Two years after posting a disappointing 2–8 record, the Yale football team’s historic 2014 season highlighted the program’s rebuilding under head coach Tony Reno.
This year the Elis boasted an 8–2 record, with the spread offense that Reno introduced to the team in 2012 progressing to unforeseen levels of production, breaking Yale single-season records in passing, rushing and receiving.
But after Yale fell to Harvard for the eighth straight time on a touchdown pass in the final seconds, it is clear that the Bulldogs still have room to grow. And although Reno and Director of Athletics Tom Beckett declined to comment on contract discussions, both said that they hope to see Reno continue to see that growth happen for a long time.
“You look back, and look at the great coaches in Ivy League history — [Yale’s] Carm Cozza, [Penn’s] Al Bagnoli and now [Harvard’s] Tim Murphy has been that — guys who have been in their place for a long period of time and have really been able to establish a winning tradition,” Reno said. “I hope that 25 years down the road, that Yale will still have me.”
Reno initially signed with Yale in January 2012, less than a month after the resignation of former head coach Tom Williams amid controversy over his history as a Rhodes Scholar candidate and practice squad player for the San Francisco 49ers. Reno had previously been a defensive backs and special teams coach at Harvard for three years, but he was on Yale’s coaching staff for six years before his time in Cambridge.
With 15 wins and 15 losses to his name as head coach, the 34th Yale head coach remains one of just two multi-season Yale coaches without a winning record. But the upward trend of his 2–8, 5–5 and 8–2 records is clear, and both Reno and senior leader offensive lineman Will Chism ’15 said that this progress was because of increasing levels of talent.
This past season was the first in which the majority of Yale players were recruited under Reno. Of the 2014 squad, only the senior class and half of the junior class remain out of players recruited before Reno came on, according to captain and defensive back Cole Champion ’16, who will serve as next year’s captain. Reno did, however, finish the recruiting process for running back Tyler Varga ’15, who is now a finalist for Ivy League offensive player of the year and a potential NFL prospect.
“In the interviewing process, he painted this picture of what would happen as he developed the program, and how much time it would take, and all the things he wanted to try and accomplish,” Beckett said. “He’s right in step with everything that he presented to the Yale search committee. I can’t tell you how impressive that is.”
Multiple players said that the main change Reno instituted upon taking the head coaching job was a mentality shift. Coined phrases like “stick with the process,” “overcome adversity” and “one day at a time” have become central to Reno’s statements in press conferences and in the locker room.
Linebacker Will Vaughan ’15 said in a press conference earlier this season that this attitude helped the Elis overcome early deficits to Lehigh, Army and Brown this season.
“When [Reno] showed up here, he said that things are going to go a certain way, that we’re going to deal with process before outcome,” Champion said. “We take everything one day at a time for everything — one rep at a time, one workout at a time. We really try to make everything small picture. If you focus on big picture, you miss a lot of the details that make a difference in the end.”
Champion added that when Reno moved from Harvard to the head job in New Haven, it was Reno’s coaching techniques and player interactions that sparked Champion’s desire to play for Yale.
Reno’s recruiting abilities have given Yale many high-profile players such as Varga, quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, a 2013 transfer from Clemson, and defensive end Victor Egu ’17, who had verbally committed to the University of California, Berkeley and held offers from Oregon and Notre Dame before committing to Yale.
“Push the envelope,” Reno said about his recruiting philosophy. “Go for the best kids that are out there and don’t be satisfied with guys who are good players — go get the great ones. The other piece is recruiting guys who are football players — guys who wake up in the morning thinking about football and go to bed at night thinking about football.”
This year, Reno’s results were seen not only on the Eli squad, but on that of its rival. As the southeast region recruiter for Harvard, Reno recruited Harvard’s 2014 captain Norman Hayes as well as defensive end Zach Hodges, who won the 2013 Ivy defensive player of the year award and is a finalist for the same honor this season.
But Reno also took talent from Harvard. Reno hired Joe Conlin as his offensive line coach shortly after leaving Cambridge, and Conlin was promoted to offensive coordinator this season. Chism said that Conlin’s contributions to the offense are a central reason for Yale’s success this season.
“Joe Conlin is the real deal, and Yale is very fortunate to have him on staff,” Chism said. “He’s learned from the best in this industry — [Philadelphia Eagles head coach] Chip Kelly in particular. He’s coached on both sides of the ball … He’s a crafty offensive coordinator with a serious eye for talent. He knows talent when he sees it.”
Reno also convinced running backs coach Larry Ciotti to come back from retirement, after Ciotti had served on Yale’s coaching staff from 1991 to 2007.