In his first public appearance as Yale’s head football coach, in January, Tom Williams said he had two goals for this season: winning the Ivy League championship and beating Harvard.
Though the first of those goals is out of reach for the Bulldogs, who are tied for fourth in the Ivy League, Williams will get his first shot against the Crimson in the 126th edition of The Game on Saturday.
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As Yale’s 33rd head coach, Williams — who replaced Jack Siedlecki when he stepped down after 12 seasons at the helm — came to New Haven last January after two years as an assistant for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Williams began his coaching career in 1994 at Stanford, his alma mater, where he was a graduate assistant for legendary head coach Bill Walsh. From Stanford, Williams went on to be an assistant coach at Hawaii, Washington and San Jose State before joining the Jaguars.
Williams’ fifth career move landed him in New Haven to lead the Bulldogs through their 2009 season. Wide receiver Gio Christodoulou ’11 noted that this shift has marked a change in Yale football.
“He definitely brought a different mind-set, a mind-set of ‘We get what we earn,’ ” Christodoulou said. “Every day we practice, we practice hard.”
Still, that mind-set apparently has not brought much success this season. The Bulldogs, 4-5 (2-5 in Ivy League play), are heavy underdogs against a Harvard team that just suffered its first Ivy League loss last week against first-place Penn. The Elis are in danger of finishing under .500 for the first time since 2005 and losing against the Crimson for the third consecutive season.
Injuries to Christodoulou, who had to redshirt after suffering a season-ending turf toe injury in the second game of the season, and safety Larry Abare ’10, who will play for the first time this weekend since breaking his arm against Lehigh on Oct. 17, did not help matters for the rookie head coach. Both Christodoulou and Abare were key players returning for this season, and losing them forced Williams to rely more on inexperienced players.
But Williams said that regardless of his team’s youth this season, it has been a smooth transition for the Bulldogs both on and off the field, and he credits that mostly to the players.
“I think that’s due to the fact that our players are dedicated, and they’re competitive,” Williams said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad attitude, and as long as they continue to do those types of things and have that kind of attitude I think we’ll be fine. The experience will come.”
Both players and coaches are confident in each other, and according to running back Rodney Reynolds ’10, Williams made an impact quickly with the members of the team and the football program as a whole.
“He has brought a real sense of tradition and respect that we didn’t necessarily recognize before,” Reynolds said.
The team knew things would be different under Williams, but a change came early, quarterback Brook Hart ’11 said of the immediate impact Williams had. Hart recalled one day last spring during a practice when the players were “brawling” during practice as they did often. And Williams took charge.
“[Williams] jumped in and started grabbing people out,” Hart said. “It was kind of surprising how strong he was and that he jumped in there. That kind of laid down some ground rules about fighting after that. You know that sticks out and shows how he commands respect.”
Williams’ faith in the future of Yale football has only grown stronger after spending a full season with the Bulldogs: With such a young group, he said the future is bright for the Elis.
“I told [Director of Athletics] Tom Beckett a couple weeks ago that I’m more excited to be the head coach here now than when I first got the job,” Williams said.
Although Williams said he thinks there will be success for the Bulldogs in future seasons, there is no denying that the biggest game for him yet is Saturday.
As much as the Bulldogs try to treat Harvard as just any other opponent they have faced this season, Williams admits that the Elis cannot help but treat their archrivals with more zeal.
“You know you try to prepare for everybody the same,” Williams said. “But you end up spending some extra time on your rival because you want to do everything you can to put your players in a position to be successful on Saturday.”
For more Harvard-Yale coverage, visit yaledailynews.com/thegame.