I’m going to be honest with you: When I first started writing this story, it wasn’t going to be pretty. The gist of it was going to be a full criticism of Yale football coach Jack Siedlecki’s failure during the 124th edition of The Game, much like Tuesday’s News’ View (“The Game leaves Elis embarrassed”).
Yet as I was writing, listing the games in which Yale had blown a first-half lead, I realized I had been swept up in the “Fire Siedlecki” mania that seems to run rampant every time the football team loses. It’s understandable that fans and alumni who traveled cross-country to watch our squad play — and lose 37-6 to Harvard — want to point fingers and say that Yale football failed.
That’s human nature, and I, too, was angry and embarrassed. Trust me, it wasn’t the most fun reunion with my friend who plays for Harvard.
But it isn’t fair to the coaches or players if the student body suddenly lights the torches after a poorly played game, especially when the majority of students only attend one game all season.
Chanting “Fire Siedlecki” becomes too easy when students evaluate Yale’s performance by reading news articles and watching just one contest. According to the Athletics Department’s Web site, Yale’s first four home games of the season attracted an average of 14,179 attendees while The Game drew 57,248 fans — about four times as many spectators as usual.
Of course, there are going to be supporters of the argument’s two sides — those who support Siedlecki (mostly the administration and those who know and have been coached by him) and those who absolutely hate him (the average Yale fan). As a former freshman player for the team, I have had first-hand exposure to both perspectives.
Like every other coach in the world, Siedlecki has his faults. The lack of creative play-calling comes to mind first. Yale has had great running backs — Rob Carr ’05, Mike McLeod ’09 — and they have churned out yardage. But Siedlecki has a tendency to call draw plays on third down and to pound the ball continually even if the offense is not gaining yards. By overemphasizing the run, the Yale offense is often forced into obvious passing situations.
Another sticking point Sid’s critics like to harp on is the team’s inability to score in the second half. The 2005 Harvard-Yale game, for example, saw Yale give up a 21-3 lead in the final two quarters and finish with a triple-overtime defeat to the Crimson. In 2006, Yale had the chance to set itself up as the sole Ivy League Champion when it played the Princeton Tigers. After taking a 28-14 lead at halftime, the Bulldogs were outscored 20-3 in the ensuing 30 minutes.
But this year the Bulldogs had the opposite problem: Against Columbia, Brown and Princeton, Yale was slow out of the gate and finally began scoring in the second half.
For most fans, though, the only thing that matters is winning the big game. This is where Siedlecki has come up short, with six losses to Harvard in the past seven years. This is the one game that matters to Yalies, and they expect victory.
I can only speak for the four years that I’ve been at Yale. In 2004, Harvard — led by wunderkind quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick — ripped apart Yale’s defense for an easy 35-3 victory. The next year saw the infamous triple-overtime game. The 2006 season ended in a 34-13 shellacking of Harvard and a share of the Ivy League Championship. This year’s loss probably stung the most for Yalies — Harvard walked out of the Yale Bowl with not just a Game victory but a League championship to boot.
But all these flaws are fixable as long as the coaching staff is willing to change its approach.
For starters, coaches should balance out the offense. McLeod is the leading rusher in school history, but that doesn’t mean he has to get the ball on every play. Running backs often dominate the Ivy League (see past stars such as Harvard’s Clifton Dawson and Brown’s Nick Hartigan), but having a viable passing offense lifts teams to champion status.
Players like Harvard’s Fitzpatrick added another dimension to their teams’ offense and gave opposing defenses one more thing to worry about. It happened before at Yale with Alvin Cowan ’05 (a 2003 Walter Payton Award finalist) and Jeff Mroz ’06 — and there shouldn’t be any fear that plays won’t be made when the ball isn’t given to McLeod, especially with a talented receiving corps. Let the quarterbacks develop and give them the opportunity to be a dynamic part of the offense.
As for quelling the second-half comebacks, Yale needs to stop being satisfied with first-half leads. Coach Siedlecki: Don’t rest on your laurels. Keep making adjustments at halftime. Other teams are going to key in to your tendencies and make the necessary changes to stop them. Football requires constant change, so keep attacking.
The New England Patriots’ aggressive mentality is a perfect example of how to keep opponents on their heels. And allow the defense to make some plays; good quarterbacks like Fitzpatrick and Chris Pizzotti will be able to pick apart the zone defense if given the time to make a throw. Trust in your secondary and send people after the quarterback.
Losing to Harvard is “inexcusable,” but fans need to look at all the factors that contribute to a loss.
This year, it was a miracle McLeod even played in The Game. He suffered a broken toe during the Penn game — an injury that would have sidelined most players for the rest of the season. The usually stout offensive line missed blocking assignments, and a Harvard touchdown ended up as one of SportsCenter’s Top 10 nominees.
In the 2004 blowout, it was a matter of Harvard’s having too much talent. Fitzpatrick is currently a quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals and sparked a 21-point comeback in his first NFL appearance with the St. Louis Rams. Would the 2005 loss have been different if D.J. Shooter ’07 had gone down on contact instead of trying to gain extra yards that led to a fumble in overtime? Perhaps.
It’s obvious: Factors other than coaching affect the outcome of a game.
Let’s not forget the victories that have come under Siedlecki’s tenure, either. A come-from-behind win over then-No. 11 Colgate headlined the 2004 season, and Yale finally toppled Penn last year. There have been games in which Yale has clearly been outcoached. There have also been games in which plays haven’t been made.
Although a head coach is judged on his win-loss record, he has to manage so many more aspects of his team. Siedlecki, despite his shortcomings, has proven a phenomenal recruiter. From McLeod and twin defenders Larry and Bobby Abare ’09 to offensive tackle Rory Hennessey ’05 and tight end Nate Lawrie ’04, he has brought in the talent to keep Yale competitive. The current crop of underclassmen should generate more tallies in the win column over the next couple of years.
But most important, Siedlecki has created an atmosphere in which his players can thrive. From Siedlecki down to the assistant coaches, the staff emphasizes teamwork and sportsmanship. Even as a walk-on, I was immediately welcomed into the football family and made to feel part of the team. Position-specific dinners are the norm, and every player is given the chance to contribute. There have never been any major character issues with the players — which is not true of our rivals in Cambridge — and the coaches have a hand in promoting strong work ethics and senses of responsibility.
University of Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr was 1-6 against rival Ohio State’s Jim Tressel after Michigan’s loss two weekends ago, but few were ready to crucify Carr simply for always losing the season finale. Carr admittedly has a more impressive record than Siedlecki, but remember that the Elis have gone 17-3 over the past two seasons.
The 2007 campaign featured record-breaking performances by McLeod and the rest of the offense. A 9-1 record is nothing to scoff at, and Yalies should be proud of their team for accomplishing such a feat. Even though a disappointing loss to Harvard capped the season, fans need to show they support their team and understand that, in a few weeks, the Elis will start preparing for another winning season.
And Siedlecki will be there to lead the charge.
Thomas Hsieh is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. He is a former Production and Design Editor for the News.