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Larry Ciotti was the first football coach Daniel Hand High School ever hired. In 1970, the Madison, Connecticut school hired Ciotti — then only four years removed from a college football career at Southern Connecticut State — to build its football program.
Over the next 18 seasons, Ciotti turned the school into a football powerhouse. Hand High School appeared in seven state championships, earning four titles and winning over 76 percent of its games. When Ciotti left after the 1988 season, he left in place a framework that has allowed the Tigers to win nine state titles since.
Today, Ciotti coaches the running backs on a Yale team that has broken offensive records left and right. He has worked with some of the greatest rushers in school history and left his mark on both individual players and the program as a whole.
Ciotti did not starting coaching the Bulldogs until 1991, when he joined Carm Cozza’s staff at Yale. He brought with him a philosophy that focuses on respecting the players. Ciotti said that when he coaches, he tries to always keep in mind the amount of energy and time players willingly give up.
According to Ciotti, his experience at the high school level was conducive to the recruiting process at Yale.
“We have recruits that are entering freshmen,” Ciotti said. “They’re just months away from being in high school. I think that I had the knowledge and the experience to acclimate them and orient them to a college football program.”
After working under Cozza and his successor, Jack Siedlecki, as the freshman coach, linebackers coach and running backs coach, Ciotti retired in 2008.
His departure coincided with Siedlecki’s resignation, just two years removed from an Ivy title in 2006 — also the last time the Bulldogs beat Harvard in The Game.
“I didn’t really want to break in a new staff and learn a new system,” Ciotti said. “It’s like learning a foreign language when you’re trying to learn a new offensive system.”
By the time Ciotti left, his running backs had rewritten the record books. One name in particular stands out: Mike McLeod ’09. McLeod currently owns the Yale records for most rushing yards and most rushing touchdowns in one season.
McLeod spent four years with Ciotti and credited Ciotti’s hands-off approach as a factor in his success.
“He gave me freedom to do a lot of what I wanted to do on the field,” McLeod said. “That’s important for every runner. It’s not about coaching. You can’t teach somebody how to run. You give them ideas on how to be successful.”
McLeod recalled Ciotti created drills that improved fullbacks’ downfield blocking abilities. These holes, he said, allowed him to earn the yardage he did.
In 2007, as a junior, McLeod scored 23 total touchdowns, breaking the school record. He ascribed both his prolific career and his off-the-field persona to Ciotti.
But retirement did not last long for Ciotti. When head coach Tony Reno took over the program in 2011, he pitched an idea to Ciotti: come back to Yale and coach running back Tyler Varga ’15.
“When I came out of retirement, it just seemed as though I was sitting at my desk and Heaven dropped Tyler Varga into my lap,” Ciotti said. “It’s a great experience, to coach him. On top of all his athletic prowess, he’s a phenomenal person and a phenomenal student. I’m very blessed.”
Under Ciotti, current running back Tyler Varga ’15 has tied McLeod’s record through nine games this season, with 20 touchdowns on the ground and three through the air.
But although their arrivals coincided, Varga was not the reason Reno sought out Ciotti. Reno said he wanted to work alongside an experienced coach.
Reno also wanted someone who had the same values and who embraced the Yale and greater New Haven communities. According to Reno, Ciotti fit the bill.
“Larry has been a great mentor for me,” Reno said. “I don’t know anyone in the Yale football community, outside of Coach Cozza, who has the same respect that Coach Ciotti does with players that have played here. That’s why I wanted him.”
Reno and Ciotti actually met in 2000, when Siedlecki hired Reno as an assistant.
Ciotti recalled interviewing Reno for his first stint at Yale. Reno and Ciotti overlapped for seven years, during which the two grew close.
“When [Reno] got the job, I was really excited because I knew he would be the guy to bring the program back,” Ciotti said. “I wanted to see Yale and Harvard playing for the Ivy League championship every single year. That’s the way it should be, and that’s what’s happening right now, only in our third year. I came back because I wanted to see the program come back under the leadership of Tony Reno, because I believe in him.”
Thus far, it appears that Ciotti’s vision has come to fruition. Though Reno’s first season ended with a 2–8 record, the team has continued improving. The Bulldogs finished 5–5 last year, and with one game left to go this season, the Elis currently sit at 8–1.
If they win against Harvard on Saturday, the Bulldogs will rise to 9–1 and clinch their first share of the Ivy League title since 2006.