MEDFORD — When he took over the Tufts football team on an interim basis Jan. 4, 2011, stepping up after Bill Samko stepped aside following a 1-7 season, Jay Civetti never fathomed the painstaking process that would ensue in his attempt to win his first game.
As the losses have mounted, now at 27 consecutive games, Civetti has never lost sight of his primary mission: molding his players into great men.
But he has clung to the hope his hard-working players and coaching staff would one day be rewarded. It’s something Civetti has often thought about.
“That’s pretty much my drive home every night,’’ said the 34-year-old Wellesley native, whose Jumbos dropped to 0-4 on the season after suffering a 43-7 loss last Saturday to Trinity, the school where Civetti was an All-NESCAC offensive lineman.
“I make a couple of recruiting calls on a 35-40 minute drive home every night . . . and I spend the last part of the trip thinking about that next step,’’ said Civetti.
And that next step would be winning a football game, which would be Tufts’s first since beating Hamilton, 21-10, in the 2010 season opener. After a couple of close calls this season, many believe the Jumbos could end their misery when they travel Saturday to Williams, which is off to its worst start since 1947, in a matchup of 0-4 teams.
“We’ve obviously been close in the last couple of games, now we’ve got to start talking about, ‘Well, how do you handle a victory?’ ’’ said Civetti. “I always think about that saying, ‘You got to act like you’ve been there before.’ ’’
Problem is, there are only a handful of seniors who have actually been there before.
The 53 underclassmen, who bought into Civetti’s vision when the program was in the midst of back-to-back 0-8 seasons, have never experienced what seniors Connor Glazier and Sean Harrington got to experience when they were freshmen: a victory.
“I remember it well,’’ said Harrington, who smiled at the memory. “We won that first one . . . and we haven’t won one since. But we haven’t stopped trying or working hard.’’
After absorbing a 52-9 smackdown in the season opener at Wesleyan Sept. 21, Tufts appeared on the verge of winning in its next two games. But the Jumbos suffered a 20-16 setback at Bates, which set the NESCAC record by losing 37 games in a row from 1991-95, and Tufts followed up with another heartbreaking effort in a 13-10 loss to Bowdoin at Ellis Oval/Zimman Field Oct. 5.
Against Trinity, the Jumbos took a 7-0 lead before the Bantams scored 43 unanswered points.
“I don’t think the motivation has ever been to break ‘The Streak,’ ’’ Civetti said. “It’s never been my thought process. Our motivation should be so that we win the game.’’
Although success on the field has eluded the Jumbos, Civetti has accentuated the strengths of his team in the classroom and in the community, adapting the same “Champions in the Classroom, Champions in the Community, Champions on the Field,’’ mantra as his former mentor, Tom O’Brien, whom he worked with at Boston College and North Carolina State.
Civetti proudly pointed to the success his players have had in the classroom, noting 24 made the Dean’s List last semester.
“In terms of doing things in the community, we’ve got a great group of guys,’’ Civetti said, citing how the team rallied around sophomore defensive lineman Corey Burns, holding a charitable event in honor of Burns’s father, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“Mr. Burns gave the pregame talk [against Bowdoin],’’ Civetti said. “I brought him in on the sidelines and he was like a coach on game day. It’s just another example of the other areas where we do a great job.’’
The Jumbos, however, were unable to close the deal.
Still, Civetti’s commitment to building the program the right way has earned him the unwavering support of his athletic director, Bill Gehling, who removed the interim tag from Civetti’s title Oct. 28, 2011.
“It wasn’t a hard decision for me,’’ Gehling said. “Obviously, it wasn’t popular with everybody on the outside. But I wanted somebody I could stand side by side with and work with, somebody who I believed in, and Jay was that guy and I still feel that way about him.’’
As the losses have mounted, Civetti acknowledged the pain of seeing his players go unrewarded has gnawed at him.
“Every day, there isn’t a minute of the day that I don’t want that for them — or my staff, or the alums, or my AD,’’ Civetti said. “There’s a lot of people who have invested themselves in this program. I’m kind of at the bottom of the list, in my opinion, because it’s my job.
“Obviously, I’m passionate about it and I care very much about it, but there are a lot of people that are in line ahead of me who every day I’m motivated for.’’