Not Your Grandfather’s Team: Yale Football Embraces Tradition with New Outlook
Each Tuesday at noon, Tony Reno, Yale’s head football coach, holds a press event at Mory’s. He sits in a place that celebrates “Old Yale”—the restaurant was founded on campus in 1849. Dozens of portraits of former football players hang on the mahogany walls around him.
“This year, our record doesn’t indicate how well I think we can play, for a variety of reasons. You can put your finger on probably three or four different things that are affecting the outcome of this team,” Reno said. “But the bottom line is this: that’s in the past, and we need to worry about what we can focus on today and in the future. Obviously, my focus and their focus is how we can be the best possible team today.”
Reno has been Yale’s coach for nearly five years. He leads 99 players and 12 assistant coaches. The weekend before the press lunch, Yale had lost to Penn 42-7.
Three weeks after, Reno will travel with the team to Cambridge for the Harvard-Yale game, the Ivy League’s biggest sporting event of the year. Harvard and Yale first competed in 1875. Yale has since won 65 games, lost 59, and tied 8. For the last ten Novembers, however, Yale has lost every game to its Crimson rival.
Two years ago, Reno started numbering the teams. Number one starts in 1872, when the team was founded. This year’s team is number 144.
“I want our players to understand that they are a small piece in an incredible history and tradition of Yale football,” Reno said in an interview with The Politic. “As a football family, we need to continue to grow and get better.”
This year, the team is struggling. In an October game against Lehigh, Yale allowed 63 points—tied for an all-time team worst.
The Yale fans of today may look at their team’s losses and forget it was here that football took shape as a sport nearly 150 years ago.
“Yale was a powerhouse,” John Miller, author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football told The Politic. “It was dominant in two ways: first was because it had a really good team that did a lot of winning. And second was because of Walter Camp.”
Walter Camp, class of 1882, is considered the “father of modern football.” A Yale graduate and New Haven resident, Camp played football at Yale and later served as the team’s head coach. He helped define the rules of the game, and invented the quarterback position and the line of scrimmage.
“Camp would claim all the things football promotes—discipline, even in some ways the physicality—was the kind of hardening that boys would need to become effective males in corporate life,” Julie Des Jardins, professor of history at Baruch College and author of Walter Camp: Football and Manhood in America said in an interview with The Politic.
“It’s sort of easy to make that claim when Yale was so much better at football than everybody else,” she said. At that time, Des Jardins said, great football players often went on to become successful businessmen. Camp could persuasively argue that their success came from the values they learned on the Yale team.
Herb Hallas ‘59 sat on the bleachers of the Yale Bowl watching the game against Dartmouth in the rain. The players ran onto the field while the Yale Precision Marching Band played pop song covers with gusto.
Hallas played on the Yale team as a left halfback and safety in 1956, the first season of the Ivy League. He holds a school record for his 94-yard punt return—a feat, a friend of his added, that is sometimes listed in the programs. As Hallas watched his old team play Dartmouth sixty years later, he reflected on how the sport has changed since he played in an interview with The Politic. For one thing, he said, the stadium would have been sold out when he was playing. It was mostly empty that day.
“Football was a religion,” Joel Alderman ’51 said in an interview with The Politic.
“Traffic would be lined up and down Route 34 for miles and miles,” Rich Marazzi, author of A Bowl Full of Memories: 100 Years of Football at the Yale Bowl, told The Politic.
Most current students are not regulars at football games. Even at “The Game,” the annual Harvard-Yale matchup, football itself is often not the weekend’s main focus. Though students don traditional blue and white sweaters with the letter Y, many leave the game early. Last year, some students sported shirts reading: “I would prefer if Yale won because that is where I go to school.”
Two freshmen told The Politic they were planning to go to Cambridge for the festivities, but asked “did anyone actually go to the football game?” They had heard the Harvard stadium sells out quickly, but they weren’t fussed.
“I would like to see larger crowds at the games. I think going Division IAA has affected the prestige of the program,” Marazzi said.
“It’s sad,” Alderman agreed.
But as Penelope Laurans, former Master of Jonathan Edwards College, wrote in an email to The Politic, “You can’t compare apples to oranges.”
“In earlier times,” Laurans wrote, “the student body was much less heterogeneous, there were not 400+ student organizations with people heavily invested in many different activities, people did not watch sports on TV or online to nearly the same degree.”
“If 2,000 students come out to a Yale football game it looks as if there is a puny number in the Bowl. But what other student organization gets 2,000 student fans (or to one or sometimes two games many more)—beyond men’s ice hockey or an occasional men’s basketball game?” she asked.
Some students do take an interest in sports. In 2009, a group of students founded the Whaling Crew, a club to encourage school spirit for athletics. Adam Lowet ‘18 is the current president of the organization.
“There are schools across the country where, even if it’s an off-year for that team, football culture is enough ingrained that it is the thing that people do on a Saturday, and everyone across campus—whether they played sports in high school, whether they even like watching sports period—go to the games and go to the tailgates because it is just what one does,” Lowet said in an interview with The Politic.
“At the end of the day, we view the role of college athletics not as a way of maximizing the number of trophies, championships, or titles that we get, but as an awesome opportunity to build community across divisions at Yale,” he said.
Hallas shares this opinion.
“Sports is an educational activity,” he said. “The Ivy League is kind of hanging onto that idea. But nationally and culturally, it’s a losing idea—sports is seen only as entertainment.”
“I don’t think dominance should be the goal of the sports program,” Miller echoed. “If you believe sports have an educational benefit, and I do, what you want fundamentally is a program that’s going to benefit the athletes and help them become better people.”
Perhaps by circumstance, the Yale team takes this view, too. The team’s leaders have started emphasizing core values the team can always practice, even when they don’t win: accountability, mental and physical toughness, competition, family, and belief. Before every lift or practice, the team recites a creed, pledging commitment to each of these values.
One of the team’s values is “extreme ownership,” a concept that comes from the book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win.
“The day your team starts to win and takes the next step into your team being great is when every person on your team owns their role to the best of their ability,” tight end Sebastian Little ’17 said in an interview with The Politic.
“I think we are growing as a team. Obviously our record is not the greatest right now. But each and every week we’ve taken a step towards that extreme ownership,” Little said.
“We harp on process a lot…and we try to avoid the word ‘outcome,’” Little said, a plastic band reading “PROCESS” visible on his wrist. The team’s creed begins with a vow to “believe in the process.”
In interviews with The Politic, it was clear the message has sunk in.
“It’s more than results or wins,” said quarterback Tre Moore ’19. “You gotta focus on the next ten feet ahead of you,” said wide receiver Ross Drwal ’18. “It’s not ‘we want to win an Ivy League championship’—‘win the practice,’” said defensive back Will Bryan ’18. “There’s an understanding that football matters, but it’s not the only thing in the world,” said former offensive lineman Tom Woznicki ‘08. “We’re not going to die if we lose,” agreed defensive back Foye Oluokun ‘17.
This balanced attitude is different from old ideas of physical domination.
“Better make a boy an outdoor savage than an indoor weakling,” Camp used to say.
Even seventy years ago, Bill Conway ’49, who is the oldest living former captain of the team, told The Politic, an alum used to tell the players, “When you are in New York on the street and you walk by somebody from Princeton you played, you want to say, ‘I beat you, you son of a bitch!’”
“I’ve been entrusted to build upon the tradition and legacy of Yale football, which is the number three all-time winning program in college football history, a program that has produced not only professional athletes but extraordinary men in all different fields,” Reno said.
The team has not won a championship since 2006. But Reno has left his mark on the team.
“We have a real plan. A lot of football teams say they do things but there’s really not a plan,” he said.
Since starting as head coach in 2012, Reno has started two programs to support the players: an academic program and a leadership program. In almost every exit interview, Reno found that seniors agreed on one thing they wish they had done better: time management. Reno worked with the former Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel, former Dean of Yale College Mary Miller, Penelope Laurans, and Director of Athletics Tom Beckett to put together an academic support program. Reno can rattle off academic resources on campus faster than most students can—the Writing Center, office hours, student tutors, residential college services.
Reno also designed a leadership program with General Stanley McChrystal over six months of meetings.
“If you go to school at Yale, there should be a level of leadership—a little more is expected of you,” Reno said.
Reno explained that the players start the program as freshmen and are incrementally given more and more responsibility.
“By the time they’re seniors, they are entrusted in leaving a legacy, to help make the jersey they wear better for the next guy who wears it,” he said.
“We need to represent three different things,” kicker Brian Dolan ’20 said in an interview with The Politic. “The name on the front of our jersey, which is Yale; the name on the back of our jersey, which is just our family; and then Yale football as a program.” For Dolan, those things fuse. His father, Yale class of 1982, played on the team.
When asked what was special about the Yale football team, the players responded almost unanimously: family.
“You immediately come here, and you feel like you’re part of the Yale family,” Oluokun said.
Moore appreciated the close relationship the coaches forged with him during the recruiting process. They sent him handwritten letters, came to watch him at his high school basketball games, and had dinner at his house. He knew he wanted to come to Yale when Reno talked told the prospects that the team was “bigger than football.”
“It’s raising men for the future,” Moore said. “He reminded me a lot of my dad in the way that he talked.”
“We work together to raise these young men,” Reno reflected.
Walter Camp believed football hardened boys into men. In the late 19th century, he belonged to the first generation that had not fought in the Civil War.
“White, college educated males had not had a war to harden them,” Des Jardins said. Adding to this insecurity were recessions in 1873 and 1893. Des Jardins explained that the men of Camp’s generation also felt their power threatened by immigrants and women.
“It’s not a coincidence that this is the moment when Walter Camp decides to basically create a game that simulates war on a simulated battlefield,” Des Jardins said.
The sport was so rough that many young men died on the field in Camp’s time—at least 45 between 1900 and 1905. At the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, a proponent of “rough sports,” Camp changed the rules of the game to make it safer.
Beyond the physical roughness, there are also planned strategies and clear delineations of offense and defense. Des Jardins noted that the newspaper roundups of the Harvard-Yale football game could be confused for coverage of the Spanish-American War.
“There are a lot of analogies between war and football,” Little said.
Even now, each year the rising senior class takes a weekend trip to the Gettysburg battlefield.
Though echoes of Camp’s football philosophy remain, the comparisons to war now are less about physical strength and more about teamwork.
“In one of the battles, soldiers stood next to each other in twelve inches of rain, and they had one of their brothers, the other soldiers, on their right and one on the left,” Little recounted. The players talk about doing their “one eleventh” on the football field—doing their part to support the other ten players. Each of those soldiers, Little explained, was one fraction of the whole.
“It’s a life changing experience,” Reno said.
“It is like a full time job. It can feel like the only things I’m doing are football and school,” center Karl Marback ’18 said in an interview with The Politic. The schedule, which can start at 4:45am and finish as late as 10:00pm on some days, is undeniably challenging.
“But I think that’s not the way a lot of people see us,” he said. “A lot of people who aren’t athletes, I don’t feel, quite understand how much we have to do and how difficult it is to balance everything,” he continued.
In 2014, as part of a yearly prank before the Harvard-Yale game, a group of Harvard students came to New Haven and posed as Yale students collecting signatures for a petition that would cut funding for the football team (3.2 million dollars in fiscal year 2014-2015). The Harvard student asked a football player if he thought Yale could win that year’s game against the Crimson.
“I think we’ve got a really good shot,” he responds in the video. “We just gotta stick to the process.”
“Is it the same process that we’ve used, like, the last seven years against them?” the Harvard student asks.
Woznicki, a former player, reflected on the relationship between the team and the rest of the student body.
“I think it’s very intimidating going into Yale because you may think you don’t belong there academically in that community and your classmates are so unbelievably talented and intelligent and dedicated and it can be very comforting to know this group of people is just like me,” he said.
The thinking became, “Even if we don’t belong, at least we have our own little cohort,” he said. “But it’s kind of silly.”
Despite high academic requirements for athletes—which is part of why Yale and other Ivy League schools do not have dominant football teams—Marback feels some students look down on athletes, especially when he first came to Yale.
“I really did feel like there were people who saw us athletes as like second-class students who didn’t really deserve to be here because we got here through our athletics instead of just academics,” Marback said. As a biomedical engineering major, he has taken on a heavy academic workload.
Woznicki believes the division was in some part self-imposed.
“When you have an in-group like that, the things that bond you together kind of define you, and when you’re defined as athletes, you’re defined against the non-athletes…When you’re eighteen [years old], nineteen, it kind of makes sense of the world around you a little bit,” he reflected.
Woznicki said this segregation stops some players from experiencing all of the diversity Yale holds. He had the chance to meet new people when he got injured going into his senior year and was unable to play.
“I joke with my friends that I’m so glad I tore my ACL because it allowed me to branch out of that insulated community,” he said.
But former quarterback Lambie Lanman ‘18 said in his experience there was overlap between the football team and the student body. Since leaving the team, Lanman said in an interview with The Politic, there is “not too much of a difference in terms of how I interact with the student body.”
“At some large football programs, there’s a sense that major athletes are untouchable. That’s not the case at Yale,” Lanman added.
Linebacker Darius Manora ‘17, the team’s captain, told The Politic he sees the benefits of a more low-key program.
“It’s great going on the street and no one knowing who I am rather than always feeling like ‘I am a football player,’” he said.
The students who signed the petition to cut off funding for the team had never seen Yale triumph in The Game. To them, the school is wasting money. And the question is a fair one: Why does Yale lose to Harvard?
“If there was one answer to why, then it would probably be easier to fix,” Steven Conn, Yale’s Associate Athletics Director and Director of Sports Publicity said in an interview with The Politic.
Of any athletic event all year, the Harvard-Yale game gets the most attention. Most Yale students stay on campus or travel to Cambridge to watch the game, giving up the first day of Thanksgiving break. For Reno, The Game is a game like any other.
“Every coach fights for every game,” he insisted. Most players interviewed echoed the sentiment.
“You can’t take any game lightly,” said Drwal. Little said it is important to ignore the “frequency” and focus on playing well. “We take that with a grain of salt. We play for our family,” said Oluokun.
Laurans wrote that the pressure comes with the territory.
“Sports are unique because Ws and Ls [wins and losses] are so public,” she said. “You can act in a bad play which gets horrible reviews and which over five performances might be seen by a thousand people—but since bad and good are open to critical interpretation it is not quite the same as when you win or lose contests—Ws and Ls are very bottom line. It is something all athletes and coaches cope with.”
Today at Yale, low student turnout and highly visible losses mean that many students know little about the football team save for its losing streak against Harvard.
Alums like Hallas, Conway, and Alderman remember more glorious times for the team.
“Of course [alums] are disappointed we’re not winning as many as championships, we’re not sending as many people to the NFL. How could they not be disappointed that we’re not doing what we used to?” Conn said.
But the scoreboard means something. After losing to Penn, Little acknowledged, “It’s tough.” “We talk about being process-oriented, but it does seep into the locker room when you lose games like that.”
“I think it falls a lot on leadership. It’s a personal responsibility of mine every single day I come in the locker room to focus on the things that we have control over,” Little continued.
“One of those things is being positive…people feel that, it’s infectious,” he added.
It is this attitude—that the team can change but the core values do not—that sustains the program. “There isn’t a pressure to perform, but there is a standard—a way to wear that jersey and a way to act as a football player—when you’re playing for Yale football,” Manora said.
“That’s obviously doing everything you can to leave the jersey better than you found it and committing yourself to excellence on and off the field, conducting yourself in a manner that the score doesn’t have on the outcome on how you are as a person and how you play the game,” he said.
The Yale football program is rooted in 144 years of history. The team still claims to make boys into men, but the definition of a Yale man has changed. Camp’s macho ideas now seem outdated. The 144th team has set out its own goals—of teamwork, respect, and hard work—that it takes seriously.
“It all goes back to who we are…our processes, our core values,” Reno said, sitting for lunch in Mory’s. “If you have a good business structure, you’re able to withstand any storm. And right now we’re in a little bit of a storm, but our business structure is solid—so we’ll be able to withstand it.”