Yale Football: Rebuilding a Dynasty “One Game at a Time”

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When the Yale football team arrived at JFK airport last Thursday, a visage of 65 towering men wearing coats and ties, a sense of readiness pervaded the atmosphere. For the players, it was an unusual setting: rather than cramped on a dingy bus, rolling up and down the East Coast, they found themselves about to embark on the team’s first cross-country journey in recent memory.

Their plane was set to arrive in Santa Maria, Calif., in mere hours. Upon landing, they would travel some 30 miles north to San Luis Obispo, where they would set up camp in preparation for their Saturday match against the Cal Poly Mustangs. The players were steeped in something of Yale history: in the team’s illustrious 141-year arc, it was just the third time the Bulldogs would face a squad in the Golden State.

For this group of Elis, however, institutional memory did not provide the best sendoff. With last season’s dismal 2–8 finish fresh in mind, a sense of uncertainty toward the next few days seemed apropos. Yet the players crowded around the airport gate seemed unfettered, wearing confident smiles and relaxed postures as they prepared to board the plane.

Indeed, the opportunity to take on a nationally ranked football squad, to announce Yale’s rebuilding efforts to the Ivy League and to the country at large, was much cause for excitement. Because for the 2013 Bulldogs, this weekend represented far more than a sunny departure from New Haven’s chilly, grey October — rather, it presented the chance for the team to redeem the missteps of years past, to put to the test head coach Tony Reno’s master plan.

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The Bulldogs’ presence in JFK that Thursday afternoon may seem a novel sight today, but it wasn’t that long ago that Yale football players were travel veterans, often crisscrossing the nation to battle — and defeat — college football’s most prominent teams.

With 27 national championships, and as alma mater of the “Father of American Football,” Walter Camp, Yale has more total wins than any school not named Michigan. But as newer programs have picked up speed over the last decades, Yale has lagged behind: the team now stands mired in a six-game losing streak to Harvard, attempting to claw back to respectability after a mere two wins last season. Home games are routinely played in front of an audience of 50,000 empty seats, with many Yalies proud to tell you they’ve never been to the Yale Bowl.

But early this summer, hints abounded that the 2013 season could signal a turning point. Tony Reno, hired as head coach in January 2012, used the offseason to institute a sweeping set of changes to the team, both in playbook and spirit. And so far, it’s working: using a brand new no-huddle offense — a strategy to quicken the Bulldogs’ tempo and wear down opponents — Yale secured a win in its season opener at Colgate, following suit with a 15-point victory over Cornell.

For Reno, however, these victories are rooted not just in better execution of plays, but also a change in team culture. The Cal Poly game represented a chance, in Reno’s words, for the team to bond, to put to the test the emphasis on camaraderie he’s been attempting to cultivate within his players.

Throughout the trip, this emphasis was evident. During those short moments of downtime, players prodded each other for advice on their fantasy football teams, chided teammates for attempting to catch up on schoolwork, and enjoyed the California sunshine while swimming in the hotel pool. Even with this general sense of ease, however, Reno was quick to reassert the importance of the journey at hand, encouraging his players to adopt a “business trip” mentality for the days ahead.

Under Reno’s careful eye, each day was structured by the minute, beginning with 8:00 a.m. staff meetings and ending with a strictly observed bed check at 10:00 p.m. On game day, players departed for Cal Poly dressed in coat and tie, with kickers and punters expected on the field first — at 12:24 p.m., to be exact.

Nobody strayed from the plan.

“It’s a new era, I guess you could say,” said defensive tackle Jeff Schmittgens ’15 with a smile.

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On Friday, instead of completing their final pregame practice at Cal Poly’s stadium, Coach Reno chose to hold the first half of the walkthrough in a less obvious venue — the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn. Against a backdrop of rolling hills, palm trees and a bright yellow Denny’s sign, the team ran plays in helmets and jerseys, far from the potentially wandering eyes of the Cal Poly coaching staff.

Though the location itself was atypical, Friday’s practice was emblematic of Reno’s larger coaching philosophy: sharpening Yale’s competitive advantage, even if it means practicing alongside a handful of hotel guests’ cars. These new spins on practice strategy perhaps stem from his age: at just 38, Reno is the second-youngest coach in the Ivy League, allowing him to rethink a system to which more senior coaches may feel inevitably married.

But Reno’s greatest talent might be found not in his ability to design masterful plays, but rather, in his ability to recruit the players who carry them out.

For Reno, Saturday’s game readily fulfilled this reputation. Victor Egu ’17, one of Reno’s key recruits who spurned offers from Berkeley, Oregon and Notre Dame to play for the Bulldogs, stunted the Mustangs’ efforts at one of the game’s most crucial moments. With 11:03 left in the game, following an interception from Yale quarterback Hank Furman ’14, Egu sacked Cal Poly’s quarterback from behind, preventing the Mustangs from scoring off of Yale’s blunder.

But it was safety Cole Champion ’16, part of Reno’s first recruiting class, who especially made his presence felt on Saturday.

According to Reno, Cole had “never played safety before in his life until he came [to Yale].” But when pitted against the Mustangs, Cole rose to the occasion, leading all players with fourteen tackles. He also had a hand in three Cal Poly turnovers: a fumble recovery where he alertly dove on a poor pitch from Cal Poly’s quarterback, an interception cutting short a Cal Poly drive, and a second interception that halted the Mustangs’ last gasp and effectively clinched the win for the Bulldogs.

Egu’s and Champion’s efforts exemplify well the extent of Reno’s recruiting prowess. Reno’s personal recruits, however, were not the only players to turn in game-changing performances, pointing to another facet in the team’s overall rebuilding phase: Reno’s ability to further mold, and form relationships with, players who came to Yale under the auspices of Tom Williams.

“One more year of the new coaching staff has given us the opportunity to buy into Coach Reno’s system,” Schmittgens said. “One more year of familiarity with the program, bringing in a lot of good underclassmen to build the program — that has definitely brightened the outlook of where we’re at right now.”

It’s an attitude that was clearly in force on that crisp California Saturday. Upperclassmen stood tall alongside Reno’s handpicked players, finally comfortable with the new staff’s style after a full year of practice. Juniors and seniors contributed big plays on both sides of the ball, and in the fourth quarter, when every play’s importance is magnified, the veterans stepped up to the challenge.

With less than nine minutes left in the game, the Cal Poly faithful were rallying one last time, standing and screaming at full volume. The mercury showed a temperature well above 80 degrees, not including the effects of playing football in full pads. And Yale faced a crucial third down, deep in their own territory, clinging to a seven-point lead.

Furman remained unfazed. He rolled left, pump faked a throw, and then launched a beautiful rainbow deep downfield, where wideout Deon Randall ’15 managed to settle under it. The crowd was silenced. Any remaining doubts about the Bulldogs’ newfound resolve was quashed a few plays later, when Furman converted a third down into a touchdown by way of a diving Chris Smith ’14. Yale fans erupted, and the raucous cheers of the coaching staff rang clearly, penetrating even the walls of the insulated press box.

For the parents, relatives and supporters, all wearing white shirts commemorating the game, the final score reflected a crossroads for Yale football. At 24–10, it was a satisfying outcome for the Bulldogs’ first pilgrimage in recent memory — and perhaps one unexpected, too. Celebrations were certainly in order, and even Reno allowed a smile to crack through his typically stoic demeanor.

Undergirding the excitement, however, was a more sobering realization: for this group of players, moving forward, Yale’s legacy depends on much more than one California victory.

“We celebrated on Saturday night, but we were back focused on Dartmouth on Sunday,” offensive lineman Luke Longinotti ’16 said. “It was obviously a signature win, but 10 years from now this single game isn’t going to be what turned Yale football around.”

Furman had a slightly different spin. “We haven’t been good in a while, so everyone is in good spirits,” he said bluntly. “We’re at the point where we decide if we want to be a good team or a great team.”

***

After a long flight, every single person that stumbled into JFK Airport at 4 in the morning was ready to get back to campus and sleep. As the team waited for their bags near baggage carousel #4, however, Reno called everybody together for one last huddle. He delved into the team’s schedule for Sunday — which included trekking back to Smilow Field Center within six hours of returning to campus — and then briefly complimented the offense and the defense. But his focus quickly shifted to the team’s next game against the Big Green, a nod to his personal mantra of taking victory “one game at a time.”

“Dartmouth is a very good football team. Their backs are against the wall, and they need to win this game,” Reno asserted. “This is a must-win game for us.”

Reno’s words took on a new significance, as they resounded with a team now wholly familiar with and confident in his vision as a coach. He signaled to captain Beau Palin ’14 to gather the team for the weekend’s final huddle, and stepped back as the players drew together. A sense of anticipation coursed throughout, and any semblance of celebration was long gone — the players instead heeded their coach’s advice, turning their eyes fully to next Saturday’s challenge. One game at a time, indeed.

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