Siedlecki stays focused on the present

Sundays through Wednesdays during the football season, Yale’s head coach does not join his wife and kids for dinner. Instead, this man who has received sideline warnings for being so wrapped up in the games that he comes out onto the field often remains in his office for up to 14 hours a day. There is really only one word to describe head coach Jack Siedlecki: intense.

When Siedlecki says, “Football has been my whole life,” you know he is not exaggerating.

With the Princeton Tigers looming this weekend, Siedlecki is in the process of wrapping up his eighth season as the Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Football at Yale. After growing up with football in his blood, playing on the gridiron and coaching since the late ’70s, Siedlecki arrived at Yale in 1997 to take over after the legendary Carm Cozza retired.

Since then, Siedlecki has emerged with his Elis victorious more often than not. In seven seasons, Siedlecki has racked up a 38-31 record, including five top-three Ivy League finishes, which seems to echo his 4-3 record against the Tigers. Both his history with the Tigers and his overall record feature some lofty highs and some heartbreaking lows.

As the Yale football team heads into rivalry season, beginning with the contest versus Princeton, the head coach of the Bulldogs knows that the last two games of the 2004 season may determine how this season — and his career — is perceived. If his team beats the Tigers this weekend, Siedlecki will have shown that he has what it takes to keep the Bulldogs on top of the pile. If he loses, though, he risks passing into the shadow of mediocrity.



Before the blue and white

When Siedlecki first arrived at Yale in 1997, he came with the understanding that he would have big shoes to fill.

The year before, Carm Cozza, who had won 10 Ivy League titles with the Elis, announced he was retiring after 32 years as head coach. At that point, Athletic Director Tom Beckett began the search for Cozza’s replacement.

The famous coach’s last year with the Bulldogs saw the 2-8 Elis ranked last in the Ancient Eight.

Bad seasons happen from time to time, Beckett said.

“There are periods of time when the program is not at the top, but these periods are followed by real intense periods of introspection,” he said. “The result is Yale rises up to the position of once again being an Ivy [title] contender.”

Because of many years of experience, Siedlecki, then head coach at Amherst College, was a top pick for the job.

Raised on pigskins and pads in Johnstown, N.Y., Siedlecki’s family had fostered his relationship with the football field early in life. In high school at Johnstown, where his father had coached for 20 years, Siedlecki was captain of the varsity football team. After graduation, Siedlecki moved on to playing at Union College.

Only a short stint working in business interrupted Siedlecki’s transition from the playing field to the sidelines.

“I worked for Ross Perot at Electronic Data Systems in New York City for two years,” he said. “But I knew that was not the life for me.”

So Siedlecki soon returned to what he knew best and became an assistant coach at State University of New York at Albany. He worked as the defensive coordinator and helped Albany compile a 27-13 record over four years. After Albany, he jumped to Wagner and then to Lafayette, where in seven years the Leopards went 43-32. He learned what it was like to be part of one of the great rivalries in college football, Lafayette versus Lehigh.

Leaving the Leopards gave Siedlecki his first opportunity to become a head coach. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he turned the program around and coached the Institute to an undefeated season in 1990, only three years after he arrived. In 1992, Siedlecki was named the American College Football Association’s District 1 Coach of the Year after a 9-2 season.

After Worcester, Siedlecki had his first taste of the world of academically elite institutions. At Amherst, he took the Lord Jeffs from 0-8 to 5-3 in only two years. In 1996, he was again awarded the AFCA District 1 Coach of the Year for his 7-1 season.

In 1996, the Bulldogs called, and Siedlecki was tapped to repeat the success he had at Amherst and Worcester. He had executed quick turnarounds, and the Yale community was hoping he could do it again.



Yale ups and downs

That kind of change takes a lot of work. But within three years at Yale, Siedlecki managed to take the Elis from worst to first.

“When we came in here, the first year was as hard a year coaching as you can have,” Siedlecki said. “We’re not in it for the five year plan. I want the kids to win.”

Despite a 1-9 start to Siedlecki’s Eli career, including a loss to the Tigers, Cozza said Siedlecki did a good job adjusting quickly.

“He worked at Amherst, so he understood the academic situation and not having scholarships,” Cozza said. “From that standpoint, he had a leg up.”

Siedlecki began to work his characteristic turnaround the following year in 1998, a season that he described as crucial. He credited the work ethic of captain Corey Carruthers ’99 as a key factor in inspiring the team to fight. Carruthers’ leadership helped give Siedlecki’s second Eli team the edge it needed for its important comeback win over Princeton, which vaulted the Elis into second place in the Ancient Eight only one year after Siedlecki arrived.

“Finishing second in the league … created a completely different atmosphere,” Siedlecki said. “The kids loved it. They said, ‘We just need good guys to come here, we can overcome the negative perception; it’s a great place to be,’ and that’s proved to be true.”

The energy the athletes felt within the program certainly carried on to Siedlecki’s third year, one that has not been forgotten by dedicated Eli fans. Pictures of that year’s Harvard-Yale game and “The Catch” made by Eric Johnson ’01 that gave the Bulldogs the Ivy League title still hang in the Ray Tompkins House, home of the Athletic Department. With 29 seconds left on the clock, Johnson made a dive to come up with the ball in the end zone just before it hit the turf. His touchdown put the Elis up 24-21 and clinched a spot atop the Ancient Eight.

It was Yale’s first title since 1989, and Siedlecki was named New England Coach of the Year.

Siedlecki compiled a 9-1 record in that championship year, losing only to Brown but running the table for the remainder of the season and barely sneaking by the Tigers. Siedlecki said one of the main reasons for the Elis’ success that year was the team’s leadership, especially Peter Mazza ’01 and Johnson. It was one of the most exciting ends to a season in Siedlecki’s career, he said.

“I told the guys, ‘We were five points from being a bunch of bums, but now we are on top of the world,'” Siedlecki said.

But the next two years challenged the team Siedlecki had built. In 2000, the Elis dropped to third place in the Ancient Eight with a 7-3 record. Again, the Princeton game helped define the outcome of the season by robbing the Bulldogs of the win that would have left them tied for second place.

Another loss to the program came with the graduation of the class of 2001, including Mazza and Johnson, who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Without them, the Elis stumbled and fell hard, finishing 3-6 and tied for last place.

“I felt after graduation that we had a leadership void that was almost indescribable,” Siedlecki said. “We let something slip in terms of leadership. We didn’t have the ability to bounce back.”

Since 2001, the continuity of the coaching staff that Siedlecki recruited has helped the Bulldogs regain their competitiveness. Siedlecki’s staff includes Keith Clarke, Rick Flanders, Joel Lamb, Duane Brooks and Larry Ciotti, all of whom have been with Yale for at least as long as Siedlecki. In both 2002 and 2003, the Elis defeated the Tigers and went on to place third and second, respectively. Being close to the top is the University’s goal, Beckett said.

“Yale can say it has been in the top half as consistently as anyone and more so than most,” Beckett said. “That consistency speaks volumes about what football at Yale is like. Every time Yale plays, there is the expectation of success. If we can’t be the champions, we want some say in who is.”

Whether he records a losing season or a winning season, Siedlecki said his favorite thing about being a coach is interacting with the players.

“I really like the kids that play for us,” Siedlecki said. “I like to see what they become after four years. They are fun guys to deal with.”

Siedlecki said he is not able to get as personal as he would like, however. The individual meetings he has with players in the spring take about five days to finish. Despite that, he does have great stories of student-athletes such as Tom McNamara ’01, who was very homesick for Savannah, Ga., at first but after four years at Yale has found himself working in New York City.

“To see what they become as people, that’s what you’re in it for,” Siedlecki said.



Today and tomorrow

Whatever happens with the next two games, next season’s team most likely will face similar difficulties.

“The future of the program always faces challenges,” Siedlecki said in an e-mail. “New financial aid guidelines at different institutions in the league are making recruiting even more challenging, and as the average Academic Index at Yale rises, the pool of potential players shrinks. It makes us work harder and longer to find the players that fit both academically and athletically.”

The Academic Index is a measure of the academic strength of applicants to elite colleges and universities that is based on standardized test scores and high school class ranks.

Though it may be challenging to figure out the recruiting and coaching equations, Siedlecki seems at home in the football offices.

“It is a challenge for every coach at Yale but something I really enjoy doing,” Siedlecki said. “Yale is a good job. I enjoy the players and the people I work with. I am much more concerned with winning Saturday’s game than I am with where I will be down the road.”

Even if the Bulldogs defeat the Tigers on Saturday, they can only finish in the middle of the road because of the three Ivy losses the team has already sustained. On top of that, the class of 2005 has never beaten the University of Pennsylvania. And if the Elis do not win at Harvard Nov. 20, they will also never have beaten the Cantabs. These seniors could be the first class since 1922 to have four winless years against the Crimson while at Old Blue.

“It is the biggest insult as a competitor,” defensive back James Beck ’05 said.

The Elis received the same number of first-place votes that the Quakers received in the preseason, but offensive struggles have kept them from living up to those expectations as much as Siedlecki would have liked.

“I am obviously disappointed, but I am also a realist,” Siedlecki said. “You are what you are … Sometimes you don’t realize what you’ve lost until it unfolds. Yale has a great tradition, but that tradition doesn’t win games for you.”

Winning games has certainly been an issue, as Lehigh, Penn and Brown overcame the Bulldogs in the second half. Even though Siedlecki’s players have broken many offensive records, the Elis have scored only 55 total points in the second half compared to 100 in the first half. Some wonder whether the talents of the eight returning offensive starters, who contributed to a well-respected 354 total points in 2003, have been squandered.

These troubles have prompted criticism by some Bulldog fans that Siedlecki’s offensive play calling is not innovative enough to fool opposing defenses in the third and fourth quarters. In the week after the loss to Penn, two News columnists wrote their entire columns about problems with play-calling. Defensive end Brandon Dyches ’06 said the atmosphere has been tense with the team.

Chris Hudson ’07, who has been at seven Yale football games this season, said he thinks the problems come from the fact that the Eli offense is one-dimensional.

“My main problem is the fact that we have an amazing running back in Rob Carr ['05] but we are overly reliant on him,” Hudson said. “It’s always, up the middle, up the middle, up the middle, punt. We also brought back [quarterback Alvin] Cowan ['05] to use but we haven’t used him that much. In the Colgate game, Cowan made some good passes and that’s where we got our momentum going.”

During the Penn game, the Elis came into the second half tied, but their first three possessions were three-and-outs as Carr’s running was shut down and Cowan and his receivers missed multiple completions. Penn scored 10 points to take the lead, but the Elis had a shot to come back. An unlucky fumble ended their last possession, during which the Elis had success in the air.

Cowan said he is not one to criticize play-calling that may or may not have affected the outcome of a game like the Penn match-up.

“If I’m calling the plays, then I take responsibility for the calls I make,” Cowan said. “If the coaches are calling them, then I would defer to their authority and knowledge in that they know more than me, or anyone else in the stands, what’s going on and how to deal with it.”

Cowan added that Siedlecki’s playbook has worked well in years past but defenses in the league are better this year because they adjust more quickly. He said while it may look like there are only a few run plays for Carr because the hand-off is the same, the blocking schemes are very different in the 15 to 20 plays they use for rushing.

Despite lingering questions about the team’s offensive woes, especially after the loss to Penn, many of Siedlecki’s athletes have positive things to say about the way he has structured the program.

“I used to play on the defensive line, and it was Siedlecki who approached me about switching to the offensive line junior year,” right guard Tony Bellino ’05 said. “He has made a big impact on my career. He is a very offensive-minded coach, so I have had a lot more interaction with him in the past two years.”

Beck added that he has kept the program very organized.

“He keeps us on a tight schedule,” Beck said. “He does a lot of little things that might be taken for granted. We are all taken care of.”

Both Bellino and Beck admitted that it hurts to have never beaten Penn but said it was no one’s fault in particular.

“We have made mistakes at inopportune times lately,” Bellino said. “A lot of times the timing of penalties and mistakes affected us … I take as much blame on myself.”

Siedlecki, however, is the kind of coach who does not focus on the past, instead preferring to work on preparation for what is at hand.

“I have played in 14 rivalry games since I have been here,” Siedlecki said. “If you’re a team banked way too much on emotion, you’re in trouble when it doesn’t start well. We might be the underdog; I don’t care. But we are going to be ready.”

Siedlecki said that he does recognize the problems the team has had, but that individual effort — including his own — would go a long way toward fixing them.

“Take a look at yourself; see what you can do to make us better,” he said. “That’s where we’ve got to start — players, staff, the whole deal.”

Comments