PHILADELPHIA – Penn Athletics, and especially the Penn Football Family, was saddened to learn of the passing of former head football Coach and Penn Athletics Hall of Famer Jerry Berndt over the weekend. He was 84.
“It was sad to get the call about Coach Berndt’s passing this weekend,” said Penn’s current George A. Munger Head Coach of Football, Ray Priore. “The Championship expectations that permeate our program, year in and year out, were quite literally built by Coach Berndt. More importantly, though he was here for only a short time, the impact he had on the men he coached continues to resonate with them all these years later. Although he is gone, Jerry is and will remain a towering figure, both within our program and especially in the lives of the players he coached here.”
Berndt, who was Penn’s head coach from 1981-85, single-handedly turned around Penn’s football fortunes during his tenure. The Quakers—who hadn’t won an Ivy League title in more than 20 years when Berndt arrived—won just three games combined in the three seasons before his arrival, then went 1-9 in his first season at the helm.
The 1982 team showed that things might be different right from the first game, however, going to Hanover and shutting out a Dartmouth team that had tied for the Ivy title the year before, 21-0. Five weeks later, Penn asserted itself as a Championship contender with a 27-14 win over Yale, the Ivy’s other Defending co-champion, before a brief slip-up at Princeton a week later in a 17-14 loss to the Tigers.
That set the stage for November 13, 1982. Penn vs. Harvard at Franklin Field in what was a de facto Ivy League Championship game, the teams tied atop the standings with 4-1 records. Penn dominated the first three quarters and led early in the fourth, 20-0, only for the Crimson to score three touchdowns in less than seven minutes to go in front, 21-20. Given one last chance to win, Penn got the ball with 1:24 left on the clock and drove from its own 20 to the Harvard 21, setting up Dave Shulman for a potential game-winning field goal to end the game.
You know what happened next. Shulman’s 38-yard effort was wide left. However, Harvard was called for roughing the kicker. Given a second chance—and needing 10 fewer yards—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 since 1959.
Berndt led Penn to a share of the Ivy Championship the next year, as well, and in 1984 his Quakers 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 program’s best 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 40 years after Coach Berndt’s departure, Penn 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 recognitions.
Berndt was inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame on May 3, 2014 as a member of Class IX.