After watching Yale basketball demolish Cornell last Friday and developing a huge man-crush on Eric Flato in the process, I figured I could stand to miss Saturday’s contest against Columbia, a team we had beaten three weeks earlier by 14 points — on the road. I had a concert to go to, and my scheduled trip to Penn for this weekend meant I’d see my boys in action again.
And then we lost by 18. At home.
So, in light of another fading Yale winter season, I ask this: Are our coaches held up to appropriate standards to keep their jobs?
The Yale Athletics Department says the standard a team must be achieving is to finish in the top half of the Ivy League. I say that bar is too low. It allows teams to stay consistently OK without feeling pressure to get that one step better and win a championship.
Let’s start with men’s basketball, where James Jones has headed the program since 1999. In his first three years, he led a team that was 2-12 in the 1998-’99 season to campaigns of 5-9, 7-7, and 11-3 in the 2001-’02 championship season. Since then, his teams have finished third or fourth every season, but with mediocre records of 8-6 (2002-’03) and 7-7 (2003-’04, 2004-’05, 2005-’06). A drop-off like that should be cause for concern, even if the Elis are still finishing in the top four.
Granted, if the likely happens and the Bulldogs beat Princeton and lose to Penn on the road this weekend, Jones’ crew will finish 10-4, a very respectable finish and their best since 2002. But deciding whether or not a coach is achieving at the appropriate level should be more a function of the quality of his wins than the number. Yale has lost to Brown four times over the past three seasons; the Bears are 16-34 in Ivy play over that stretch. And the Elis have lost to two mediocre teams at home this season in matchups they won on the road previously.
Finally, just because a team is winning doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the coaching, and those problems eventually come back to cause those head-scratching losses. Jones is trigger-happy with his substitutions. His offense seems to be devoid of set plays. Until this year’s rash of injuries prevented it, he had a fondness for subbing in an entire “B” team at once from the bench, inevitably resulting in a run for the other team.
My favorite complaint this year is Jones’ proclivity for playing four men under six-foot-five at a time. Granted, injuries have been the cause of this for much of the season. But Saturday, big men Matt Kyle, Ross Morin, Paul Nelson and Sam Kaplan, newly returned from injury, were all available yet combined for a mere 48 minutes of play. The fact that Columbia big men John Baumann and Ben Nwachukwu combined for 34 points on 74 percent shooting — with Nwachukwu going 7-for-7 in only 13 minutes — is no fluke.
Basketball, as a premiere sport, will draw the most ire when we look back on this season. But three winter sports further away from the limelight — swimming, gymnastics and fencing — show even less adherence to high standards over time.
Over the past 10 years, the men’s swimming team has placed in the top half of the Ivy League eight times, but has not won the dual meet season since 1993 and last took the season-ending EISL Championships in 1972. The women’s team hasn’t fared better; it finished in the top half of the league only six times in the past 10 years, last winning the regular season in 1997. Its last Ivy Championship came in 1978.
The gymnastics team has finished in the top half of the Ivies in six of the last 10 years and has placed fourth in the nine-member ECACs for three straight years. Neither fencing team has placed in the top half of the Ivy League since 2002.
None of these resumes come across as exceptional. Yet swimming head coach Frank Keefe has been in charge of the men’s program since 1978 and the women’s program since 1980. Gymnastics head coach Barbara Tonry has led the program since 1973. And fencing head coach Harry Harutunian has been leading the Yale squad since 1969.
These coaches can’t feel pressure to succeed at the highest level when, for the past decade, they have been allowed to be consistently mediocre-to-OK. There is no way these coaches feel the necessary sense of immediacy to be great.
It’s a big problem when coaches get so old. College coaching is extremely strenuous, with both on-campus and recruiting responsibilities. Older coaches cannot possibly have the energy for these tasks that younger counterparts do. Also, sports change, and I find it hard to believe that a coach who has been at Yale for 30 years is able to stay on the cutting edge.
Yale isn’t the NFL, where Marty Schottenheimer can get fired despite leading the Chargers to a 12-4 regular season record. We aren’t Alabama, where coach Mike Shula could get fired for a 6-7 season one year removed from going 10-2. But we can have standards, and merely shooting for top half in the Ivy League isn’t good enough.
Dan Adler is a senior in Pierson College and a former Sports editor for the News. His column appears on Thursdays.