Mike Kai and David Aulicino were seniors at Yale in 2004 when they, along with 20 friends dressed as the fictional “Harvard Pep Squad,” boldly entered Harvard’s football stadium and convinced close to 2,000 unsuspecting Crimson fans to help spell out two words — “WE SUCK.”
The prank — brilliant in its simplicity — actually took more than a year of planning to properly execute. For the 10th anniversary of the “WE SUCK” gag, Business Insider spoke with Kai and Aulicino, who explained just how they were able to pull off one of the greatest college pranks of all time.
A Partnership Is Born
Kai and Aulicino first met during their freshman year at Yale, when they were randomly placed into the same residential college, Pierson. According to Kai, the two bonded by “concocting random plans together” — among their earliest endeavours were building a hot tub using an inflatable pool and garden hoses, and a foam machine made with parts from Home Depot.
By their junior year, the duo had moved on to bigger projects. While throwing around some prank ideas for the annual Harvard Crimson-Yale Bulldogs football game — a massive event for both universities known simply as “The Game” — one of their friends suggested getting Harvard fans to unknowingly spell out an embarrassing message.
“It was one of those things where you’re sitting around with some buddies drinking beer and one guy says ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if….’ I woke up the next day and couldn’t shake the idea. It haunted me. At first, it was a matter of getting the ball rolling, building the team, coming up with the strategy. But later, once we invested so much time and money into it, there was no turning back,” Kai wrote in a Reddit AMA two years ago.
So, with the help of some friends, then-Yale juniors Kai and Aulicino attempted to pull off a large scale prank that would truly surprise their Ivy League rivals. As luck would have it, The Game — which switches between New Haven and Cambridge every year — was at the Yale Bowl in 2003, giving them a literal home field advantage.
The First Attempt
The Yale crew’s original plan was to enter the stadium before The Game started, and leave red and white construction paper underneath the seats of Harvard fans. The paper was to be laid out specifically so that when raised, the completed design would spell out “WE SUCK.”
However, Kai, Aulicino, and the other Yale students had to call off their prank before it even began. Someone had called in a bomb threat before The Game started, and Yale police evacuated the stadium, searching everyone who was inside.
“Once the bomb threat came in, they wanted to search everyone in the stadium, and there were very few people there. They saw us with all of the construction paper,” Aulicino said. Caught in the act, and without a believable explanation for what they were doing, the would-be Yale pranksters had to abandon their plan.
However, what seemed like a missed opportunity at the time may have been a blessing in disguise. When setting up the prank at the Yale Bowl, it became clear that their plan of taping the paper to the seats before the game wouldn’t work.
“If it weren’t for the bomb scare, I actually think the other big risk factor was that we put it underneath the chairs, and from the other side you could sort of read it,” Kai said.
The Yale students were undeterred, and if anything, now wanted more than ever to pull off an awesome prank. For months after the failed 2003 attempt, Kai drove around with stacks of red and white construction paper in his trunk, unable to give up on their idea. Once senior year started, Kai and Aulicino recommitted to their efforts toward succesfully establishing their superiority over Harvard.
Meet The “Harvard Pep Squad”
The second time around, the pair didn’t take any chances. They came up with a new plan to prank their rivals during the annual football game, and even better, they got Harvard fans to unknowingly help set up their prank.
“Rather than tape the papers to the seats, they created a system to have the Harvard crowd pass out the 1,800 cards themselves. The ‘Harvard Pep Squad’ went to each row and handed out a pre-ordered stack of the red and white papers,” The Yale Daily News reported in 2004.
In order to ensure their new plan went off smoothly, the Yale students needed to get to know the layout of Harvard Stadium, where The Game was held in 2004. On October 9, more than a month before The Game, Kai and Aulicino drove up to Cambridge to check out the Harvard-Cornell football game. There, Kai took detailed photographs of the stadium, and counted the rows in each section.
Back in New Haven, Kai and Aulicino were able to develop fairly sophisticated schematics of the Harvard Stadium layout, down to the number of bleachers. Because they knew the Harvard-Yale game would be packed, Kai said, they had to “guestimate” how many people would be able to fit in each row and section.
“The challenge was that the ‘seats’ are laid out as one giant cement bench so there could be more or less than the seat numbers specified … With the estimation, we created a grid that let us ‘draw’ in red each pixel and the way ‘WE SUCK’ would be laid out,” Kai wrote on Reddit.
A good map wouldn’t be enough, though. Kai and Aulicino also realised they needed a cover story to explain what they were doing in the Harvard side of the stadium.
“We didn’t really have a story sussed out [in 2003], so when we did it again the next year, we really looked at what failed the first time around. And one of those gaps was that we needed a really good story,” Kai said.
The solution was the “Harvard Pep Squad,” an invented student group that would offer a believable reason for interacting with the Crimson crowd and passing out their red and white paper.
In order to fully sell the group to the Harvard fans, the Yale students went all out on their disguises — designing their own “Harvard Pep Squad” t-shirts, donning red and white face paint, and even manufacturing fake Harvard student IDs complete with pseudonyms, in case anyone questioned them.
According to Kai, the Yale students were able to make the fake IDs using a Harvard student ID card that belonged to a friend’s ex-girlfriend.
Unfortunately, many of their original collaborators from the year before were discouraged by the original plan’s untimely demise. According to Kai, a new group of Yale students was recruited for the prank at Harvard Stadium. “Most of the people who helped us our junior year didn’t want to help senior year, after seeing the failure,” Kai told Business Insider. “So it became a mix of close friends and freshmen, who hadn’t seen the failed plan.”
The new recruits helped fill out a range of positions. “We needed 20 people just to hand out the heavy construction paper, plus we needed people to rile up the crowd and get them excited,” Aulicino said.
Armed with their “Harvard Pep Squad” outfits — and some practiced cheers — 2004’s prank was set to be much more smooth than the year before.
Even with all the prep work, Kai described himself on Reddit as “incredibly nervous” the night before The Game. “Dave and I planned every detail we could imagine and went through every possible scenario. It was like preparing for battle, really. Stacking all those papers the night before, double-checking everything, coordinating meetup points,” he wrote.
As seniors, this would be their last chance to pull off a prank of this magnitude on one of the most anticipated days for students at both schools. By the next morning though, they were ready.
In The Stadium
“A friend in the Yale Band got a handful of us access before the game started. We carried about 100lbs worth of paper in black trash bags to a corner of the Harvard side of the stadium,” Kai wrote on Reddit.
Once they had set up, the Harvard Pep Squad made their presence known, pumping up the Crimson fans with cheers and distributing a few extra t-shirts throughout the stands. With the crowd on their side, the Yale students began to hand out their red and white paper during the second quarter.
“It was incredibly terrifying to pass out the cards and hope for the best, since we had to rely on the fans to do it for us,” Kai wrote on Reddit. He explained how the Harvard Pep Squad was able to distribute their paper throughout the crowd and eventually get the Crimson fans to participate in their prank:
Since each row was very long, we made “sub-stacks” to split each row 3x and so that the Pep Squad members could deliver accordingly. That’s why we needed so many people, 26 in all I believe. 1800 large pieces of construction paper was about 150-175lbs. It was about a 4ft high stack …
We created approx 48 stacks of paper and stapled instructions on each piece that said clearly “TAKE THE TOP ONE, PASS REST ON” Then each stack was handed by a Pep Squad member to the person at the beginning of each row. Since we did our recon beforehand and knew (generally) how many people could sit in each row, we hoped for the best as the cards streamed across the stadium. Because the cards were so big and unwieldy, we didn’t wait long to give the instructions. One of the coolest things was that just a handful of remaining Pep Squad members “lit the fuse” so to speak — once a few fans held up signs, everyone else did the same.
“We knew we had to get people’s attention, because it was our crew who would give the signal,” Kai said.
The only potential problem with the plan occurred when a Harvard student began to question one of the Pep Squad members, asking what residential house they were in.
After some hesitation, the Yale student answered “ho-fo” — which is not a Harvard house. She then recovered slightly, volunteering “fo-ho,” a nickname for Harvard’s Pforzheimer House.
The other Pep Squad members were quick to cover up her mistake, telling the Harvard student that their forgetful friend was “probably drunk.”
“There was one person, a student, who got very suspicious. One of the people in our pep squad maybe had a little too much to drink and messed up the name of the house. I had to play it off like, ‘I can’t believe you’re questioning us, we’re Harvard students, this is so offensive of you,'” Aulicino said.
The real Harvard student left the Pep Squad alone after Aulicino produced one of the fake Harvard IDs.
“This Really Worked!”
Aside from the brief round of questioning, the Harvard Pep Squad seemed to be fully accepted into the Crimson fanbase.
“It was almost sad. There were all these grandfather and grandmother types — and they all had big smiles, saying, ‘Oh you’re so cute, I’m so glad you’re doing this.’ I felt bad for about two minutes. Then I got over it,” one Yale student/Harvard Pep Band member told The Yale Daily News.
Even the Harvard Stadium security let the students move around the crowd freely. As Kai wrote on Reddit, “Security and staff surprisingly didn’t seem to care. We made sure to scream and yell a ton to be hidden in plain sight.”
Because Kai, Aulicino, and the rest of the Harvard Pep Squad were basically in the eye of the storm, they had no way of knowing if their prank was successful.
“It was super anti-climatic! After the first time the signs went up, we all just stared at each other. No one on the Harvard side knew what the signs really said since you were so close to the action,” Kai wrote on Reddit. A “hysterical” friend on the other side of the stadium quickly called him, though, saying, “This actually worked! And you need to do it again because people didn’t realise what just happened.”
The Harvard Pep Squad had the fans hold up the sign several more times — on the third time, right before the end of the first half, the game stopped on the field as the players on both sides noticed the message in the stands, as well as a chant coming from the Yale section.
“For me, one of the biggest signs that I knew we had actually pulled it off was all of the sudden we heard this loud uniform sound from the other side of the stadium — ‘You suck, you suck, you suck,'” Aulicino said.
And that was it. They had pulled it off and, for the time, no one at Harvard knew what had happened.
The Big Reveal
The Game took place right around Yale’s Thanksgiving break, “so we definitely celebrated that day … we had video footage that we just kept replaying,” Kai said.
As part of the preparation for the prank, the Yale students had filmed their entire process — from organising the construction paper to their eventual success in the Harvard Stadium stands. “I was really into film, so I had access to all the equipment and had plotted it all out in my head,” Kai said. “I knew we needed some shots of us putting it together, because of how absurd it was with the shirts and the paper and everything.”
10 years ago, there was no such thing as YouTube or iPhones. If the Yale students wanted people to know about what they did, they had to publish and distribute the video on their own. Right after The Game, Kai and Aulicino created the website “HarvardSucks.org” — hosted on Yale’s servers — where their video quickly went viral.
According to Kai, on the first day they hit 100,000 views and by the second day 1.2 million. The immense popularity of their prank forced the Yale servers to crash, shutting down the campus-wide email system for a few hours.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Yale administration reached out to the prank masterminds, wanting to meet. However, the dean thought the prank was “hilarious,” Kai wrote on Reddit, and was more concerned with what was happening with the school’s servers.
In order to cover the cost of the pranks — Kai estimates that he spent about $US750 total for the construction paper and custom shirts — they began to sell posters of the “WE SUCK” sign for $US10. Originally hoping just to break even, the poster sales covered their expenses within the first hour.
“Within an hour we made the money back, and after that we donated the extra to relief efforts for the big Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami. Something like $US10 grand when it was all over with! We also threw a big raging party of course,” Kai wrote on Reddit.
Riding high, Kai and Aulicino even upped the stakes of their prank, making up a now-infamous story that Harvard marching band members got them into the stadium before The Game and had helped plan the prank.
“Man, we were brazen,” Kai wrote on Reddit. “After the prank made the news, a Harvard publication wanted to do an interview. So to toss salt in the wound we trolled them with a story about how their own marching band wanted to help out.”
One of the strengths of the prank — and likely the reason the fake Harvard Pep Squad members got away with it without punishment — is that it was relatively tame and not particularly malicious. “The prank was on the edge, but it was all good natured. It didn’t result in any property damage or anyone getting hurt,” Kai said.
Even Harvard’s director of athletic communications said the prank was “all in good fun.”
However, the message was almost a little more crude than just “WE SUCK,” Kai said. “We had some really vulgar ideas, and I’m so glad we had other people involved, who sat us down and said, that’s not going to make people happy.”
On Reddit, Kai revealed another slogan the Yale team considered, which thankfully didn’t make the final product — “I <3 C–k.”
Where Are They Now?
A decade has passed since Mike Kai and David Aulicino snuck more than 20 Yale students into Harvard Stadium and successfully pulled off one of the greatest college pranks ever.
After graduating Yale in 2005, the two friends went their separate ways, ending up on opposite ends of the country in very different fields.
According to his Reddit AMA, Kai actually got his first job after graduation partially from the popularity of the prank, when a Georgetown law professor he met with after the video went viral put him in touch with the founder of Rhapsody, a streaming music company based in Seattle, where he became a project manager.
He is now an “Internet entrepreneur.” “I previously founded a digital product consultancy that did work for clients like AT&T, Pioneer, and early-stage startups,” Kai said. “I left a few months ago to focus on relaunching a company that offers a DIY website builder application for freelancers and small businesses.”
Aulicino recieved a maths Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, graduating two years ago, and is currently a postdoc at the University of Chicago. According to the UChicago website, he works with “Teichmüller theory and dynamical systems.”
He says he still can’t believe they pulled it off.
“I think for me, the farther we get from it, the less I believe it actually happened,” Aulicino said. “It was such a confluence of so many things coming together, the timing, everything being right.”
Kai agreed — “I can’t believe we had the guts to do it. I can’t believe that with a straight face I convinced people that this would actually happen.”
Watch the original video of Mike Kai and David Aulicino’s “WE SUCK” prank below:
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