Yesterday morning, the football team gathered on the turf and performed its hour of grueling exercise. This weekend, they will work to install their playbook. On April 23, they will play their annual spring game, and then they will part for summer break. They will return in mid-August to prepare for the new season and, they hope, come together as a team. A team that lost two of last fall’s coaches.
A football team is unlike any other sports team. It is the composition of different elements, multiple “teams” — a mosaic, if you will. At the college and professional levels, except for rare cases, football players play on only one side of the ball. They are either offensive or defensive. Almost all other team sports, on the other hand, require a player to be offensive and defensive. Within a contest, they must be ready to score points, however they may be scored, and defend against the other teams’ equivalent and opposite actions.
The dynamic of a football team is therefore different from that of any other sports team. Understandably, the coaching of a football team must also be different. A head coach must himself coordinate two different coordinators, bring together two totally separate units and somehow glue together one cohesive team. The offense must feel attached to the performance of the defense and vice versa.
What precipitates from this unique dichotomy? The head coach must be in full control of all coaching personnel decisions, because he is accountable for the inner-workings of such a large unit. So when a school decides to hire a new coach, they must accept the fact that with him come his staff.
During any offseason, many universities fire their coaching staff and hire a new head coach with the hope that he will brew the perfect potion of motivation and recruiting, mix it with effective play calling and halftime adjustments, and concoct a winning team, which for the university means one thing — more revenue.
Last year, two notable first-year coaches excelled in their new towns. LSU, under the leadership of Les Miles, won 11 games for only the third time in team history and obliterated Miami, 40-3, in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Charlie Weiss, the transported New England Patriots offensive mastermind, found South Bend suitable to his winning ways. The Fighting Irish played the hardest schedule in college football and finished 9-3, only to lose a close contest to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. But before ever setting foot in their new offices, Miles and Weiss hired subordinate coaches to oversee and develop the many different pieces of what would become their successful teams.
Already this winter, schools around the country have added new head coaches to the payroll. Soon thereafter, a team of the new hire’s closest friends are given whistles. In fact, a coaching staff can move as a single entity from one team to another, merely changing their colors and their audibles. Boise State and Kansas State have filled coaching vacancies already this offseason, and the trail of media reports attests to this phenomenon: A coach is hired, and with him comes a crew of cronies.
In the 1996-97 offseason, Yale named Jack Siedlecki the Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Football. In his first season, he led the team to a 1-9 record. But just two years later, beating Harvard on national television and in front of 52,484 at the Yale Bowl, the Bulldogs went 9-1, winning the Ivy League and the H-Y-P. Lately, though, the team has fallen on more difficult times: They have lost to Harvard and Penn for the past five seasons.
This offseason has seen some changes. Assistant coaches Matt Dence and Joel Lamb have moved on. The terms of Dence’s departure are uncertain. Lamb, a Harvard graduate, has taken the offensive coordinator position at his alma mater. Lamb came to Yale with Coach Siedlecki from Amherst. Under Lamb’s tenure at Yale as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, two different quarterbacks, Joe Walland ’99 and Alvin Cowan ’05, were selected to the All-Ivy League Team. The Siedlecki-Lamb offense has been led by names such as Walland, Eric Johnson ’01, Cowan, Robert Carr ’05 and Ralph Plumb ’05, all of whom sit atop the Yale offensive record books. Putting points on the board has not been a problem during the Siedlecki regime.
But due to Lamb’s and Dence’s departures, the football team returned from spring break last week knowing neither their offensive nor special teams coordinators. Spring practices, which are meant to be seminal in the installation of an offense, began with name games rather than the passing game. The team announced that it hired coaches John Fraser and Jason DesJarlais to replace Lamb and Dence, respectively, March 24, but the team is still in transition. And through it all, Siedlecki remains.
On Dec. 30, Minnesota fell to UVA, 34-31, in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl. The Gophers had to play under the shadow of contract negotiations with head coach Glen Mason. If Mason’s contract was not extended by the end of the year, he and, notably, his entire coaching staff, would have to leave Minnesota. The University and Mason reached a new agreement that was announced the day after the loss, and he and his coaching staff have started spring practices in the Twin Cities.
Here, the rumors about Siedlecki’s job security have already been circulating for a few years. The effect of such gossip on a team that has not won the Ivy title since 1999 remains debatable. Still, one must wonder if the earth is falling out from under Coach Sid. In almost any other football organization, the head coach is held accountable and his staff suffers the consequences of that accountability. Is Yale moving in the wrong direction? Are the departures of two of three coordinators indicative of something inherently backward in the program? I would say so.
Nicholas Thorne is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.