Last Saturday was unlike maybe any day Holy Cross football had experienced before.
Nearly 20,000 fans — the most at the campus's Fitton Field since 1990 — packed into horseshoe-shaped stadium on Oct. 29 to watch the undefeated, No. 8-ranked Holy Cross Crusaders take on the No. 15-ranked Fordham Rams.
And while fans expected some fireworks between the two powder keg offenses, few could have predicted how the game would end. Trailing 52-51 after an overtime touchdown, Holy Cross rolled the dice for a two-point conversion to take the whole enchilada.
Here's what happened:
The stadium convulsed with the awestruck cheers of purple-clad fans as senior receiver Ayir Asante ran in on a score that had hints of the Philly Special in Super Bowl LII. Players said afterward they had never played in a home game with that kind of atmosphere.
But it's increasingly clear that Holy Cross' fortunes have turned. The team is simply the most exciting in Massachusetts and one of the best in the national Football Championship Subdivision1 — and that transformation started long before any highlight reel play.
Things had been pretty ho-hum for the Crusaders for a while pre-2018. The program had reached some dominant highs in the '80s and early '90s, but had never won an FCS playoff game and last appeared in the postseason in 2009. (In fairness, the Patriot League only approved athletic scholarships for football in 2012.)
That’s where Bob Chesney comes in. He has climbed the NCAA football head coaching ladder, starting at Division III Salve Regina down in Rhode Island, followed by Division II Assumption University. On the way, he flipped programs with a recent history of losing into teams with winning records.
He saw Worcester's community pride in Holy Cross and a college with the sort of facilities of larger schools and the academic reputation that rivals the Ivy League.
“When you start to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, you think why not here?” he said during an interview in his campus office decorated with family photos and football helmets. “Why can’t this be a place that gets on that national stage?”
"When you start to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, you think why not here? Why can't this be a place that gets on that national stage?"Holy Cross head coach Bob Chesney
His pitch to recruits has been simple: at Holy Cross, you can have it all.
It’s the type of investment that’s required to win at a high level and compete with Ivy League schools, Patriot League foes and FBS programs for recruits. Athletic director Kit Hughes, noting the adage that recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, repeated Chesney’s line about having it all.
“So we want great students, great athletes, great people who are gonna go out and have a positive impact on the world, but we also want to have the best possible facilities," he said. "So it’s constantly having this we’re not gonna settle type mentality, looking for ways to improve and get better in all areas of our program.”
Holy Cross' faith that it could have it all worked. After a 5-6 first voyage with the Crusaders in 2018, Chesney led Holy Cross to three-straight Patriot League titles and the team’s first-ever FCS playoff win last season.
Of course, you still need to actually get the players to make any of this success happen. Players likejunior quarterback Matthew Sluka, who passed for 291 yards and 4 touchdowns, along with rushing for 174 yards and a touchdown against Fordham.
It helps that Chesney’s charisma could sell water to a whale. Fifth-year senior linebacker and team captain Liam Anderson said his coach "just had a certain energy about him" when he was being recruited.
All of those factors helped the team finally turn the corner to postseason success last season. Anderson said last year’s postseason win against Sacred Heart boosted the team's confidence.
“It kind of gave us a new vision or a new sort of sense," he said. "We’re like, ‘We can raise this program to not just winning the Patriot League, but also to elevating our status nationally.'"
Now, fifth-year senior free safety and team captain Walter Reynolds said it feels like all of the pieces are coming together.
“Everybody’s contributing, every single person,” he said. “Whether you’re on defense, offense, special teams, whether you’re that person whose job is to be on the sideline or whether you’re the trainer — all the way, it’s a full team effort. And I feel like that’s something ... in me and Liam’s time here [that] we haven’t really experienced.”
Chesney said that the team is working just as hard as it was five years ago, but the difference is they are more talented and experienced this time around. And success begets success, helping attract players who may have passed on Holy Cross in the past.
"When you look at the top six teams2 in the country, which we're now one of them, none are like us," Chesney said. "South Dakota State, South Dakota. North Dakota State, North Dakota. Montana, Montana State. Those are the guys that are up there. They are so different than what we are. And to do it this way is a lot harder than to do it, you know, that way. So I really think the amount of commitment and hard work and what these young men put in to reaching and obtaining these goals ... to this point where we sit today, that did not happen overnight."
College football, when it’s done right, has the sort of magical magnetism that can ignite a campus in a way almost nothing else can.
But Chesney said the most important thing on the team’s mind right now is practice, not the future of the program or the end of the season.
“There’s no use talking about the other stuff because if we don’t take care about Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Saturday and whatever you might want to talk about, may never ever happen,” Chesney said.
But that unspoken thing? The expectation to win a national championship.
1Division I college football is broken down into two subdivisions: The Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS, formerly known as Divsion I-A, includes schools from big time conferences like the ACC, which is what Boston College plays in. The FBS has a four-team College Football Playoff to determine its national champion.
The Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, formerly known as Division I-AA, includes 130 less well-known programs like South Dakota State and Holy Cross. The FCS has a 24-team playoff to determine a national champion.