Oct. 1, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) -Harvard gave football the forward pass, the scoreboard, the uniform and the concrete stadium.

Sometimes, though, the school can be a little slow in getting around to things.

The nation's oldest university, which has been handing out homework since 1636 and handing off footballs since 1874, will host its first homecoming this fall, a potential new tradition designed to attract alumni to campus in years that The Game is played at Yale.

"I think fan support would increase from those who might otherwise have chosen to do one of the many things Cambridge (and) Boston have to offer on a fall Saturday," Harvard sports information director Kurt Svoboda said.

Most schools, especially those in the nation's mascot and marching band midsection, long ago discovered homecoming as an opportunity for alumni to catch up with their old drinking buddies, update their sweatshirt collection and perhaps drop off a few bucks at the development office on their way back out of town.

But neither Harvard nor Yale has ever felt the need for such an occasion, in part because The Game has served the purpose so well since 1875. (Princeton is the only other Ivy League school without a homecoming.) No trumped-up rivalry with a cupcake from Division III - after all, Columbia can only play so many road games - could compete with the nation's longest-lasting rivalry.

"Harvard and Yale have unique situations when it comes to 'Homecoming' atmospheres that other schools may not," Svoboda said. "Even when 'The Game' is at Yale, there is a strong showing from Harvard students, alumni and fans. It has always been a 'Homecoming' of sorts - just on the road."

But with the home-and-home Yale series in New Haven, Conn., this year, the defending Ivy League champions decided to tab the Oct. 24 game against Princeton, the next biggest rival on their schedule, as homecoming. The event, which has been planned by the alumni association, is starting out so low-key that neither sports information nor the school's general media relations office knew about it.

"It's to offer something between reunions that people might find appealing," said Jack Reardon, the former Harvard athletic director who is now the head of the alumni association. "It will be more apt to be a year when the Yale game isn't in Cambridge. I can tell you better after we do it how people will feel about it. Hopefully the informality of it will be appealing."

At Yale, like Harvard, the weekend of The Game goes beyond football and serves as an opportunity for alumni to visit classes or attend concerts and for athletes in other sports to compete against their biggest rival. The night before this year's football game, Yale will have its black-tie "Blue Leadership Ball" to hand out the George H.W. Bush '48 Lifetime of Leadership Awards.

"Homecoming is a school thing. And football's usually part of that weekend," said Steve Conn, a spokesman in the Yale athletic department. "Everything goes on around it: singing clubs, intramural sports. I don't even know all the things that go on when it's Yale-Harvard weekend."

And, if all goes well, Harvard will have something for the years when there's no Yale game in Cambridge.

In addition to the football game, Harvard will play Princeton in men's and women's soccer and field hockey. Alumni spending $20 to register for homecoming will also get free admission to the art museums and libraries - with all the Samuel Johnson you could want! - along with campus tours, a public service lecture, a glee club concert and a movie screening in Harvard Yard.

There will also be more traditional homecoming fare, like a barbecue and tailgate party. Reardon said the event is designed to be low-cost and low-maintenance, and not designed to replenish Harvard's record-setting endowment after it plunged more than $10 billion in the last fiscal year.

(The company managing Harvard's money said the decline was in line with other major universities and that, even after the decline, Harvard's endowment remains significantly larger than any other school.)

"This business is trying to get people interested, and you don't know what might result from that," he said. "It might also get some people interested in interviewing kids for Harvard College. But to see this as a fundraising mechanism - no. We're in the alumni affairs business. I guess some would say it's friend-raising rather than fundraising. And you hope from that people might get interested."