The long road back


How did the much-maligned Bulldogs manage to climb to that score in a game Harvard was supposed to walk away with? During a trying first year on the job, Reno had made a concerted effort to recalibrate a program that many felt had lost its way under Williams. He set the tone just a few days after he was hired: finding the level of tardiness at an early-morning workout unacceptable, he ordered a series of wind sprints. 

Most of Reno’s first weeks on the job, though, were spent on the road, as he scrambled to assemble the second half of the incoming class recruited by Williams. Young, energetic, and earnest, Reno was known as a skilled recruiter when he was an assistant, and the returns from his early work as a head coach have likewise been promising. Among the freshmen he brought in last winter were Eric Williams ’16, who started the first six games at quarterback, and Cole Champion ’16, a standout free safety. Reno also lured the star running back, Varga, who transferred from the University of Western Ontario and became Yale’s best player as a sophomore this year. “Recruiting’s tough,” Reno said in November, a few days before he hit the road again. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a year-round thing. But I really like it. I like developing relationships with the kids, with the families. It’s the most important thing you do as a football coach.”

Reno had little trouble recruiting, but he had a maddening time keeping players on the field. The attrition rate for the Yale offense this season was staggering, and it wasn’t just because of the quarterback carousel. Deon Randall ’14, the leading pass catcher in 2011, and Keith Coty ’14, the starting tight end, suffered season-ending injuries before the first game. Chris Smith ’13, a dynamic receiver and return man, took the semester off for personal reasons. By season’s end Reno was resorting to gallows humor. Asked by the New York Times who he would pick as starting quarterback, he said, “We’ll see who’s eligible.”

Reno has developed a reputation for keeping tight control over his players—which distinguishes him from his more laissez-faire predecessor, according to players who played for both men. Among the many rules Reno instituted was a ban on driving to the Bowl for practice—to reinforce the idea that every player is equal—and a limit of one “social night” per week. “Our work ethic right now is through the roof,” defensive lineman Chris Dooley ’13 said on the eve of the Harvard game. “He’s just instilling that attitude in us, and it’s exactly what we needed. I think that was missing.”

The coach seems to think his team is coming around. “One of the things our players showed week in, week out, is an unbelievable ability to be resilient in any situation,” he says. “No matter who got hurt or what the call was or who played quarterback, guys just played. And that’s going to really help us moving forward.”

Reno has done more than foster an ethos of toughness and discipline: he is endeavoring to integrate the team better with the broader Yale community. “One of the big things when we came in was that there were a lot of on-campus issues,” he says. “It’s really important to me that the football team respects Yale and is well respected by Yale.” He has encouraged upperclassmen to live in their residential colleges—instead of moving into apartments or fraternity houses, as many have traditionally done—and he has formalized a mentoring program to help newcomers better assimilate to campus life. That’s how Furman, an English major from Portland, Oregon, came to know Varga, a premed transfer from Ontario, long before they teamed up to lead the near-comeback at Harvard. In August, the quarterback helped advise the running back on a “bucket list” of things to do in New Haven, like attending an a cappella concert and spending time at East Rock. 

Ultimately, Reno’s players need to be more than just well-rounded student-athletes; they must eventually beat Harvard. That is the challenge of the Yale job, and Reno did not pull it off this November. The 24–20 score near the end of the game was Yale’s peak. Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple, the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, ran for 61 yards, then found the skyscraping tight end Cameron Brate with a high pass in the back of the end zone. Yale came up empty on its next drive. Finally, Harvard’s Treavor Scales delivered a 63-yard touchdown run to finish off the 34–24 Crimson win.

At the postgame press conference, Reno had trouble keeping still, as if his game-day fire could have been  extinguished only by a Gatorade bath. He knows that a victory at Harvard could have made up for a dismal season, and he was one of the few who had believed it possible all along. “I don’t think there was anybody but the 90-something guys in that locker room and our coaches and our staff that knew what we could do,” Reno said. “These guys have battled through more things this season than any football team can imagine. I’m not happy with the result, but these guys showed the world what they are and what Yale football’s all about.”  


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