Eli coaches play a different ballgame

There is no tenure track in the Department of Athletics.

And so head football coach Jack Siedlecki will take the sidelines on Saturday, his Elis opening their most anticipated season in years against a historically dismal Georgetown squad, under the weekly scrutiny that haunts his job like a specter. Siedlecki has long been students’ and alums’ scapegoat for his team’s disappointing performance. Even though he led the Bulldogs to a shared Ivy League title last year — and, perhaps just as important, a win over Harvard after five consecutive losses in The Game — Siedlecki’s job remains on the line.

Jack Siedlecki stands with players on the sidelines during a football practice. Yale’s coaches have far less job security than professors.
Michael Blank
Jack Siedlecki stands with players on the sidelines during a football practice. Yale’s coaches have far less job security than professors.

Siedlecki’s situation may be especially high-profile, but every coach faces pressure from students, alumni and the Department of Athletics. With wins and losses serving as a concrete tally of a coach’s performance, scrutiny is unavoidable.

Yet many coaches at Yale, Siedlecki included, said the pressure they face stems more from personal expectations than institutional ones.

“I think as with most coaches, no one puts more pressure on me than myself,” he said in an e-mail. “Our athletic department stated goal is to finish in the top half of the league. Obviously, our team staff and alumni and fan goals are higher.”

Pursuit of those team goals — more wins, more academically successful athletes, a league championship — requires coaches to strike a delicate personal and institutional balance. That balance is constantly shifting.

“It sometimes seems silly to me that on the one hand in the Ivy League, athletics are only supposed to be part of the educational process and winning is secondary, but on the other hand, if don’t win you will eventually be unemployed,” women’s crew head coach Will Porter wrote in an e-mail.

The trick is to win games and develop student-athletes without sacrificing Yale’s broader goals and standards, a particular challenge at a university with no athletic scholarships to offer and stringent academic requirements to meet. The unique balance demands a unique breed of coach.

“They like the idea that they are teachers, they’re educators, they’re working with the next generation of leaders,” Director of Athletics Tom Beckett said. “Those are the kinds of things I hear time and time again when speaking to a coach at Yale or when speaking to someone who would like to coach at Yale.”

The esteem of coaching in the Ivy League can draw candidates in, but it can also be a deterrent, Beckett said. Reaching the nation’s best athletes can be difficult without money or easy admission as incentives, and as a result, winning on the national stage is often unusually difficult.

“I would say that every sport at Yale has the potential of attracting one of those superstar athletes, and we’ve proven that it does happen,” Beckett said. “[But] coaches who are looking to build a national championship team with those kinds of pieces might be more likely to go to a place where that’s more likely to happen.”

Speaking with Yale coaches produces a clear profile of those individuals most likely to end up on the sidelines in Yale blue. All of the coaches interviewed said they got into coaching because of a love for the game. All said they dislike recruiting but appreciate the ability to mention Yale and immediately receive a recruit’s attention, despite the lack of scholarships. And almost all said they believe their respective teams can or already do compete at the highest national level, constraints notwithstanding.

The rise of women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith exemplifies the aspirations of many incoming coaches. A former star player at Southern Connecticut State, Meredith got into coaching for good when an academic adviser — who had asked him to help coach her daughter’s youth soccer team — told him he was put on the earth to coach. He worked part time as an elementary school gym teacher when he was an assistant at Yale. And now, after 13 years as the head coach, Meredith has established the women’s soccer team as a program capable of competing with the best in the country. The Elis have appeared in the NCAA tournament in two of the last three years, which has been a boon to recruiting and to promoting confidence among the players.

Still, Meredith knows coaching at Yale is different from coaching at defending national champions North Carolina, even though the Tar Heels are now willing to travel to Yale for a game, as they did last fall.

“I think they have the same expectations, but in a different way,” he said of the country’s most high-profile teams. “Those schools give you everything, scholarships and all the money you need, but if you’re not going to the Final Four you’ll lose your job in a couple years.”

Pressures differ from one team to the next, but few — with the exception of the squash and crew teams — face constant national championship expectations. For most Yale teams, the expectation is to be successful within the league, rather than to win college football’s Bowl Championship Series or baseball’s College World Series, reflecting the different standards of the Ivy League.

Men’s basketball coach James Jones, who began coaching to help finance his master’s degree, said he, like other coaches who are hired here, has set incremental goals towards improving his team’s performance. But he still keeps national aspirations in mind.

“When I took over the job there were 325 teams and Yale was [ranked] 320,” Jones said. “Last year we were about 140. We’re in the top third in the country and we’re trying to be in the top 100, and then in the top 64.”

The pressure to boost winning percentages aside, each coach still said he took most pleasure in watching the individuals on a team grow up.

Siedlecki described the satisfaction he felt watching Eric Johnson ’01 make seven catches for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, which Johnson joined this year, in the league’s opening night a week ago.

Meredith agreed that coaching here is all about the relationships and growth, despite the public scrutiny.

“There’s not that type of pressure here to go to the Sweet 16 or the Final Four,” he said. “I think in terms of more than that though, because we’ve done more than that.”

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