When Keith Allain ’80 returned to Yale to coach the men’s hockey team in 2006, he led a team that had a 337–433–55 record in its previous 28 years. After just five seasons, Allain is now at the helm of the number one hockey team in the country and has accumulated a record of 86–50–12, two NCAA tournament appearances, two ECAC regular season championships and three Ivy League titles.
And Allain is not the only Yale alum who has turned around his team as head coach. In fact, several current Yale alumni coaches have turned around struggling programs or have built up successful programs from scratch. While the five alumni coaches currently at Yale denied that their team’s records stem from their alumni statuses, the Yalie coaches have attained noteworthy success.
Zachary Leonard ’89 has coached the coed sailing team to three national championships since the varsity sailing program began in 2002; it was just a club sport while Leonard was at Yale. Mark Young ’68, who retired as head coach of women’s cross country in 2010, headed the launch of the women’s cross country and track programs in 1980, which has won six Ivy League Championships. And while Colin Sheehan ’97, head coach of men’s golf, and Chawwadee Rompothong ’00, head coach of women’s golf, inherited already successful teams, they have kept up the momentum.
Players interviewed said that part of these coaches’ success comes from their understanding of the nuances of being a student-athlete at Yale. That understanding not only improves the experiences of alumni coaches’ athletes at Yale, but also enhances their ability to recruit top athletes away from rival athletic powerhouses to the home of the Bulldogs.
EXCELLENCE IN ACADEMICS AND ATHLETICS
Young, who had a 71–60 dual-meet record in 31 seasons, said the accomplishments of alumni coaches take on a greater magnitude when placed within the context of the academic challenges that Yale presents to its students.
It is this very challenge that led Allain back to Yale. While Allain said the primary reason for his return was the “life-changing” experience he had as a student-athlete, another reason was the challenge of building up an Ivy League team to a nationally-competitive powerhouse.
“One of the strengths of Yale is that it allows our athletes an opportunity to compete at the highest level of our sport while attending the best university in the world,” Allain wrote in an e-mail. “This of course is extremely difficult but, for me, well worth the struggle.”
Denny Kearney ’11 said Allain achieves a student-athlete balance by making practices competitive and efficient. Allain added he is respectful of his players’ time, keeping his practices and meetings short and organized.
Golf captains Alyssa Roland ’11 and Tom McCarthy ’11 said the fact that their coaches, Rompothong and Sheehan, are young alumni makes them particularly aware of the hardships a student-athlete faces. Roland said Rompothong allows her players to work their practice schedule around their academic work, as opposed to the other way around.
However, Young said being an alumnus has taught him that while concessions must be made at times, in reality achieving both academic and athletic excellence is possible. “If you really want to get it done you can get it done,” Young said. “I’m not as likely to be fooled [by excuses]. You can get your schedule set.”
Cross-country captain Anne Lovelace ’12 agreed that Young does not go easy on his athletes due to the academic pressures of Yale, but she said he willingly accommodates their practice schedules around classes.
The alumnus coach influence begins even before athletes arrive at Yale. Rompothong said when trying to recruit players away from top schools such as Duke and Stanford, being able to tell a player that she understands what it’s like to be a student-athlete is a great selling-point.
Standout freshman golfer Seo Hee Moon ’14 said Rompothong presented herself not only as a coach, but a mentor and guide during the recruitment process. She added that knowing she could turn to Rompothong for advice impacted her decision to attend Yale.
Kearny said alumni coaches offer a higher level of sincerity than non-alumni coaches when pitching their schools to potential athletes. Kearny said that when Allain was recruiting him, Allain said only opportunity that would have gotten him to return to college hockey was a phone call from Yale.
Like Allain, for Sheehan, the men’s golf coach, Yale was the only coaching job he would consider. He said he wanted to return to Yale and give his players the same positive experience he had under the guidance of Dave Patterson.
“When I tell the story about how the friendships of the golf team are the closest friendships I have and how playing golf here was one of the great thrills in my life, I think it gives me a recruiting advantage knowing I am trying to ensure my players have the same experiences that I did at Yale,” Sheehan said.
Since taking over for Patterson, Sheehan’s team took first place in the Yale-hosted Macdonald Cup in 2009, a feat never accomplished in the tournament’s 34-year history
While Leonard agreed that being able to answer questions about the academic side of Yale did help in the recruiting process, he emphasized that alumni success in the America’s Cup, the Olympics, and other competitions draws top sailors to Yale.
Sailing captain Joe Morris ’12 added that Leonard’s advantage as an alumnus coach is his understanding of the Yale sailing team’s traditions. He said Leonard frequently brings alumni back before important races to practice with the team. And his coaching model has proven to be effective. This year, the women’s team was ranked as high as No. 1, while the coed team reached No. 3. Additionally, current and former Yale sailors have made their mark in national and international competition.
The same memories of Yale that coaches offer as a source of comfort and assurance for potential recruits are exactly what lured the five coaches back to their alma mater.
Rompothong said she returned because she wanted the chance to give back to the school that had given her such a wonderful experience as an undergraduate. She added her sentiments are not unusual and that there are many Yale athletes working at Yale. In her five seasons at Yale, she has led the women’s golf team to an Ivy League title and one NCAA regional appearance. This past fall, the team won three of its four tournaments.
In the admissions office alone, Yale dean of undergraduate admissions Jeff Brenzel said three of the 11 Yale alumni in the office are former varsity athletes.
Yet the potential to transform their programs was also a factor. Allain transformed a team with a losing record, and that had been in the bottom two in the ECAC for the previous two years, to one that is ranked No. 1 in the country . Young had the opportunity to build the women’s cross-country program from scratch in 1980, while Leonard was able to transform his club sport to a nationally-ranked, varsity-level collegiate powerhouse.
Rompothong added she was eager to elevate the level of competition in the golf program.
Young, who has coached at Yale the longest of all of the alumni coaches — 31 seasons — said that while his experiences at Yale may have brought him back to New Haven, the students who have kept him here for all of those years.
“They’re smart, motivated, and for the most part energetic, ambitious in varying ways, but mostly positive … for all of that, and I would hope that most of your professors would say the same thing, that’s why they keep doing it even when economically they don’t have to.”
The coaches’ affinity for their college is not an unusual one. Just last week Yale football coach Tom Williams interviewed for the position of head coach at Stanford, where he played for four years on the football team, served as its captain, and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“You always have a fondness for your alma mater. You never quite get it out of your system in terms of your love for the place,” Williams said. “That goes for your undergrad especially.”
The five head alumni coaches have been invited to participate in a panel, “Yalies Coaching Yalies,” at the annual athletic awards dinner in New York at the Yale Club in April.
Correction: January 23, 2011
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of years the Macdonald Cup had been in its existence when the men’s golf team won in 2009. The event had been taking place for 34 years, not 37.