Fordham recalling prominent past

BRONX, N.Y. -- A two-hour Tuesday afternoon practice had just concluded, but Joe Moorhead was still barking at his Fordham Rams.

After the team's final huddle, a few of his players were leisurely walking toward the locker room.

"If you're staying on the field, do something!" Moorhead bellowed. "If not, run off!"

Every moment is precious to Moorhead. Players sprinted from drill to drill. The coach spoke to them about having a sense of urgency. Perhaps it's no wonder he needed such little time to turn Fordham football around.

The Rams, 1-10 two years ago before Moorhead took over, are now 7-0 -- their best start since 1930.

"I feel like I need to pinch myself," said senior running back Carlton Koonce.

New York isn't a college football town -- at least not anymore. But prior to World War II, Fordham boasted one of the top collegiate football programs in the country, and played in front of huge crowds at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. The team finished the 1937 season No. 3 in the nation, and played in the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl following the 1940 and '41 seasons, respectively.

The program, however, is best remembered for the "Seven Blocks of Granite," the nickname given to two sets of dominant Fordham linemen -- the 1929-30 group, and the 1936-37 group, which included legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi.

At the end of the 1942 season, Fordham suspended all intercollegiate sports for the duration of World War II (1943-45), and the football program never recovered. The university discontinued football entirely in 1954. It was reinstated at the club level a decade later. The Rams began competing at the Division III level in 1970, and made the jump to Division I-AA, now known as the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), in 1988.

The Rams have won the Patriot League and qualified for the I-AA playoffs twice, in 2002 and 2007, but failed to get past the quarterfinals. And then they hit rock-bottom, winning just one game in 2011.

Enter Moorhead, who attended Fordham and played quarterback for the Rams in the mid-1990s, setting school records at the time. He was hired after spending the previous three years as the offensive coordinator and QBs coach at the University of Connecticut.

The program was in dire straits, but that didn't deter him.

"You've got one of the top academic schools in the country, situated in the heart of New York City -- the cultural and business epicenter of the Western Hemisphere," Moorhead said. "As a player, my teammates and I would always talk about the potential of this place, and I'm just glad to have an opportunity to help the school realize it."

Koonce said he'll never forget the first team meeting after Moorhead took the job.

"He comes in and gives a whole spiel, and he goes, 'We're gonna be blue-collar' -- all that good stuff, all the mushy stuff," Koonce said. "And then he goes, 'We walk around campus [with] no earrings in, hats off inside, we're gonna show respect to everybody around us; treat women as somebody's sister or daughter or mother,' all that stuff. I was like, 'Aw man, this guy is serious!'"

"It's good though," Koonce added. "I feel like we needed that. Needed to set that foundation, that discipline on the team. With him it was all about the little things, and I think that with the little things, it definitely goes a long way."

"We talked about building a foundation last year and having accountability, attention to detail and effort be kind of the trademarks or the foundation, the pillars of success for us," Moorhead said. "And I think the kids have bought into that."

Koonce has played a big role in the team's resurgence. A preseason All-American, he rushed for 1,596 yards last season as a junior, setting a new school record, and is averaging 111 yards per game on the ground this year.

It also helped that Moorhead lured a couple talented players away from UConn, quarterback Michael Nebrich and wide receiver Tebucky Jones. Nebrich went 35-for-45 for 405 yards in a win over Georgetown last week (and tied an FCS record by completing 20 passes in a row to start the game). Jones, the son of former NFL safety Tebucky Jones Sr., hauled in 12 of those throws for 182 yards.

Neither Nebrich nor Jones got much of a chance to play at Connecticut. And both said Moorhead was the primary reason they transferred to Fordham.

"He's just an unbelievable guy," Nebrich said. "He really just gets you motivated to play every single day. He lets the guys have fun -- and that's, I think, the biggest part of college football, is letting the team have fun. Obviously he has his moments when he needs to tighten down, but I think he's just the perfect coach in knowing when to have fun, knowing when to be serious and stuff like that. And I think the guys really appreciate it and respond to it."

Last season Fordham improved to 6-5, the second-best turnaround in the Football Championship Subdivision. This year the Rams are one of five remaining unbeaten FCS teams, are ranked No. 8 in the country, and have defeated two Top 10 opponents (Villanova and Lehigh).

But the Rams' biggest victory was a 30-29 upset of Football Bowl Subdivision member Temple at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Sept. 14. Nebrich found freshman wideout Sam Ajala in the end zone with just four seconds left in the game, giving Fordham its first win over a Division I-A opponent since 1954.

"I think that win really just kind of solidified everybody's confidence in how good of a team we are," Nebrich said.

Next up is a game at Yale on Saturday. The Rams have four more after that, and then hope to receive one of 13 at-large bids to the 24-team FCS tournament. (They won't be eligible for the Patriot League's automatic bid until next season, since they began offering football scholarships two years prior to the rest of the league.)

Nebrich and Jones are both juniors, so the team should compete at a high level next season, too. But Moorhead believes Fordham can be successful far beyond that.

"We want to be a perennial Patriot League championship team that qualifies for the playoffs and consistently makes a run for the national championship," Moorhead said. "And I think we have the ability to do that."

As for the players, they are well aware of Fordham's storied football history. How could they not be, with a monument to the Seven Blocks of Granite outside their football stadium, and a sealed locker honoring Lombardi in their locker room.

But these Rams are more concerned with making their own history.

"It's great that people think back to the past and how good we were then," Nebrich said. "But when this year's all said and done with we want people to remember this team, as the 2013 Rams, and how we put the team back on the map."