First-year football head coach Tony Reno was in quite the unenviable position last year. After taking over a team riddled by scandal, Reno made a strong first impression with a opening win over Georgetown — and then proceeded to watch each one of his quarterbacks go down with injury over the coming weeks. By week seven, star running back Tyler Varga ’15 found himself under center in a single-wing formation against Columbia. The Bulldogs had only 52 passing yards that day, but they still almost came away with the win behind three touchdown runs by Varga himself. It was a testament to the perseverance of this team, quickly built in the first weeks under Reno. And although Yale lost yet another edition of The Game last year, the final score didn’t tell the whole story. Those who made the trip to Cambridge were rewarded with an extremely competitive Game, one that Yale certainly had the chance to win up until the final moments. The average Yalie was pleasantly surprised by the effort — those who had followed the team all year were absolutely shocked. How was this team capable of that?
The takeaway is that Coach Reno should be given a pass on last season. No first-year coach should have to deal with the inconsistency Reno had to manage at the quarterback position — an inconsistency brought on by unavoidable, freak injuries. This is really Reno’s first year with complete control of his team, a healthy roster and active oversight of the recruiting process. The inevitable judgments of this team’s performance shouldn’t be colored by the bizarre nature of the 2012 campaign.
Now that Reno has guided the direction of the program for over a year, there are promising signs of tangible improvement. At the team’s weekly press conference on Tuesday, Reno said his biggest goal over the past year was to change the culture of the team. Whether or not this ends up being pure coaching boilerplate remains to be seen, but you can’t accuse the staff of not trying to make concrete changes. Posters announcing this fall’s schedule have blanketed bulletin boards and dorm rooms. Players are now required to live on-campus through their junior year. During the preseason, the team ate lunch with all of the residential college masters and deans to set expectations for conduct. The team now eats dinner in Saybrook on Tuesday through Thursdays. Captain Beau Palin ’14 is a director of the Warrior-Scholar Program, which connects veterans to educational opportunities through a two-week workshop that helps military men and women transition to college life. Considering that many issues in Ivy League athletics seem to hinge on the tension between “regular” students and athletes, Reno is at least apt to hone in on culture as a focal point for change.
Speaking of focal points, this year’s squad should hopefully find itself with a starting quarterback that it can count on week in and week out. The starter for Saturday still hasn’t been announced, but the race is down to Henry Furman ’14, Eric Williams ’16 and Clemson transfer Morgan Roberts ’15. It’s possible that this team could have benefited from some earlier closure on the quarterback issue — leaving the decision up to the last minute is understandably worrisome for fans who watched this same weekly indecision and confusion cripple the team last season. But any doubt can be washed away on Saturday with a strong performance from whoever gets the nod at signal-caller.
The addition of Roberts is important not just because of the depth added at quarterback, but also because it serves as a signal that Reno is attracting top-level players to Yale. Roberts’ transfer was reported almost simultaneously with the news that Victor Egu ’17, a California linebacker with interest from coaches at Oregon and UCLA, had made the decision to de-commit from Cal and attend Yale. Clearly, Reno is offering a vision of the future persuasive enough to earn commitments from high-quality players across the country — rare for an Ivy League school where recruiting generally takes place on a regional level.
Yale football is unlikely to win an Ivy League title this year. The team is still young — four freshmen will start on defense on Saturday — and no one claims that the roster’s raw talent level has caught up with Penn and Harvard. But Yale has ambition and, finally, a positive attitude instead of stagnant complacency. A clearly comfortable Reno said on Tuesday that he would like this team use a up-tempo no-huddle offense to run 90 to 100 plays a game. This is a lofty, improbable goal, but I prefer that to going through the motions yet again. Coach Reno has been through it all once; now he’s making this team his own. It feels like the dawn of a new era for the football program, and it should be considered as such. Last year was a bumpy transition with no one to blame — this is Reno’s first chance to show what’s possible when all resources are at his staff’s disposal. With that in mind, good luck on your first year as head coach, Coach Reno — last year was just an extended scrimmage.