The first 25 head coaches of Yale football were alumni of the team. Each had a winning record. But the first coach hired from outside of Yale, Spike Nelson in 1941, posted the first sub-.500 coaching record in University history.
Even today in the Ivy League, athletic departments and coaches seek familiarity: many coaches shuffle between schools in the Ancient Eight. Yale recently hired Harvard assistant Tony Reno, previously an assistant for the Bulldogs, to carry forth the mantle of Yale football. Still more coaches were once student-athletes in the Ivy League.
At his introductory press conference last week, Reno stressed that his time both at Yale and at Harvard made him the right person for the job because of a peculiar and unique understanding of Yale and its recruiting process. In interviews with the News, several successful Yale coaches expressed a similar sentiment.
This past summer, Amy Gosztyla joined Yale as the women’s cross country coach after spending three seasons as an assistant at Harvard. Gosztyla said that her time at Harvard exposed her to the type of student-athletes she has encountered at Yale.
“A balance of academics with athletics is a huge focus for student-athletes who play in this league,” Gosztyla said. “Having had that experience at another Ivy League school, the transition into being able to understand what the students are going through was really easy for me personally.”
Thomas Beckett, director of athletics at Yale, subscribed to the notion that previous experience in the Ivy League gives coaches a leg up in their daily work, as there is no substitute for personal experience.
“I do think people who themselves were student-athletes in the Ivy League or who have coached in the Ivy League have a sense of, ‘I know exactly what kind of a student-athlete I will be dealing with because I’ve been there. I was one or I’ve coached here before,’” Beckett said.
Still, other coaches with previous experience in the Ivy League expressed unease at the emphasis on understanding students’ workload. While attending an Ivy League college usually requires a substantial amount of effort in the classroom, there are other colleges with similarly taxing academics, coaches said. Cristina Teuscher, a 2000 Columbia graduate who became the swimming and diving coach at Yale in the spring of 2010, said exaggerating the academic burden on Ivy League students can breed a sense of exceptionalism, which can end up lowering athletic standards. A two-time Olympic medalist, Teuscher maintained that attending an Ivy League school should not be an excuse for compromising athletic prowess. She stressed that participating in both academics and athletics at a high level should enrich a student-athlete’s experience.
“I think a mistake that we can make here is to kind of aggrandize the idea of what we do in the Ivy League,” Teuscher said. “Just because you’re at a high-level school academically doesn’t mean that you do anything different athletically. You can do both at a high level — don’t short-change yourself. If you’re offered both, it’s that much better.”
The Ivy League does not offer athletic scholarships: coaches must entice recruits in other ways. In particular, having been a student-athlete at an Ivy League university enables coaches to recruit from a personal perspective. Colin Sheehan ’97, men’s golf coach since the summer of 2008, said his Yale background gives him sincerity when it comes to recruiting.
“When you have attended the school, you can passionately share your opinion on the program and the University,” Sheehan explained. “When I tell a recruit that I have played on the golf team for four wonderful years of my life, I explain that it’s precisely what I want to be the case for their experience. Being at Yale was a big aspect of the wonderful experience I had and I think I can convey that to recruits in a credible way.”
One factor in many coaches’ decisions to remain in or return to the Ivy League is the particular variety of athletics in the Ivy League. Beckett said the mix of academics, athletics, and interesting and appreciative student-athletes attracts and retains coaches.
“I think that there’s an appeal to coaching bright student-athletes who have an appreciation for a University’s offerings both in the classroom and on the field of competition,” he said. “A coach looks at those qualities and says, ‘Wow, I’ve got the best of all worlds.’”