by Allison Miller
When you win just five games over your three-year high school career, you learn to never take a victory for granted. Even after all the hard work in the offseason, the long practices, and the motivational halftime speeches, sometimes you just don't know how to do the little things to win. So when then-junior Matt Koran was named the 142nd Harvard football captain, he knew exactly what he was promising when he said the goal was another Ivy League championship season.
"I appreciate wins a lot more after coming from a program where winning wasn't a standard," said Koran. "We won two games a year and we would be so ecstatic for those two wins. Now, I really appreciate every win that we have. Especially (against Dartmouth), I knew what it felt like to lose and I fought to stop it from happening. A lot of the guys on the team come from winning programs, so they don't really know what it feels like to lose and be on a losing program. I really appreciate it even more on a larger scale."
As a two-year captain in high school – which he is quick to say carries nowhere near the responsibility as being the Harvard captain – what Koran focused most on was changing the team's mind set from 'we know we're going to lose' to 'we have a chance to win.' The process was slow, but in his final two years, the team accumulated four wins, three more than his first two seasons.
Once he stepped onto the Harvard campus, he realized the atmosphere was markedly different, yet familiar. The student-athletes on the team were people he could relate to and the winning culture was something he wanted to be a part of.
"On my official visit, when I met the players and the coaches and realized that they are all blue-collar, hardworking individuals just like me, it really clicked," recalled Koran. "I loved the campus. I loved the people. I loved the coaches and the teachers that I met. I had a really tremendous experience."
Koran faced a long, uphill battle to become a starter, as the playbook might as well have been written in Latin when he looked at it as a freshman. The Joliet, Illinois native began to study the plays religiously, even taping the schemes up on his bedroom wall to ensure he saw them daily.
Despite his hard work, in the spring of his sophomore year, Koran found himself third on the depth chart for two spots at inside linebacker. He was disappointed and called his dad, Dee, for advice. Dads are always great for a word of wisdom, but Dee was uniquely qualified as he coached his son in wrestling and was at every football practice and game throughout his high school career.
"I called my dad and told him the news and he told me to not accept the outcome and to get motivated by it," said Koran. "I took those words to heart and did everything in my ability to move up on the depth chart."
Move up he did, starting eight of 10 games during his junior year and helping the Crimson to a 10-0 Ivy League championship season. But there was one moment during the year that may have been more special than the rest.
"When I was elected captain, that was the most incredible honor I've ever been bestowed," said Koran. "For my teammates to have that much faith and confidence in me is such an incredible feeling."
After the initial shock and excitement subsided, Koran felt the pressure set in. He asked himself, "How do you lead a team of alpha males and high school captains?" Tim Murphy, The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football, gave his new captain the same advice he had given each previous captain: be yourself, the men on the team picked you for a reason.
"That was the best advice that I could have gotten," recalled Koran. "When I first got elected, I didn't know how to rise up and be that guy. Hearing from Coach Murphy that I was elected for that reason and to just try and excel at who you are is the way that I've approached it.
"I think the biggest focus for our team is to be hungry and extremely motivated every practice," continued Koran. "I sent out a letter at the beginning of the year to the team. It's a model that I live by, and it said, 'anything in life worth doing is worth overdoing. Moderation is for cowards.' It's a Navy SEAL quote, but that's the way that I want to be remembered as a captain. I gave it everything I had, put my heart on the line every single play, every single practice, every single lift and I tried to get the same out of the rest of my teammates."
With one more win, the way he could be remembered is as the captain of a team that won the Ivy League championship for the third-straight year – the first for the Harvard program. The accomplishment is something not lost on Koran.
"Becoming the first team in Harvard history to three-peat would be something truly special and would say a lot about our senior group," said Koran. "Many teams (that have been picked first in the preseason Ivy League poll) haven't won and I think that has a lot to do with teams not being able to live up to the pressure. I don't think we ever had that. We were always hungry and always have a chip on our shoulder."