2020 — Chronicling Ivy League
recruitment: The commitment
After his fourth season at the helm of the Yale football program, head coach Tony Reno has his eyes set on the long-term future. This is the final component of a multi-part series about four high school students — prospective members of the class of 2020 — who were considering Yale. The first part introducing the players can be found here, and the second part about the early stages of their recruiting processes can be found here.
David Cutcliffe is not shy when it comes to his legacy. The Duke football head coach, who has been at the helm of the Blue Devils program for the last eight seasons, understands he is indelibly linked to two of his famous proteges, no matter what shade of blue he wears.
Before they won two Super Bowls each as quarterbacks in the National Football League, Eli and Peyton Manning played under Cutcliffe at Ole Miss and the University of Tennessee, respectively. Cutcliffe, a former Ole Miss head coach and Tennessee quarterbacks coach, keeps his relationship with the brothers — whom he has called “honorary Blue Devils” — on display in his office in Durham, North Carolina.
“When [Cutcliffe] took my family into his office, the first thing you saw was both of their jerseys on the side,” recalled Jacob Morgenstern, an incoming Duke commit. “Coach Cutcliffe has coached a lot of great players and he told us of his history, how he was at Tennessee and Ole Miss for years, how he coached Peyton and Eli. That’s impressive. Knowing that Eli and Peyton work out with some of the skill guys at Duke every year, that’s awesome.”
Yale cannot boast Super Bowl MVPs among its alumni, nor promise prospective football recruits the opportunity to play in a bowl game. Still, despite the inherent disadvantages that come with being a smaller program, Yale and other Ancient Eight schools often find themselves competing for elite recruits who are considering schools with similar academic rigor, such as Duke, Vanderbilt or the University of California, Berkeley.
Morgenstern, a current senior at St. Luke’s High School in New Canaan, Connecticut, is one of four high school football players who received preliminary offers of support from Yale, pending an evaluation from admissions, and have talked to the News throughout their recruiting and decision-making processes.
Though none of the four recruits ultimately committed to Yale — Morgenstern will be joined by Koby Quansah at Duke, Damarea Crockett will head to the University of Missouri and Carter Hartmann has chosen to play for Harvard — their respective paths to college reveal the Ivy League’s unique position in football recruiting.
(Maya Sweedler, Production & Design Staff)
ANOTHER KIND OF SCHOLARSHIP
On Dec. 26 of last year, Duke defeated Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl, one of 41 bowl games that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision postseason. According to ESPN, nearly 4 million people tuned in to watch the game, a 44–41 overtime victory for the Blue Devils.
Football players in the Ivy League, meanwhile, were four weeks out of season, as Ancient Eight football programs do not participate in any postseason.
That is one of two main factors that ostensibly put the conference at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting top talent. The other is a ban on athletic scholarships, an attribute that has kept the Ivy League unique in NCAA Division I since the league’s formal establishment in 1954.
Still, the conference’s ability to offer generous financial aid packages can keep Ivy teams in competition with schools that boast higher-profile football programs.
“We’re recruiting scholarship guys, guys who were offered scholarships at other schools,” Yale football head coach Tony Reno said. “We’re going to play the best we can play.”
A member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the so-called “Power Five” conferences, yet also a well-regarded academic institution, Duke occupies a niche similar to Yale. Yet while the two institutions offer comparable educations, Duke is bound by neither the Ivy League’s high academic standards nor its prohibition on athletic scholarships.
“We’re recruiting scholarship guys, guys who were offered scholarships at other schools. We’re going to play the best we can play.”
—Tony Reno, Yale football head coach
Though Yale’s need-based financial aid is among the best in the world, Duke’s ability to offer athletic scholarships ultimately swayed Morgenstern. Morgenstern said Duke created a scholarship package that was more tempting, and given the two schools’ similarly rigorous academics, he did not feel like he was sacrificing any part of his education for his sport. According to Morgenstern, the difference between attending Duke or Yale was between $40,000 and $50,000 over four years.
“That’s a lot, and you’re getting a similar education at a school like Duke,” he pointed out. “Duke’s a great school so that definitely fit the profile.”
Similar to Yale, Duke meets 100 percent of need based on estimated family contribution, per its financial aid website. Yet per NCAA regulations for FBS schools, the Duke football team can also offer athletic scholarships to up to 85 students on top of that. Duke’s average non-need-based athletic grant and scholarship amount for first-time freshmen is $37,097, according to the National Collegiate Scouting Association.
Although the University cannot entice prospective students with merit- or athletic-based scholarships, Yale’s average need-based aid is nevertheless generous. In the 2015–16 school year, 51 percent of Yale students received financial aid with an average scholarship of $43,989, according to the Yale financial aid website. Though it did not happen in Morgenstern’s case, the size of Yale’s financial aid packages means that recruits often choose based on factors other than money.
Quansah, a linebacker from Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, Connecticut, said Yale and Duke made equally competitive financial aid offers, but the opportunity to play FBS football away from home was impossible to pass up.
“I would’ve had a full ride [at Yale] and been able to cover it, financially, but the only thing is I didn’t like being close to home,” Quansah said. “I wanted a new start. Yale doesn’t play as many games, and I feel like the level of play wasn’t as high as the top five conferences.”
Crockett, the most decorated of the four recruits, always intended to play for a major conference team. Following a breakout performance at the Nike SPARQ Combine in March of 2015, the running back collected 12 offers from Division I FBS schools, four of which belonged to Power Five conferences, in addition to his conditional offer of support from Yale.
The Little Rock, Alabama native said he was intrigued by the possibility of heading to New England, but when it came time to begin visiting schools, he decided not to stray from the Southeast and Midwest regions. Crockett took five unofficial visits in the summer before his senior season, all to schools with more prominent football programs. Calling the visits “low-key,” Crockett, who hopes to go to the NFL, said he was mainly looking for a school at which he felt comfortable.
“I mean, I didn’t cross schools off the list [when visiting],” he said. “I just pretty much picked the school I felt was best for me.”
Though he originally committed to Boise State in July, Crockett switched his commitment to the University of Missouri, a Southeastern Conference school that spent almost $87 million on its football program in the 2014 fiscal year — nearly $43 million more than Boise State’s $44 million budget, and $84 million more than the $3.2 million figure at Yale.
Whereas Crockett saw a Power Five school as the best path to the NFL, Hartmann said academics were always first on his mind. Citing the desire to receive an excellent education while playing football on a diverse team — something Reno has said on multiple occasions his team takes pride in — Hartmann whittled his options down to Harvard, Yale and Princeton before taking his official visits.
Hartmann’s first visit, to Princeton, came on a freezing cold weekend in early October. Despite the chill, Hartmann recalled the warmth that marked the coaches’ and players’ interactions.
“The Princeton visit really did it for me and showed me that the Ivy League is pretty special,” he said.
Though Hartmann said he liked Princeton and the players he met there, he eventually settled on Harvard, the final school he visited. In explaining his decision among the three academic powerhouses, he noted that Harvard’s support for athletics and its football program strength stood out; head coach Tim Murphy’s Crimson has won at least a share of the last three Ivy League championships, and went undefeated in 2014.
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY RECRUITING
Hartmann committed to Harvard before making an official visit to Yale, but Reno and his staff had plenty of ways to reach the defensive end remotely. In all conferences, including the Ivy League, social media has dramatically changed the recruiting process. No longer limited to geographic areas or personal connections, coaches can easily access players across the entire country.
In addition to increasing competition for the top recruits, the advent of the internet has shifted the onus from the coaches to the prospects. Now, prospective college athletes can send their highlight reels to any school in the nation.
“I think social media has changed the world, in the recruiting sense,” Quansah said. “It’s made it easier because I was able to reach out and get into contact with coaching staffs on the West Coast. I could follow them on Twitter, they’d follow me back and it was a little gateway for me to introduce myself to them. It’s a way to get a face to the name.”
He also signed up on the National Collegiate Scouting Association website, allowing him to publish highlight tapes and statistics as well as message coaches. Quansah added that the NCSA permits recruits to make first contact with coaches, but not vice versa.
Essentially eliminating high school coaches as the middlemen, websites such as Hudl or NCSA — whose slogan, written in all capital letters, is “The recruiting process started yesterday” — encourage prospective college athletes to reach out to more coaches earlier in their high school careers.
Additionally, social media serves a way to get around the NCAA’s often arbitrary restrictions on prospect–coach contact. As NCAA rules are currently written, they prohibit contact initiated by coaches, not communication between coaches and prospects.
(Ken Yanagisawa, Senior Photographer)
The rise of social media has aided prospects in initiating contact. Since the NCAA deems “all electronically transmitted correspondence” permissible in certain contexts, Twitter has become a quick and easy method of communication. Even Yale’s coaches utilized Twitter: Hartmann recalled coaches reaching out via its direct messaging service to set up phone calls.
“Coach [Derrick] Lett and I were talking pretty much regularly,” said Alan Lamar, a running back from Mississippi who plans to attend Yale next year. “I’d say once or twice a week, and then sometimes I’d call Coach Reno and he’d talk to me. If one of them wanted to call me, they’d shoot me a tweet and I’d call them.”
With regular contact made easier by technology, Hartmann, Lamar, Quansah and Morgenstern all brought up the personal relationships they formed over the phone with their recruiters. All said those relationships factored significantly into their final decisions.
Lamar and Morgenstern, in particular, highlighted the fact that they were able to connect with their recruiters from Yale and Duke, respectively, on topics other than football.
“It came down to the people,” Lamar said. “I really liked Coach Lett and Coach Reno. I felt like they can help me grow as a football player and beyond. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Reno himself shared similar sentiments, pointing out that a relationship between a player and a coach extends beyond the gridiron during the player’s four years.
“Our staff and our assistant coaches are good people interested in the development of young men on and off the field,” Reno said. “These relationships develop over time, and the staff are in it for the long haul.”
THE TRANSITION TO RENO’S TEAM
With four seasons under his belt, Reno too is in for the long haul, telling the News that he wants to see all of his students graduate. And once the class of 2020 formally matriculates, Reno will, for the first time, coach a team comprised exclusively of players he recruited — something not lost on his team.
Captain and linebacker Darius Manora ’17, a member of the first class Reno recruited from start to finish, pointed out that each coach looks for a different type of personality. Now that the entire team was recruited by Reno, he said, the group is “way more cohesive.”
“Before Coach Reno came, we were never in the picture with Harvard. It was like cherry-picking. When Coach Reno came, suddenly Harvard had to battle with us.”
An immensely talented recruiter in his own right, Reno has surrounded himself with a young, enthusiastic staff. The three full-time coaches who have been with Reno since his hiring in January of 2012, in addition to six who have joined since then, form a unit that crafted the best incoming class in the Football Championship Subdivision, according to 247sports.com.
“I’m amazed at the recruiting system Coach Reno employed when he got here,” said Larry Ciotti, a former running backs coach and current advisor to the head coach. “Before Coach Reno came, we were never in the picture with Harvard. It was like cherry-picking. When Coach Reno came, suddenly Harvard had to battle with us. Most years, we outrecruit Harvard. It comes from the hard work of Coach Reno and our staff.”
Carlton Hall, a former Yale defensive line coach who also worked at Harvard when Reno was an assistant coach there, said Reno brings strong organizational skills to Yale and an ability to attract students from a variety of backgrounds.
Reno said Yale’s extra-athletic opportunities are a major selling point for his program on the recruiting trail. As opposed to the “short-term solution” that a four-year playing career provides, Reno said, Yale football players leave with both the experience of playing Division I football and with a valuable degree that sets them up “for the next 60 years of their lives.”
Therefore, he said, Yale looks for “the 1 percent”: student-athletes who can both compete at a high level and meet the Ivy League’s rigorous academic standards. JP Shohfi, a wide receiver who plans to attend Yale next year, is one example of this type of player: The San Marino, California native holds the national record for most receiving yards in a single season by a high school player, and in the same season he was also named to the California All-State Football Academic Team with a 4.3 GPA.
“[The coaches] really sold us on how great it is to go to Yale,” Shohfi said. “What all of us understand is we value football, but also really want to take advantage of opportunities outside of the sport. The coaches shared how Yale can provide us with opportunities with football and outside of it.”
(Jennifer Lu, Staff Photographer)
At least for the recruits, the journey does not stop when they matriculate at Yale. As Morgenstern, Quansah, Hartmann and Crockett begin their collegiate careers, 29 student-athletes who have undergone the same process will arrive in New Haven.
As the members of Yale’s class of 2020 mature, they will become contributors to one of the oldest college football programs in the nation. Still, their accomplishments on the field will not come to define them, Reno said.
“What’s most rewarding is the end result,” Reno said. “It’s great to bring guys here and watch them develop, but what I enjoy most is seeing them beyond football, see them in the community and make an impact on the Yale community.”