“I am the right man for the job,” Tony Reno proclaimed on Jan. 12, 2012. “There is no question that I am the right man for Yale football.”
In the famed Yale Bowl, Reno stood tall behind a podium adorned with a Yale University insignia. It was his first public appearance as the 34th head football coach in the school’s history. With a fresh buzz cut and a youthful smile, he exuded a confidence that could have inspired just about anyone.
But Reno was young, just 37 years old, and unproven. As a first-time head coach, he was tasked with the monumental challenge of rebuilding the tarnished image of a program that had once been the gold standard of college football.
Reno’s predecessor, Tom Williams, was unceremoniously ushered out of New Haven after evidence of embellishments on his resume surfaced in the national media. Williams, a high-profile coach who came to Yale after an assistant coaching stint in the National Football League, falsely reported that he had been a Rhodes Scholarship candidate and that he had signed with the San Francisco 49ers practice squad. Amid pressure from both within and without the program, he resigned from his post at Yale after three years.
Williams’ players didn’t help Yale football’s reputation, either. During the ousted coach’s tenure, allegations of sexual misconduct arose against star quarterback Patrick Witt ’12. Other players who were brothers of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity found themselves embroiled in a hazing scandal.
“Obviously there was animosity or whatever you want to call it at the end of the Tom Williams era,” said Jack Siedlecki, who was Yale’s head football coach before Williams and hired Reno in 2003 as an assistant. “Whenever you walk into a head coaching situation under those circumstances, it’s hard on everybody. But Tony understood what he was walking into. He knew that the program needed to be rebuilt and that it’s not done overnight.”
In 2017, six years after the tumultuous transition, Yale entered its seventh offseason under Reno as the reigning Ivy League champion following a 9–1 campaign. In the aftermath of an up-and-down start to his tenure, Reno has coupled an honest and accountable coaching style with relentless recruiting to lay the foundation for what many expect to be a championship-contending program for years to come.
The night of his introductory press conference in 2012, Reno and a staff of assistant coaches leftover from Williams’ tenure began recruiting for a season that was just nine months away. One of Reno’s first phone calls as a head coach went to Tyler Varga ’15.
Varga had just completed an impressive first season as a running back at the University of Western Ontario. Several Football Championship Subdivision schools had recruited Varga in high school, but he opted to stay near home in Canada. However, after he garnered numerous conferencewide and national accolades with his rookie-season performance, Varga decided to test the recruiting waters once more as a potential transfer.
As he remembers it, his first conversation with Reno began something like this: “Hey, it’s coach Reno, I’m the new head football coach at Yale. I want you to fly out [to New Haven] this weekend.”
Although taken aback by Reno’s candor, Varga was simultaneously captivated, and, mere days following the phone call, the international running back was on Yale’s campus for Reno’s first recruiting weekend.
“That was the first interaction I ever had with him,” Varga said. “I was obviously pretty surprised with his aggressive recruiting style, but he’s had a ton of success with it, and he’s arguably one of the best recruiters … in Division I football.”
At the end of the weekend, Varga was convinced. He committed to attend and play football at Yale University the upcoming fall.
Reno’s direct and honest recruiting style was cultivated over his 15 years as an assistant coach and intern at colleges of increasing stature. His first break came less than a year after his playing career at Worcester State College had ended. Reno joined Richard Manello’s staff as an intern for the football team at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he labored for over 100 hours per week in 1997.
As an intern, Reno made a lasting impression on Manello, who happened to be good friends with Siedlecki, Yale’s 32nd head football coach. Reno left after just one year with Manello to coach at his alma mater, clueless that word of the work he had done in Pennsylvania would find its way to Siedlecki.
“Richie just absolutely raved about his work ethic, his recruiting ability [and] his coaching ability,” Siedlecki said. “So, I originally hired Tony as a part-time coach [in 2003], and then I promoted him to a full-time position. Everything that Richie had said about him came to fruition.”
Even in his early days at Yale, Reno’s talent was undeniable. He helped the Bulldogs win an Ivy League title in 2006 and coached several All-Ivy talents in the defensive backfield. At the young age of 33, he was one of Siedlecki’s top assistant coaches.
But with the close of the 2008 season, in which the Elis dropped their second straight contest to Harvard, Siedlecki stepped down from his head coaching position. Siedlecki’s departure came with little explanation — after all, he had posted an impressive 23–7 record in his final three seasons. Faced with the uncertainty of a coaching transition, Reno returned to Massachusetts, where he had grown up and his family still lived, to coach at Harvard.
Under the tutelage of Crimson head coach Tim Murphy, who had then guided the Crimson to five conference titles in 15 years, the up-and-coming coach reached the pinnacle of Ivy League football. In Reno’s three seasons in Cambridge, Harvard won at least seven games and never finished below second place in the conference.
But a part of Reno never quite left New Haven.
When Yale’s athletics director Tom Beckett began yet another football head coach search following the controversial resignation of Williams, Reno found himself on the short list of candidates.
“We’re always looking for that coach who understands, first and foremost, the important aspect of the experience of our students who participate in the sport of football at Yale and the importance of their desire to seek a great education,” Beckett said.
At Harvard, Reno deepened his understanding of what it takes to be a successful coach in the Ivy League. Coupled with a unique knowledge of the intricacies of Yale football, this made him a viable candidate for Yale’s head coaching position. “I think [going to Harvard] was a tremendous decision that coach Reno made,” Beckett explained.
Reno’s first season in New Haven was a struggle. He inherited a roster composed primarily of players recruited prior to his arrival who were far from championship caliber. The Bulldogs went 2–8 that year.
In his second season, Reno improved the team’s record to 5–5. He continued this progression in a breakout third year that saw All-Ivy running back Varga couple with fellow transfer and quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 to lead Yale to an 8–2 record. But it was a short-lived success.
During the following two seasons, Reno’s fourth and fifth as head coach, injuries depleted the roster and demoralized the team. Limited staff in Yale’s sports medicine department left the team poorly equipped to handle these setbacks, and the Bulldogs’ record dropped first to 6–4 in 2015 and then to 3–7 in 2016.
The low point came in week 6 of the 2016 season when the Elis were pummeled 42–7 by Penn and dropped to 1–5 for the season. For some Yale students, the only thing keeping Reno in their good graces was a shocking upset victory in The Game four weeks later.
But within the Athletic Department and the Yale Football Association, which serves as the program’s booster club, individuals preached understanding and patience with Reno. They were well aware of the injuries that plagued Reno’s teams and withheld judgment until they could see a healthy and fully Reno-recruited team.
“It takes four years before a new coach has a team that’s filled with kids that he actually recruited,” said former Yale football captain Dr. Patrick Ruwe ’83 MED ’87, who previously served as the team’s orthopedic physician and currently serves as the president of the Yale Football Association. “So the early year of success was great, but it wasn’t truly a reflection of what the process takes to build a program. Over the years, what we saw in coach Reno was a structural change in the program and something that we were willing to nurture and allow to grow.”
Those who interacted daily with Reno noticed what outside fans simply couldn’t. They looked beyond final scores and season records and understood the change in program culture that was occurring under Reno’s supervision.
When Reno took over the program in 2012, he outlined a three-step plan to rebuild Yale football. He wanted to objectively assess the state of the team, get to know his players and recruit the right people to instill a winning culture.
From the outside, selling Yale University to high school juniors and seniors seems like it wouldn’t be all that difficult. With a world-class education, a picturesque campus and the opportunity to play Division I football, Yale leaves most qualified recruits with little to ask for. However, the real challenge lies in separating Yale from a pack of seven other Ivy League institutions that offer all of the same things and non-Ivy programs that can provide scholarships and the potential of a postseason.
While some coaches resort to selling their programs through modern facilities or shiny equipment, Reno aims to sell the core values of his program, which include being intentional, consistent and accountable on and off the field. Although fiercely competitive as a recruiter, he will be the last to sacrifice these values for talent that simply does not fit the mold of the Yale football family.
In line with this philosophy, Reno has shown and continues to show a genuine investment in the players he recruits. He trusts his coaches and players to serve as living testaments of what his program stands for.
“[Coach Reno] truly believes in leaders on the team being able to step up and show how it’s done,” All-Ivy linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18 said. “He puts a lot of stack in our captain to be able to show everyone how to be a Yale football player, how to be a Yale student [and] how to be an incredible person.”
His philosophy has completely turned Yale’s program around.
Yale’s last two recruiting classes have ranked among the top five in the Football Championship Subdivision, according to Herosports.com, and have brought highly ranked recruits to New Haven. But more importantly, they have brought like-minded individuals who share Reno’s vision of a program that transcends football.
“Jon Bezney [’18] was my host, and my thought process after leaving [my recruiting] visit was that, if the Yale football program can produce people with the kind of character that Jon has, then this a place that I really want to be,” said Sterling Strother ’20, who has started on the offensive line for the last season and a half.
In 2017, this cohesion off the field finally rewarded the patience of those like Beckett and Ruwe on the field. After a tumultuous first five seasons, Reno led his sixth team, the 145th in school history, to an Ivy League championship. With their remarkable bounce-back campaign, the Bulldogs snapped an 11-year title drought and a 37-year outright title drought. Not coincidentally, 2017 also marked the first year in which Yale’s football team was filled entirely of Reno recruits who remained healthy.
But Reno wasn’t hired for one good run every six years. What Yale football saw in a 37-year old Reno back in 2012 was the potential for sustained excellence, the potential for a coach and a program to grow alongside each other.
Throughout Yale’s remarkable turnaround in 2017, Reno seemed content with each win, but he never seemed completely satisfied. No matter how well the team played, Reno preached staying the course and working toward reaching the team’s potential.
“Coach Reno always talked about how he wants … to be part of a revolution for Yale Football, to propel the program to the top of the Ivy League [again],” Strother said. “It’s one thing to come into a program that’s been winning for a long time and maintain that, but it’s a different thing to come in and try to reset the standard.”
For this reason, Reno was back in the office just two days after completing a 9–1 season, working to do it all over again. Although his 100-hour work weeks as an intern are long behind him, Reno continues to put in the work to get Yale football right.
“Just from face value, I think he’s one of the hardest working coaches I’ve ever seen,” said Steve Conn, associate athletics director and director of sports publicity. “He’s always in his office, always trying to present an image; you can call it old-school, you can call it professional, you can call it respectful, but every time you see him he’s wearing a coat and tie unless he’s on the sidelines or at practice. He really, really loves doing what he’s doing.”
Conn, a lifelong Yale football fan and Yale Athletics employee for 31 years, said that Reno reminded him of legendary Yale coach Carm Cozza. Much like Reno, Cozza, who went on to become the winningest head coach in Yale history, was hired as a first-time head coach at the young age of 35 in 1965. Over the course of the next 32 seasons in New Haven, he led the Bulldogs to 10 Ivy League Championships. Cozza was and is the standard of Yale football.
Conn isn’t the only one to draw this comparison. Although it’s just six years into Reno’s tenure, Beckett, who has seen his fair share of coaches in almost 24 years as Yale’s athletics director, also sees similarities between Reno and Cozza in the way that they interact with their players.
“Coach Reno has convinced his students how much he cares. I am beyond confident and as excited as I have ever been about the future of Yale Football under the guidance of coach Reno,” said Beckett, who plans to retire this upcoming June.
Just six years ago, the Yale football program was in shambles. Rocked by integrity conflicts with its head coach and sexual misconduct accusations against its players, a team that was once the heart and soul of Yale University brought scandal to New Haven. But under the guidance of head coach Tony Reno, the Bulldogs have begun to lay the foundations for sustained programwide success.
“I’ve said this to Tom Beckett many times,” Siedlecki said. “The best decision he’s made in his whole career was hiring Tony.”