One Sunday late in June, Penn and Princeton took to the field before thousands of cheering spectators who were eager to see the two old rivals go head to head. It was a riveting game; the score was close until late in the game, but despite some strenuous maneuvering by the Quakers, Princeton pulled ahead, carrying the day with a final score of 26-7.
Apart from the loss, this sounds like a familiar-enough scene. But a standard match it was not. For starters, the gridiron in question wasn’t even in the same hemisphere as Franklin Field and Princeton Stadium. And although players from both Penn and Princeton were competing against each other, their numbers were relatively small. If you’re thoroughly puzzled by now, it’s probably because you’ve never heard of the Ivy-Samurai Bowl, which took place at Tokyo’s Komazawa Olympic Stadium.
It may surprise stateside fans to learn that football is, as they say, big in Japan. Introduced to the Land of the Rising Sun more than 70 years ago, it has enjoyed a devoted collegiate and amateur following ever since, and the Ivy-Samurai Bowl—now in its third year—has become a very popular sporting event.
As its name suggests, the match pitted a combination of Japanese and American players against each other. The Kantoh Collegiate Football Association (KCFA), a group made up of teams from the greater Tokyo area, first organized the event to commemorate its 70th anniversary. The association decided to invite coaching staff and players from two Ivy League universities to Japan to conduct intensive clinics and stage an exhibition match. It was so successful that they’ve done it every year since.
Al Bagnoli, Penn’s redoubtable head coach, jumped at the opportunity to participate. “We had been asked to do this last year, but unfortunately I couldn’t go,” Bagnoli recalled recently, “so I was even more eager to go this year.”
Satohiro Akimoto, a Mitsubishi executive who also volunteers as KCFA’s international advisor, proffered the invitation to Bagnoli and Coach Roger A. Hughes of Princeton. A Harvard graduate and veteran football coach himself, Akimoto is one of the architects of the exchange program.
“Since football has opened up many doors for me, I wanted to do the same for young players in Japan and the U.S.,” he remarked. “I also wanted to give an opportunity for the Ivy League coaches and players to come to Japan to get to know the Japanese through football, their common interest.”
In addition to Coach Bagnoli, KCFA extended invitations to six assistant coaches and four alumni players who had exhausted their eligibility. Princeton assembled an identical group. Each Ivy contingent was then assigned a group of 55 Japanese all-star players with whom they would spend the next four days practicing. Then the two groups would face each other in a formal contest—the Ivy-Samurai Bowl.
Communication posed an obvious problem, but the Japanese players and coaches were generally bi-lingual, and a small army of interpreters was on hand to clear up any remaining ambiguity.
“Our job was pretty easy,” Bagnoli remarked. “Most of the kids understood American football terminology very well.”
Quarterback Mike Mitchell W’03, one of the players who participated, felt the same way. “The very first practice we were going over formations and I was amazed at how well they knew the playbook,” Mitchell recalled. “They must have studied it for months in advance. I can’t really remember too many first practices at Penn where the players got everything straight right off the bat.”
One apparent difference between Japanese and American football is the size of the players, the average Japanese tending to be more compact than his American counterpart. “The biggest guy on the field was just over six feet and around 250 pounds,” Mitchell noted; “however, they were all very quick and agile. There were some very talented athletes; I was really impressed with their play.”
Practice lasted for three more days. Then both squads—one led by Penn and the other by Princeton—hit the field. The Penn lineup included Mitchell, running back Sam Mathews C’06, defensive end Ric San Doval W’06, and center Doug Middleton W’06.
When not training, players and coaches found time to be tourists. “We visited the Imperial Palace,” said Bagnoli, “saw a number of temples, the Tokyo Museum, and even took in a sumo wrestling match. We also had dinner together with our hosts every night. They were very gracious and I enjoyed the food—especially the Kobe beef.”
True to KCFA’s mission, the trip was a fruitful cross-cultural exchange. “The Japanese college players loved being instructed by American coaches in the American way,” noted Akimoto, “and being teammates with the Ivy League players, who represent the ideal of the scholar-athlete.”
“Everyone was wonderful and very positive,” said Bagnoli. “We were very grateful to be there, and our hosts were very grateful to have us. It was a tremendous experience.”
—David Perrelli C’01