The 1986 Penn Quakers: The Perfect Team

The cover story for the Homecoming Weekend program on the 1986 undefeated Penn Football team was written by Dave Zeitlin C'03.

If you ask anyone about snowballs and Philadelphia sports, they’ll almost certainly tell you about the infamous time an ill-prepared teenager dressed as Santa Claus was pelted by disgruntled Eagles fans. But there’s another, less-publicized, tale involving snowballs and a Philly team. It goes something like this:

For the final game of Penn football’s 1986 season, the Quakers traveled to Ithaca right after a huge snowstorm. 

“It was an ice bowl up there,” former running back Chris Flynn C’88 recalled. Center Steve Buonato C’87 agreed, calling it “one of the coldest games I’ve ever played in.” But the weather conditions did little to dissuade the will of the Quakers, who were on the brink of capping off the program’s first perfect 10-0 season since the Ivy League was formed. Neither did the snowballs that began to fly from the hands of Cornell fans during the showdown between the league’s two best teams that year. If anything, the icy disrespect only added fuel to their fire.

“They started raining down on us and we’re looking around like, ‘Are you nuts?’” linebacker Brad Heinz W’87 recalled. “This is the last thing you want to do, man. You’re poking a sleeping bear here. That was all we needed at that point.”

“I grew up in Philly,” Buonato added with a laugh. “I look at it and kind of say, ‘What more can you ask for?’ It just adds to the suspense, drama and intensity. You couldn’t ask for anything better. It was the perfect way to close out a perfect season.”

In the end, the Quakers indeed got the last laugh, winning their 10th game of the season, 31-21, over the Big Red and celebrating with hundreds of Penn fans that not only made the trip to Ithaca but rushed the field when the final whistle sounded.

With that victory, the 1986 Quakers earned their place in Penn lore as one of the most accomplished teams ever to wear the Red and Blue. At the time, the undefeated season was the first since Chuck Bednarik and the 1947 Quakers went 7-0-1 and finished as one of the best teams in the country. Much earlier, the 1894, 1895, 1897, 1904, 1905 and 1908 squads also didn’t lose any games. And afterwards, only the 1993, 1994 and 2003 Quakers won every contest in both Ivy League and non-conference play.

“I don’t think we really knew until we were off the field for the last time that we would come up with an undefeated season,” Buonato said. “And I think that’s perfect. … What you can’t argue with is we raised the bar. That, I think, has been our contribution to an absolutely fantastic program.”

On the occasion of their 30-year anniversary, the 1986 Quakers will be honored for those contributions at today’s Homecoming game at Franklin Field. But for many of the players returning to the place where many of their best memories were forged, it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been 30 years.

Buonato, Heinz and Flynn, among others, all still vividly recall many plays from that season like it was yesterday. 
And they remain especially proud that the team reached perfection despite a coaching change that saw former assistant Ed Zubrow take the reins from Jerry Berndt heading into the 1986 campaign.

Looking back on it, the switch easily could have been a daunting one for Zubrow since Berndt had led the Quakers to at least a piece of the previous four Ivy League championships, a remarkable run that started with the famous 1982 title — the program’s first since 1959. But those who know him best felt Zubrow and his staff handled the transition perfectly, in large part because they didn’t attempt any sweeping changes with so many great players returning from the previous title-winning teams.

“It was interesting because we had a ton of talent and a lot of characters as well,” Heinz said. “They didn’t micromanage. They let us do what we had to do. They always gave us a good gameplan but at the same time, with their blessing, they gave us the freedom to be ourselves — which was really important to the success of the team.”

The coaches also listened. According to Buonato, the players approached the staff before the Oct. 18 game versus Navy with a message. After getting routed by Army in each of the previous two years, they felt their failures against the renowned service academies was “one of the biggest monkeys on our back” — and something they really hoped to reverse even though Ivy games naturally took precedence.

“We told them, ‘We would like to beat these guys. We want a game plan to put us in position to beat these guys. If you have to go off-script and do things you don’t normally do, we’d certainly love to do that,’” said Buonato, Penn’s offensive captain. “I give total credit to the ’86 coaching staff for hearing us and saying, ‘OK.’”

Buonato remembered one of the things the coaches stressed was taking advantage of a “jumpy safety” on Navy — a strategy that helped quarterback Jim Crocicchia W’86 tie a school record with four touchdown passes, three of which came in the fourth quarter to help the Quakers rally from a 10-point deficit for a dramatic 30-26 win, their first over a Division I-A team since they beat Rutgers in 1963. Tight end Brent Novoselsky W’88 caught three of the four touchdown passes as the Quakers spoiled Navy’s homecoming while beginning to realize just how good they really were.

“We walked into the stadium, the place was packed, gray, white and blue everywhere — it’s the biggest crowd we’ve ever played in front of, for sure,” Heinz said. “We’re looking around like, ‘Oh man, all right, game on, let’s do this.’”

“Navy may have been a 24-point favorite and they were fully expecting to win — and maybe win big,” Flynn added. “Brent Novoselsky and Jim Crocicchia, those guys were outstanding. We came in and we hung with them and we didn’t get pushed around. Then we said to ourselves, ‘Hey man, if we can win this, there might be no stopping us.’” 

There was no stopping them indeed — and the unique tandem Flynn formed with star running back Rich Comizio W’87 was a big reason why. While Crocicchia and Novoselsky — both of whom went on to play in the NFL — spearheaded the passing attack, Comizio and Flynn carried the load on the ground with both players successfully sharing carries and combining for more than 2,000 rushing yards (Comizio had 1,104 and Flynn 917).

“Rich Comizio was a prolific running back,” Buonato said. “When Comizio was on the field and you opened the hole, he was gonna find it. That made my job on the O-line a lot easier. And Flynny just had amazing balance. He got hit and he kept going, twisting and turning. We were blessed to have two good backs.” 

“It was a contrasting style of running that I think posed difficulty for the other team,” added Flynn, who was also a star Penn lacrosse player who went to play professionally for the Philadelphia Wings. “It worked out for us and we had fun. We were really good friends. Neither of us were jealous of the other. When you have a team like that and have a goal of going undefeated, you do whatever it takes to make the team win.”

In the end, the Quakers had little trouble with most of their opponents, knocking off Dartmouth, Bucknell, Columbia and Brown before their big upset of Navy and taking care of Yale, Princeton, Lafayette, Harvard and Cornell afterwards. The win over the Big Red, who come into the contest 8-1 overall and 6-0 in the Ivy League, was capped by a 31-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter by Flynn, which he called “an exclamation mark on a great season.” Of course, he also thought the bus trip that followed was pretty fun, too.

“When we celebrated, we stopped at a beer store and we loaded up and it was a great ride home,” Flynn said with a laugh. “And as soon as we got off the bus, we headed to Smokes and I don’t know whether it closed that night.”

Although he enjoyed so many great times 30 years ago, Flynn hasn’t kept in touch too closely with some of his old teammates. And for guys like Buonato (who lives in California) and Heinz (Chicago), it’s hard for them to return to campus as much as they’d like.

But all three former players — and many others — will be back at their old stomping grounds this weekend to celebrate a team and a time that will never be forgotten.

“Some of the greatest memories of my life came from this team,” Heinz said. “It was a wonderful experience.

“I can honestly call these guys my brothers. It’s a bond that can never be broken.”