The Game 2015: Natural rivalry between head coaches

The Game 2015:
Natural rivalry between head coaches

Published on November 20, 2015

Although they have been on opposite sidelines for the last four years, Yale head coach Tony Reno has close ties to his Crimson counterpart, Tim Murphy — closer than either might care to admit.

At the Harvard helm

Set to finish his 22nd season at Harvard, Tim Murphy has the most wins in Harvard coaching history and he has won eight Ivy League championships. (Robert F. Worley, The Harvard Crimson)

Following a six-year stint under former head coach Jack Siedlecki at Yale, Reno spent three years with Murphy in Cambridge as the Harvard special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach. After the 2011 season, then Yale-head coach Tom Williams resigned amid controversy over the validity of his resume. Reno was offered the job and took it, bringing three Harvard assistant coaches, including current Yale offensive coordinator Joe Conlin, down to New Haven with him.

Though neither coach has since commented at any length on those coaching changes, the incident did create tension between the two, according to former defensive line coach Carlton Hall, who also coached with Reno and Murphy at Harvard before joining Reno at Yale in 2014.

“To take those guys was smart, but to lose those guys — for coach Murphy — that kind of hurt him a little bit,” Hall said. “I would definitely say that tension was involved. Coaches are just athletes — our egos tend to get in the way too sometimes. It was ego based on knowing someone is good at their job, and now you’ve got to compete against them.”

In addition to Conlin, Reno brought in tight ends coach Kris Barber and defensive line coach Dwayne Wilmot, neither of whom is still with the team. Hall, who left Harvard the season before Reno did and spent three seasons at Southern schools, replaced Wilmot before the 2014 season. He has since moved to Williams College.

In his 21 years at the helm of Harvard’s program, Murphy has created an Ivy League powerhouse, amassing a 155–62 record and winning eight titles. This sustained excellence, Hall argued, comes from Murphy’s experimental recruitment efforts, which have inspired Reno as he tries to build his own program.

“Coaches are just athletes — our egos tend to get in the way too sometimes. It was ego based on knowing someone is good at their job, and now you’ve got to compete against them.”

—Carlton Hall, former Yale defensive line coach

“Before [Murphy] got there, Yale pretty much had its way with Harvard,” Hall said. “I think with coach Reno, and knowing him, a lot of what he has attempted to do and is attempting to do is based off of the recruiting model that Tim Murphy kind of put in place at Harvard over the past decade.”

In a nutshell, Hall said, Murphy changed the formula: Rather than recruiting from the same private schools throughout the country, he began to look at student-athletes from public schools. Opening up the applicant pool and convincing public school students to matriculate strengthened the team and allowed it to compete at a higher level.

From 2009 to 2011, Reno was part of this innovative effort. While at Harvard, he was responsible for recruiting student-athletes from the South, particularly Georgia and Florida. In his three years, Reno unearthed Crimson standouts like former captain and cornerback Norman Hayes and defensive end Zack Hodges, a two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.

Reno’s recruitment efforts reverberate through Harvard’s team today, as the members of his final recruiting class are currently in their senior season. The group includes, according to Reno, three current Harvard starters: quarterback Scott Hosch, wide receiver Seitu Smith II and defensive end Denzel Paige.

Reno, though, denied that his past involvement with Harvard added any significance to Saturday’s game for him, citing instead only “respect” for Murphy and his program.

“I was very fortunate to be on his staff for three years,” Reno said. “I learned a lot from him and from Coach Siedlecki when I was at Yale, so I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys and what they do. They’ve got a great program and I think they work really hard.”

Steering the ship

The Bulldogs have undergone a transformation under head coach Tony Reno, having come a far way since his his debut 2–8 season in in 2012. (Robbie Short, Contributing Photographer)

As Yale and Harvard draw from the same recruiting pool — a pool that is smaller than those of other national programs due to the schools’ high academic standards — their competition extends beyond an annual game. Reno called the two schools “natural rivals,” observing that all athletic contests between the two schools contain the same “energy.”

That made Reno’s decision to become the face of the Bulldogs all the more difficult for Murphy.

At the time, Murphy released a carefully worded statement describing the situation as “unusual, if not unprecedented,” simply stating that Yale’s “lucrative offers” to his assistant coaches were the reason they left. Players did not hold back: The Harvard Crimson quoted one as saying The Game became more personal once Reno left.

Now, four years later, Murphy acknowledged that his relationship with Reno is not what it used to be, but said he does not believe there is tension between the two men.

“We had a very good professional relationship when Tony was on the staff, as I do with all my coaches,” Murphy said. “But when you go to a competitor and you take a bunch of coaches with you, I think it’s sort of obvious it would change a bit … It’s competitive and it’s professional, but definitely competitive.”

This competitiveness is only enhanced by the similarities between the schools, as the only difference, Hall claimed, is that one wears red and one wears blue.

“They are as similar as two programs can be,” he said. “They both want to be good at everything, whether it be sports or academics or chess-playing or just getting the best kids at the school. They are competing against each other for everything. In the microcosm of football, you recruit the same exact players, and year in, they play against each other.”

Murphy has gotten the best of his protege recently. Although the Bulldogs lead the all-time series 65–58–8, the Crimson have come away with the last eight, including a heartbreaking 31–24 win last season that cost Yale a share of the Ivy title. “I think it’s important to get over that hump for Tony,” Hall said.

“It’s been what, eight in a row now? They need to break this damn thing before Harvard gets to double digits.”


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