A week after concluding a disappointing 2008 season with a shutout loss in The Game, the Yale football team now must deal with another loss.
As criticism from students and alumni mounted following Harvard’s 10-0 steamrolling, football coach Jack Siedlecki unexpectedly announced his retirement from coaching on Wednesday after 12 years presiding over one of college football’s most historic programs.
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Yale officials vowed to immediately begin searching for his successor, while Siedlecki said he will remain at Yale as an assistant director in the Athletics Department.
“In my 12 years at Yale I feel I have always tried to do what is best for Yale football and the student-athletes that our staff has brought here,” he said in an e-mail message to the News after the announcement. “I feel this is what is best for Yale football at this time.”
Siedlecki coached the Bulldogs to a 70-49 record over 12 years. He led the team to two Ivy titles, one in 1999 and the other in 2006, and last year was named Coach of the Year by the New England Football Writers Association.
But his retirement comes in the wake of a frustrating campaign for the Bulldogs, who finished 6-4 on the season and 4-3 in the Ivy League. Expectations for the team were high coming into the season; the Elis were selected as co-favorites, along with the Crimson, to win the Ivy League title. The squad returned 16 starters from a team that was undefeated in the 2007 season before falling short against Harvard in last year’s Game.
Yet a surprising week two loss at the hands of Cornell put the Elis behind from the start, and a 9-7 loss at home later in the season against Penn effectively dashed the Bulldogs’ hopes for a second Ivy League title in three seasons.
“As I said to the players, this one’s on me,” a visibly dejected Siedlecki said after the Penn game. “I had no answers offensively. … We did not give our players a chance.”
Some students and alumni began to murmur about whether Siedlecki should lose his job, but their criticism was nothing compared to what followed The Game last weekend after Harvard utterly dominated the Bulldogs in The Game for the second consecutive season. Although Yale’s defense kept the Elis in the game, the offense managed just 90 total yards — 10 in the second half — and could not score from inside the 10-yard line on their last possession despite having six opportunities.
The contest was a microcosm of the type of season the Bulldogs had — great defense, inconsistent offense. Yale was unable to take advantage of the nation’s top scoring defense in spite of returning one of the most prolific tailbacks in Ivy League history, Mike McLeod ’09. Yale finished 114th among 123 Football Championship Subdivision schools in total offense.
Rumors about Siedlecki’s possible departure began to circulate among members of the football team on Tuesday, three days after Yale lost to archrival Harvard in The Game for the seventh time in eight meetings. The defeat dropped Siedlecki’s overall record against the Crimson to 4-8.
Despite the complaints from students and alumni, Yale administrators never had any discussions about removing Siedlecki from his post, according to a Yale official who spoke on the condition of anonymity while discussing a personnel matter.
University President Richard Levin said in an interview Sunday that Siedlecki approached Yale officials last week and said he thought “it was time for a change.” In his e-mail, Siedlecki emphasized that the decision to step down was his own.
“It is voluntary and I think Tom Beckett was surprised how the conversation went,” Siedlecki said, referring to Yale’s director of athletics. “I have been doing this for 33 years and love the coaching profession. The e-mails I have received over the past few days have been very gratifying and make me proud to have been a coach.”
The News reported on its Web site Wednesday morning that Siedlecki had decided to retire. Around the same time, the coach informed his team in an e-mail message that he had decided to step down, and the Athletics Department announced his retirement shortly after noon.
In the announcement, a written statement e-mailed to reporters, Beckett praised Siedlecki’s tenure.
“We are proud of the work Jack and his staff have accomplished in a football program where the expectations are very high and the results have been good,” he said. “We believe that Jack will continue to be a valuable presence as an assistant director of athletics in a position where he can be a powerful advocate and spokesperson for Ivy athletics and Ivy athletes, both within the University and around the nation.”
Football players, meanwhile, said they had no idea Siedlecki was contemplating retirement.
“The decision was a total surprise to me and the rest of the guys on the team,” cornerback Casey Gerald ’09 said. “I honestly think it was just as big of a surprise to the coaches. There was nothing that hinted at Coach Sid being done after this season.”
Quarterback Brook Hart ’11 said he didn’t see the announcement coming, either. “I was pretty stunned when I heard about his decision,” he said.
Siedlecki leaves with a mixed legacy. On the one hand, the coach posted a winning record overall and brought home the two Ivy League titles. Captain and linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 said players admired their coach for his work ethic.
“On the field, he was always focused on winning and that was his No. 1 priority,” he said. “I think as players we always admired how hard he worked and that hard work ethic was shown in most of his teams.”
Yet second-guessing among football players was commonplace; in private conversations, players sometimes grumbled about game-day coaching, specifically play-calling, especially as Yale’s offensive woes mounted over the last year. And Siedlecki’s repeated defeats at the hand of the Crimson will surely be remembered by many students and alumni who called for his firing in recent years almost as an end-of-season ritual.
But asked about how on-the-field performance factors into a coach’s job security, Levin said in the interview that a Yale coach will never be fired based solely on wins and losses.
“We want coaches who recognize that athletics is an important activity that teaches about self-reliance and teamwork,” the president said. “But it also has to be integrated into a larger framework. Coach Siedlecki completely understood — completely understands — this.”
A search committee has been assembled to find Yale’s 34th football coach. While the committee may be inclined to search nationwide, several players said in interviews that they believe a suitable replacement can be found on the Bulldog staff in defensive coordinator Rick Flanders.
“He’s led the No. 1 scoring defense in the country two years in a row,” Brandt Hollander ’08, the captain of the 2007 squad, said by phone last week. “And Yale is such a unique place and going with a guy familiar with the unique situation will be a good choice.”
Siedlecki said he will not be involved in the search of his replacement. But the departing coach said he is enthusiastic to begin working for the Athletics Department as an administrator.
“I am looking forward to my new role in Yale athletics,” he said. “I will certainly be a coaches’ advocate and be involved in trying to improve the entire athletic recruiting process at Yale for all sports.”
Paul Needham contributed reporting.