Here’s How The Great Minds Of Harvard And Yale Have Spent A Century Pulling Pranks On Each Other

When you think of Harvard University and its local rival Yale, you may picture hyper-intelligent leaders of tomorrow. But while many members of the student body do conform to this ideal, most of them are also regular people who love college football as much as the rest of us. They just happen to be super smart – and they’ve spent decades using these wits to stage elaborate pranks on each other at “The Game,” their annual football contest.

The two colleges are spectacularly august establishments. Harvard University is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was founded in 1636. It takes its name from Charlestown’s John Harvard, a clergyman and the university’s earliest patron. As of October 2020 Harvard placed third in the World University Rankings, behind only the University of Oxford and Stanford University. Harvard has among its alumni eight U.S. presidents and more than 160 Nobel laureates.

Yale University, meanwhile, is in New Haven, Connecticut, and was created in 1701. That makes it the U.S.’s third-oldest higher education establishment, and it came eighth in the 2020 World University Rankings. In terms of its alumni, Yale can boast five U.S. presidents and 65 Nobel laureates. Not too shabby.

When it comes to finances, Harvard and Yale enjoy the top two university endowments on the planet. Harvard’s is worth in excess of $40 billion, while Yale’s sits at just over $30 billion. Only the cream of the crop is accepted into either university, so the prestige associated with studying at them cannot be underestimated.

The Harvard football team is known as the Harvard Crimson, while Yale’s squad are the Yale Bulldogs. The two Ivy League teams play each other every year, and over the years the match has gained such a reputation that it’s simply become known as “The Game.” The nickname was earned when sports journalist Red Smith told Yale’s Charley Loftus that he couldn’t go to the 1958 contest and Loftus replied, “What? You’re going to miss ‘The Game?’”

ADVERTISEMENT

Fittingly, the football rivalry between the two great institutions has been raging for an incredible 145 years. It began in 1875, a full 45 years before the National Football League came into existence. Back then, football wasn’t what it is today. The crowd for that first edition of The Game was no more than a smattering of people, according to sporting historian Dick Friedman.

Friedman told The Guardian that it didn’t take too long for the crowds to begin to grow, though. “In the 1880s, I would say, is when it really started to take hold of the public and get popular,” he explained. “There would be 20,000 people at some of these games, and by the 1890s it had become a fully-fledged annual event.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Harvard Stadium, the U.S.’s oldest football arena, opened in 1903. The Yale Bowl then debuted in 1914, with a capacity of 70,000. The colleges now had tailor-made stadiums in which to contest their rivalry. And its significance to the players, students and staff of both universities grew enormously over the years.

In 1916 Yale coach Tad Jones made a legendary speech to inspire his team to victory. He reportedly said, “Gentlemen, you are now going to play football against Harvard. Never again in your whole life will you do anything so important.” And by the 1960s the country at large would come to view The Game with almost as much reverence as Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT

The 1968 edition was arguably the best-known Game in history. It saw Harvard implausibly turn a 16-point deficit with 42 seconds remaining into a 29-29 tie. But according to Friedman, the quality of play in The Game had actually fallen as the NFL grew and college football, in a wider sense, thrived around the country.

Other universities were now awarding scholarships to promising players. This meant that Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale were left behind, as their students were admitted based on academic merit. So the quality of the football wasn’t as high as elsewhere, and the numbers of players who would go on to turn professional also dropped. Yet The Game always still retained its sense of importance to those associated with both colleges.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 2013 The Guardian talked to Harvard quarterback Scott Hempel, who wasn’t intending to pursue professional football after graduation. Instead he was going to attend officer candidate school. He gave a poignant insight into The Game, which he described as a last hurrah for many of the players on the field.

“There’s a lot of emotion around The Game, but especially for the seniors who are going into their last game… they’re never going to put on a helmet again,” Hempel explained. “It’s going to be my last football game ever, and I’ve played football for pretty much my whole life.” The students competing in The Game want to give everything they have, as they likely won’t compete in such an important sporting contest again.

ADVERTISEMENT

But while the rivalry on the field has been treated with the utmost respect over the years, a far less serious tradition has sprung up in relation to The Game. Students from both institutions began to engage in prank warfare as early as 1933, when Handsome Dan II, Yale’s canine mascot, was spirited away. He was allegedly taken by students involved with the Harvard Lampoon, the famous humorous college magazine.

Handsome Dan was eventually found by the John Harvard statue that stands close to Harvard’s main hall. The dog was licking the statue’s feet, which had been covered in hamburgers. A pic was taken and the story became front-page news across the U.S.

ADVERTISEMENT

Harvard got one over on Yale again in 1961 when a counterfeit version of the Yale Daily News was distributed. It proclaimed that President John F. Kennedy, an alumnus of Harvard, was coming to The Game at the Yale Bowl. The crowd was astonished when JFK appeared on the pitch with agents on either side.

But it transpired that “JFK” was none-other-than Robert Ellis Smith, the president of Harvard’s newspaper The Harvard Crimson. Smith sported a Kennedy mask and the agents were fellow students dressed up. Hundreds of people in attendance reportedly still believed they were looking at the real President of the United States.

ADVERTISEMENT

And arguably the most infamous prank in the ongoing war between the universities came in 2004. Two Yale seniors, David Aulicino and Mike Kai, had attempted a prank in the 2003 edition of The Game, but it hadn’t worked out. Fast-forward a year and their elaborate follow-up effort would make them internet celebrities after it went viral.

Aulicino and Kai told Business Insider that they’d known each other since they’d been assigned to the same Yale residence. Kai explained they became fast friends due to a mutual love of “concocting random plans together.” For instance, the brainy-yet-mischievous students built their own hot tub by combining a foam machine with a paddling pool.

ADVERTISEMENT

The inspiration for their first attempt at pranking Harvard came when a pal said it would be funny to somehow trick the opposing fans into spelling out something inappropriate. During a reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, Kai recalled, “It was one of those things where you’re sitting around with some buddies drinking beer and someone says, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’ I woke up the next day and couldn’t shake the idea.”

Aulicino and Kai crafted their prank idea, which entailed them putting together a crew to sneak into the Yale Bowl hours prior to the 2003 game starting. They intended to stick red and white sheets beneath the Harvard section’s seats. The theory was that once the seats were lifted, the different colored papers would read: “WE SUCK.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Their plan was ill-fated, though, as a bomb threat was made ahead of the game and all those present had to leave the arena. Aulicino told Business Insider, “Once the bomb threat came in, they wanted to search everyone in the stadium, and there were very few people there. They saw us with all of the construction paper.” So their grand prank was thwarted.

But over the next year Aulicino and Kai refined their ploy, determined to execute it to perfection during the 2004 game. As the Yale Daily News wrote, “Rather than tape the papers to the seats, they created a system to have the Harvard crowd pass out the 1,800 cards themselves.” To do this, the pair formed the “Harvard Pep Squad,” a crew of undercover Yale students posing as die-hard Crimson fans.

ADVERTISEMENT

Before the Pep Squad were called into action, though, Aulicino and Kai drove to the Harvard Stadium a month ahead of the game in order to do some recon. Kai snapped plenty of pics and made note of the seating arrangements. And from this info, they put together their own schematic of the stadium’s layout.

The pranksters knew they ought to come up with a believable cover story, should they be accosted by the stadium authorities like the previous year. This is why the Harvard Pep Squad was created. And the crew of friends went to great lengths to make the group convincing. The Yale students wore face paint and Pep Squad clothes, and they even had phony Harvard identification cards made.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Pep Squad was sizeable in number, as Aulicino revealed. “We needed 20 people just to hand out the heavy construction paper,” he recalled. “Plus we needed people to rile up the crowd and get them excited.” Kai wrote on reddit that he and Aulicino “planned every detail we could imagine and went through every possible scenario. It was like preparing for battle, really.”

Kai explained that when the day came, “A friend in the Yale Band got a handful of us access before the game started. We carried about 100 pounds worth of paper in black trash bags to a corner of the Harvard side of the stadium.” The Pep Squad began distributing the papers during the second quarter of the game. Aulicino and Kai hoped for the best.

ADVERTISEMENT

But a potential spanner was thrown into the works when a suspicious Harvard fan queried whether the Pep Squad members were actually from Harvard. He asked a female Squadder where she lived on campus. Following a delay she answered “ho-fo.” She meant to say “fo-ho,” which is how Harvard’s Pforzheimer House is known locally, and quickly corrected herself, so it was a close call.

Most of the Harvard crowd bought into the Pep Squad’s ruse wholesale, though, and willingly passed out the red and white papers they were given. Security let them move around freely, as they seemed to be loudly supporting the team. Kai wrote, “We made sure to scream and yell a ton to be hidden in plain sight.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But when Harvard fans finally lifted their papers up, it wasn’t a moment of triumph for the pranksters on the ground. That’s because they couldn’t tell whether the plan had worked. Kai recalled, “After the first time the signs went up, we all just stared at each other. No one on the Harvard side [of the stadium] knew what the signs really said since you were so close to the action.”

But then they received a phone call from a Yale compatriot elsewhere in the arena who told them, “This actually worked! And you need to do it again because people didn’t realize what just happened.” Spurred on, the undercover Pep Squad encouraged Harvard fans to show their papers again and again. And amazingly, on one occasion, the teams on the field stopped play and looked on.

ADVERTISEMENT

Aulicino told Business Insider, “For me, one of the biggest signs that I knew we had actually pulled it off was all of the sudden we heard this loud uniform sound from the other side of the stadium. ‘You suck, you suck, you suck.’” It had worked. Aulicino and Kai had successfully hoodwinked Harvard fans into lifting up signs that read “WE SUCK” in the middle of the biggest game of the year.

To add insult to injury, Aulicino and Kai filmed every aspect of their plan and then edited it all into a video they posted to a new site entitled “HarvardSucks.org.” Within 48 hours, the clip had been viewed more than a million times. The intense traffic to the website, hosted by Yale, even brought the servers down, disabling the college’s email system in the process.

ADVERTISEMENT

At the end of the day, Aulicino and Kai weren’t punished because their prank was deemed to have had no spiteful intent. Even the Harvard director of athletic communications deemed it “all in good fun.” Kai told Business Insider, “The prank was on the edge, but it was all good-natured. It didn’t result in any property damage or anyone getting hurt.”

Interestingly, though the rivalry has been played out between Harvard and Yale, another university has a habit of involving itself at opportune times to poke fun at the snobbishness of the Ivy League schools. MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, boasts a history of “hacks” of Harvard in particular. So The Game has always been a prime target for MIT pranksters.

ADVERTISEMENT

For example, in 2006 a group from MIT managed to hack the scoreboard in Harvard Stadium. They supplanted the iconic Harvard VERITAS shield on the scoreboard with a more humorous message. Instead of “VE-RI-TAS” in digital letters, it instead read: “HU-GE-EGO.” Undoubtedly the most memorable hack came in 1982, though.

During the 1982 edition of The Game, something strange emerged from the turf around the 50-yard line. It was a dark weather balloon and it started expanding while the second quarter of the game was being played. As it grew bigger and bigger, coaches and officials watched on in confusion, until they saw that “MIT” painted all over the balloon.

ADVERTISEMENT

But a Harvard cop was taking no chances. He drew his weapon, unsure what was about to happen. Then, when the balloon was around 8 feet wide, it burst and emitted a mini-cloud of white dust. Amusingly, a piece of paper was found in the contraption used to inflate the balloon, with detailed guidance on how to tidy the mess away and remove the machine from view.

The MIT fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon revealed they were responsible and would later explain that the ploy had been in the works for a long time. The “Bomb Squad,” as they became known, made numerous visits to the stadium under the cover of darkness to set their contraption up. How did it work, though?

ADVERTISEMENT

A hydraulic press, fueled by Freon and a motor from a vacuum cleaner, was concealed a few feet beneath the surface. This was what caused the balloon to expand. The MIT crew were certain that the balloon popping wouldn’t hurt anyone. Overall, their prank received a great reaction. And the Boston Herald’s headline read: “MIT 1 – Harvard-Yale 0: Tech Pranksters Steal The Show.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT