What we have witnessed the past few years is a historic Yale football team. The first Yale team to lose to Harvard four years in a row. The first Yale team to ever lose to a team from the Pioneer League. And Yale football, far from being selfish, has helped opposing teams make history as well – the Elis’ loss Sunday was also San Diego’s first win over an Ivy League opponent.
Last year’s senior class was the first one never to see a victory over Harvard, and I fear the class of 2006 will not see one either. Do I think it’s a talent problem? Nope, and I’m just saying that because I don’t want big football players kicking the crap out of me. Last year’s team had 30 seniors, 36 lettermen, 19 returning starters, and in Alvin Cowan ’05, Rob Carr ’05 and Ralph Plumb ’05 — perhaps the best quarterback, running back and wide receiver in a generation of Yalies. It was enough talent for the preseason media poll to predict a third place finish for the Bulldogs and for two major magazines to predict that they would win the Ivy League. Rather, I think that, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Quite simply, we have a coach who has lost his team.
I’m sure Jack Siedlecki was once a fine and capable head coach. After all, he inherited a 1-9 team in 1997 and in only two years coached the Bulldogs to a 9-1 record, a win over Harvard, and a share of the 1999 Ivy League title. But flash forward six years and Yale is losing to a school that I didn’t even know existed — one that apparently regularly schedules games against NAIA and Division III opponents.
Why do I think Siedlecki has lost the team? Part of it has been conversations in the past few years with Yale football players, many of whom said that they really don’t like him and his coaching style. Part of it is the 43-36 record he has accumulated during his eight-year Yale stint, including an abysmal 27-29 record in conference play. Part of it is the games I have seen as WYBC sports commentator in which the offense seems to consist of exactly five plays. And part of it was the Bulldogs’ uninspired play during the 35-3 drubbing at the hands of Harvard last year.
Do I believe we should treat Yale football coaches like NFL coaches where two bad years can get you canned? Certainly not. But we also shouldn’t treat them like Supreme Court justices and allow them to coach until they decide to retire.
History is rife with examples of coaches that have stayed too long. Bill Callahan, the football coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, previously coached the Oakland Raiders, and in the year after going to the Super Bowl, those Raiders, after being told by their coach that they were “the stupidest team in America,” finished the 2003 season 4-12. Joe Paterno, the seemingly immortal football coach of traditional powerhouse Penn State, has led his team to a 26-33 record in the past five years. And Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame basketball coach who won a championship with the Detroit Pistons two years ago, once coached in Philadelphia for six years and eventually lost the ear of Allen Iverson, his star player. Brown, however, sensed he was losing the team and chose to quit — an example that Coach Siedlecki might want to follow.
There are also just as many instances in which new coaches have reenergized their team. As mentioned earlier, Siedlecki inherited a team that had gone 13-27 prior to his arrival and won a share of the Ivy League title only two years later. The Los Angeles Lakers, after getting swept year after year by the Utah Jazz, hired Phil Jackson and won three straight championships his first three years. And just this year, Charlie Weis, former offensive coordinator for America’s darling Patriots, has taken over a team that went 6-6 last year and knocked off the teams ranked 23rd and 3rd in the country in his first two games.
Why is this all important? Aren’t we part of an academic institution and therefore shouldn’t worry about sports? No, because such a statement ignores the profound influence the two major college sports — football and men’s basketball — have on overall school spirit. When I first came on campus the fall after the Yale men’s basketball team had their Cinderella run that ended in a share of the Ivy League title, I remember how galvanized the student body was and how excited it seemed to be about sports in general. But the basketball team was unable in subsequent years to sustain the momentum they built up. And while sports such as women’s hockey and women’s squash have been nothing short of spectacular, they unfortunately don’t have the potential audience and impact the “big two” have.
While the men’s basketball team has overall been a disappointment — at least in comparison to the magical season they had four years ago — there have still been good signs such as last year’s victory over eventual champion Penn and playing the then-No. 1 and soon-to-be NCAA champion UConn Huskies tightly two years ago. But other than the occasional victory over Princeton, I haven’t seen similar positives from the Yale football team. I’m afraid that if there isn’t a coaching change, Yale football will continue to be mired in mediocrity and irrelevance. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe Yale football players aren’t tuning their coach out. Maybe the football team will blast through the rest of their opponents this year and win the Ivy League. But somehow, I doubt it.
Dan Ly is a senior in Morse College.