The long road back

The yearned-for triumph over Harvard didn't pan out. But football coach Tony Reno is still rebuilding. 

Alex Goldberger '08 is an Olympics researcher at NBC.


Not much has gone right for the Yale football program over the last 14 months. A 45–7 loss to Harvard in 2011 was followed by messy public controversies involving head coach Tom Williams, who resigned after he was found to have lied about being a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, and star quarterback Patrick Witt ’12, who was revealed by the New York Times to have been accused of sexual assault on campus (a charge Witt denies). In August, linebacker Will McHale ’13 resigned as captain of the team because of an arrest for punching another student in the face at a nightclub. 

Things weren’t much better on the football field. By the time the Bulldogs traveled to Harvard for the 129th playing of The Game, their win-loss record was 2–7—guaranteeing that 2012 would be their worst season in 15 years. They would be competing against a team that had beaten them in 10 of the past 11 years, and a team that, this year, had the best offense in the Ivy League and had defeated Columbia 69–0 just two weeks earlier. 

Sportswriters predicted a rout, with the Crimson winning by four touchdowns. On game day in Cambridge, local sentiment toward the visitors seemed to have shifted from the usual hostility to indifference: a ubiquitous T-shirt at the tailgates read, “KEEP CALM, IT’S ONLY YALE.”

And then something unexpected happened. No, Yale didn’t walk away with the win. But Tony Reno—Yale’s promising but relatively inexperienced coach, a former Yale assistant hired in January to replace Williams—pulled his team together to cheat fate anyway, turning the game from a foregone conclusion into a barn burner. For a team that had been expected to lose ignominiously, it was a stirring performance.

In the first half, Yale’s defense played its finest two quarters of the season. Following his earlier stint at Yale, Reno had spent three seasons as the coach for special teams and defensive backs at Harvard, and when he returned to New Haven in January, he’d brought three other Harvard assistants with him. Few coaches outside of Boston were as well acquainted with the Harvard offense as Reno and his staff. And apparently, they saved a special game plan for the Crimson. “They came out and didn’t play any of the defenses they’ve been playing all year,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy would say later. “It took us a while to adjust to that.” At halftime, the game was tied, 3–3.

Yale’s offense had more of a problem. During the season, the team had cycled through quarterbacks at a dizzying pace. One quit the team during the preseason. Three others were injured in the Penn game alone. By the time Henry Furman ’14 started against Princeton, he was either the fifth or sixth man in, depending on how you counted. By season’s end, Yale quarterbacks seemed to be everywhere except on the field; another, Dez Duron ’13, had left school in 2011 to pursue a singing career in Los Angeles. (He was a sensation this fall on NBC’s The Voice.)

Derek Russell ’13, who had been converted from wide receiver to quarterback, started against Harvard, but during the first half it became evident that his limited throwing range had left the Yale offense looking like something out of the Walter Camp era. In the third quarter, Harvard went up 13–3, and Reno decided he needed to make a change.

He called on Furman, another former wide receiver, who promptly threw a 46-yarder to Cameron Sandquist ’14. It was Yale’s longest play in six weeks. Two plays later, running back Tyler Varga ’15 scored Yale’s first touchdown, bringing the score to  13–10.

During the fourth quarter, the teams combined for 35 points. Thanks to Furman and the speedy receiver Grant Wallace ’15—who corralled a long, high-arcing pass to cross into Harvard territory, and then, on third down, made an improbable catch in the end zone amid a sea of Crimson—Yale got ahead for the first time in the game, 17–13. Harvard countered with a long touchdown pass. But thanks to Varga’s second touchdown, Yale regained the lead—24–20 with just 7:07 left to play.