This story is part of a series on Penn football's 18 Ivy League titles. Click here to read about the team's 1994 championship.
Championships are won by teams.
During the 1998 season, the Red and Blue relied heavily on the veteran legs of running back Jim Finn and his historic season to power their squad to their third Ivy League title of the decade.
However, as Finn would be the first to point out, the team could have never accomplished its goal without a unified effort and valiant performances from various players throughout the year.
The 1997 season ended up as one of the most bizarre seasons in Penn football history, in which the Quakers agreed to forfeit five Ivy games after an internal investigation ruled All-Ivy defensive tackle Mitch Marrow was ineligible. Despite tallying a winning Ivy League record of 5-2, the Red and Blue’s record turned into a dismal 0-7, and they placed last in the Ancient Eight.
Coming into the 1998 season, the Red and Blue were bound for a year of redemption. Following the disappointing year prior, the senior co-captains — Finn and defensive back and returner Joe Piela — knew their legacies were at stake coming into their final season.
Finn was selected as a member of the All-Ivy team the season before, and head coach Al Bagnoli knew that trusting Finn would be key to the team’s success. In the season opener at Dartmouth, Bagnoli would get a chance to display the faith he had in Finn, as well as the rest of the offense.
Facing a crucial fourth down just inches from the goal-line, the game was placed in Finn’s hands, but more importantly, his legs. Finishing off a career day of 41 carries and 161 total yards, Finn fiercely powered his way into the end zone for his second rushing score of the day and handed the Quakers a tight 17-14 victory over the Big Green.
After an exhausting and stressful first week, Penn opened at Franklin Field with a tough test in Richmond, who would go on to finish the year at 9-3 and were the eventual Atlantic 10 conference champions. The Spiders cruised to a 38-14 victory as they successfully stopped Finn’s rushing attack and forced three fumbles from the star.
The following week, avenging last year’s loss, the Quaker captains put on a show against Bucknell for the nearly 11,000 roaring fans in attendance. Finn rushed for a stellar 136 yards, but the highlight of the day was a 52 yard punt return from Piela that secured the 20-10 win for the Red and Blue.
In their last non-conference contest of the season against Fordham, the Quakers eked out another victory behind yet another great performance from Finn, who netted 195 yards and two touchdowns, including a remarkable 69-yard touchdown run down the right sideline.
Yet, the victory would come at a cost as quarterback Matt Rader suffered a golf-ball sized gash to his throwing arm late in the third quarter, sparking 17 unanswered points from the Rams as they stormed back into the game.
Luckily, the Quakers’ lead was large enough that they were able to hold on. Yet, as all great coaches do, Bagnoli focused on the negatives despite the win. The Red and Blue suffered from a slew of penalties — false starts, holding calls, and a celebration penalty as a result of a backflip — and Bagnoli stressed that the team would need to improve in their focus and discipline.
“We need to get much more mature in our approach to practice,” said Bagnoli. “That's what we keep talking about and today was a classic example — that we are not the most mature team."
Though no one would have blamed Rader for taking some time off, the quarterback refused to miss out on the following week’s heavyweight showdown after receiving 40 stitches in his throwing arm.
“There was no hesitation once he got clearance from the doctors,” Bagnoli said. “We were really fortunate that the cut didn’t get into the muscle, so we didn't have to worry about atrophy.”
In one of the most important contests of the season, Finn would face Columbia and a nationally-ranked rushing defense that had only allowed only 52.5 yards per game up to that point. Ultimately, it would not be Penn’s offense that took the spotlight that weekend, as the Red and Blue defense clobbered the Lions in a 20-0 shutout. The strong defensive outing was backed by the trio of Rader, Finn, and star wideout Doug O’Neill, who combined for 303 out of the total 320 yards of the Quaker offense.
“We really thought that we’d need to have a balanced offensive attack.” Bagnoli said. “It's very difficult to beat a team just throwing or just running the football.”
Penn would then travel to Providence, R.I. to face Brown in a true offensive shootout. By the fourth quarter, it was clear that whichever team got the ball last would emerge victorious. A total of 109 total points were scored that day, with Finn tallying 259 yards rushing and a school record six rushing touchdowns.
But the miraculous effort was still not enough, as the Bears were able to punch in a touchdown with only four seconds left in regulation, issuing the Quakers a heartbreaking defeat and their second loss of the season.
“Half the group should really feel good about what they have done,” Bagnoli said. “The other half is so far down right now that it will probably be until Wednesday before they can get themselves pulled back up."
After that heart-wrenching loss, the Red and Blue would have a great opportunity to return to form in front of their Homecoming crown of 20,875. Finn accounted for two touchdowns and 141 yards, and Penn toppled Yale 34-21 to complete the Homecoming celebration.
The following week Penn traveled to Princeton with its eyes clearly set on its first Ivy League crown in four years. The game’s highlight once again featured Finn, but this time it came from his arm, as he connected with tight end Brandon Clay for a 28-yard touchdown to keep his season-long quarterback performance at a perfect 3-for-3 for two touchdowns passes.
After the 27-14 victory, the Red and Blue sat atop the Ivy League and held complete control of their destiny. The Quakers traveled back to Franklin Field to face Harvard and looked to flip the narrative from last year when they suffered a crushing 33-0 defeat.
They did just that en route to clinch their share of the Ivy League title, as they coasted to a 41-10 win over the Crimson.
“It’s unbelievable,” linebacker Darren MacDonald said. “I was in tears with four minutes left to go in the game. It’s the greatest feeling I have ever had.”
“I want the kids to enjoy this because it is so hard to achieve it,” Bagnoli added. “We will make sure that our heads are screwed back on. Trust me, by 3:20 on Tuesday, Harvard will be a distant memory."
For many on the team, the job was still not finished, as Penn would journey to Cornell with the hope of securing an unshared and undisputed title.
Nov. 21, 1998 would turn out to be a day for the record books that beautifully encapsulated the journey of the team throughout the year. Up against Cornell, Penn got out to a comfortable 21-0 after three non-offensive touchdowns, including an 83-yard punt return from Piela as he set a school record for return yards.
Though he was staggered in the first half, Finn eventually broke out with a massive 71-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that stifled the Big Red’s 21 unanswered points and seized all the momentum. The halfback completed his monumental season with a total of 188 rushing yards on his way to breaking Penn’s single-season rushing record.
“It's a great thing to accomplish, but winning the Ivy championship is our main goal and my main goal — that's what the season was about," Finn said. “Everything else is just gravy.”
After finishing dead last in the Ancient Eight following a disastrous and surprising turn of events just a season before, Penn was able to win the conference title outright following their 35-21 victory over Cornell.
“Just to be able to play for a championship, knowing every game counted, made it something to remember. I don’t know if it’s really set in yet,” Piela said. “When you get caught up in the moment, it’s hard to come back down. I know I went through a lot of emotions, as far as it being my last game. It’s a hard feeling to describe. But it’ll stay with me the rest of my life.”
Ironically, Finn would go on to be nicknamed “Mr. Irrelevant” after being selected by the Chicago Bears as the last pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. But history says otherwise, as Finn set school records in rushing attempts (323) and rushing yards (1,450), as well as rushing for 17 touchdowns, the most by a Penn halfback since 1907. These accolades culminated in Finn being recognized as the Ivy League Player of the Year.
Though the 1998 season marked one of the most unbelievable individual seasons in Penn history, Finn was lauded by his teammates and coaches for displaying utter selflessness and leadership. Finn would be the first to admit championships in football are never won by individuals, no matter how many records get broken.
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