A rebel comes home

In the ’70s, attitudes in America changed. So did attitudes at Yale. One alumnus remembers how he mutinied, and how he came back.

Peter Richmond ’76 is a New York Times bestselling author whose next two books will be published by Penguin: Lord of the Rings, a biography of basketball coach Phil Jackson; and Always a Catch, his first novel for young adults.

Annabel Wright

Annabel Wright

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In 1977, when I was working as a sportswriter for the New Haven Journal-Courier, a humble, now long-shuttered newspaper, Yale appointed a man named Frank Ryan to be the school’s athletic director. Ryan was impressive: after winning the NFL championship as quarterback of the Cleveland Browns in 1964, he’d earned a doctorate in math at Rice. He’d been working in the House, on Capitol Hill, when Yale grabbed him.

One night I spotted him in the stands at the minor-league hockey game I was covering in the New Haven Coliseum. Trying to bolster my chances for an interview with this boldface name, I told him I was a Yale grad.

“What class?” Ryan said.

“Seventy-six,” I said. “It was supposed to be seventy-five, but I took a year off.”

Ryan’s return smile wasn’t a warm one. It was actually kind of condescending. “Those are the classes that are known for giving nothing back to the school,” he said—a statement that both confused and annoyed me. Clearly he wasn’t referring to donations; we hadn’t had enough time to earn money to give back to The Fund.

He was referring to attitude. He was pronouncing us the original slackers. I was a little pissed off—although he wasn’t completely off the mark in my case. I’d taken that year off to try and grow up a little before I wasted the whole four years—to find the discipline to stop going to my Ancient Civ classes high, stop spending three hours after dinner playing pinball. After more or less flunking out of auto mechanics school in Massachusetts, I’d returned to New Haven to pursue an entirely new curriculum in philosophy and psychology, with my head on a little… straighter.

And now, with the sheepskin obtained, I was gainfully employed. And football champion/scholar or not, Ryan made me bristle that night. He hadn’t been on campus to see my friends and me slack firsthand. How would he know what I’d given back to the school?