It was the Penn Gazette that asked the question in its November 1981 issue: “Can Coach Berndt Do It?” read the headline on a feature that Marshall Ledger wrote about the Quakers’ first-year head coach. Five years later, Berndt left Penn having answered the question emphatically: YES. He took over a moribund program, one that hadn’t seen an Ivy League championship since 1959 -- at that time the Quakers’ only title -- and had won just one game in the two seasons before his arrival. Berndt’s first game would be a harbinger of greater days ahead, the Red and Blue upsetting Cornell 29-22 at Franklin Field. (As you can see in the accompanying picture, Berndt was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players following the game.) Reality quickly set in, however, and Penn went winless the rest of the way to finish 1-9 overall. Little did anyone know what was about to happen. The 1982 season arrived, and with it an immediate turnaround in Penn’s football fortunes. The Quakers opened the campaign with a 21-0 shutout of one of the previous year’s co-champions, Dartmouth, and two weeks later they decimated Columbia, 51-31. In all, Penn started 4-0 that season, both overall and in Ivy play. A 17-14 loss at Princeton briefly halted the Quakers, but it was November 13 when the program’s fortunes turned for good. Playing a de facto championship game with Harvard that day -- the winner was guaranteed a share of the Ivy League title -- Penn trailed, 21-20, with only seconds remaining. The Quakers attempted a game-winning 38-yard field goal to end the game, only to have it sail wide left. But wait -- a whistle! A Crimson penalty for roughing the kicker! Another kick! This time, Dave Shulman split the uprights, and before you knew it Penn’s students were tearing down the goalposts and throwing them into the Schuylkill River to celebrate the school’s first Ivy title in 23 years (a title they would end up sharing, ironically, with the Crimson). Berndt led Penn to a share of the Ivy championship the next year, again with Harvard, but in 1984 Penn left nothing to chance, going a perfect 7-0 in Ivy League play to gain the program’s first outright crown. That Quakers team was arguably the greatest in program history in the Ivy League era, as they beat every Ancient Eight team by double digits (Princeton coming the closest to the champs in losing by “just” 10 points.) Penn would successfully defend its crown in 1985, going 6-1 in conference action, and the program has not looked back -- nearly 30 years after Coach Berndt’s departure, Quaker fans have come to expect Ivy League titles year in and year out. Two of Coach Berndt’s players became the first in program history to earn the Bushnell Cup as Ivy League Player of the Year; amazingly, both of them came from the defensive side of the ball (defensive back Tim Chambers in 1984, linebacker Tom Gilmore in 1985.) Another Berndt recruit, Rich Comizio, would be Ivy League Player of the Year in 1986. Want another sign of the program’s rags-to-riches reversal during Coach Berndt’s tenure? From 1978-81, a span that included Berndt’s first season at the helm, just one Penn player received first-team All-Ivy honors. From 1982-85, 17 different players earned a total of 20 first-team All-Ivy certificates.
“I treasure many memories of my forty years as a teacher and coach. However, the most exciting, special, memorable years -- by far! -- were the years I was the head football coach at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you to the athletic administration and alumni of this great University for giving me the opportunity to be in this position. Thanks to my assistant coaches for their dedication, support, and belief in what we were doing. To the equipment staff, the medical staff, the office staff, and the students for their support. Most importantly, thank you to each and every player for the success we experienced -- together! -- at the University of Pennsylvania.”