to pull things off at a high level. The whole day was a win, and it was exciting that we were able to add a layer to that.”

Erik Braun

Gifts continued to pour in. When the clock hit zero just before midnight on Nov.r 16, the final tally showed the crowning Ithaca College victory of the weekend. The campus community had made 938 total gifts, outpacing Cortland’s 905.

As a result of the victory, the college received a $150 donation to the Ithaca College Annual Fund from SUNY Cortland. But securing the monetary reward wasn’t Braun’s biggest takeaway from several weeks of around-the-clock work.

“Cortaca was a showcase for the college’s ability to pull things off at a high level,” he said. “The whole day was a win, and it was exciting that we were able to add a layer to that.”

Patrick Bohn '05 contributed to this story.