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Can Jack Siedlecki “Get It Done”?
After 32 years under the guidance of Carm Cozza, the Yale football team has a new leader. His specialty is turning losers into winners.

Yale’s new football coach, Jack Siedlecki, knows a thing or two about reversals of fortune. Having debuted as a head coach at Worcester Polytechnic Institute—where his teams won 36, lost 11, and tied one—he arrived at Amherst College in 1993 to take over a team that had not won a game in two and a half years. E. J. Mills, then the team’s defensive coordinator, remembers well what happened at the first practice. “Two of the players came over the hill and down onto the field about five seconds after the rest of the team had lined up,” Mills recalls. “Jack just started to shout. He yelled, ‘Are you kiddin’ me! We’re trying to turn this thing around and we’ve got guys late for practice? We’re gonna get it done! We’re not gonna tolerate this! No excuses! Hundred-yard sprints! Everybody! Now!’ The whole team started running; they ran and ran and ran. They must’ve done about 25 or 30 sprints in a row. I don’t think anybody was ever late after that. Jack Siedlecki’s legend at Amherst was established on that first day.”

Siedlecki became a legend at Amherst not just because of the no-nonsense way he ran practices, but because, using his “get it done” philosophy, he quickly turned losers into winners. During the course of his four seasons there, Siedlecki’s teams won 20 games, lost 11 and tied one. And now Siedlecki must once again prove that he can turn a football program around: Yale has not had a winning season since 1991. Complicating Siedlecki’s challenge, the “legend” from Amherst is following a certified Yale legend—he will try to fill the prodigious boots of Carm Cozza, who retired last season after 32 years at Yale’s helm, where, despite the frustrations of his later seasons, he established the record for the most wins of any football coach in Ivy League history.

When asked during a team practice last spring about the Cozza legacy, Siedlecki, who is 46, conceded, “Oh yeah, Carm is legendary. But the guy I replaced at Amherst [Jim Ostendarp] had been there 32 years too.” Siedlecki paused and looked out at his players as they did their drills. “If my values were different from Carm’s, it’d be tough, but I, too, believe in what Yale stands for. I believe in the student athlete.”

Siedlecki’s embrace of scholarship as well as winning football teams is a major reason why he was chosen for the job. Director of Athletics Tom Beckett says that when the search committee began wading through the 100-plus applicants for the position, “A key issue we focused on was finding somebody who understands the rigors of the Ivy League as it relates to the academic responsibility of the students. We needed somebody who understands how you recruit this type of student athlete and sell him on Yale.”

However, Siedlecki’s lack of Ivy League experience and dearth of on-the-road recruiting work (which Amherst does not permit) made his selection as Yale’s football coach somewhat unexpected. Many observers had thought the job would go to Dick Jauron ’73, the former Yale football star who is now defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. But Jauron decided to remain with the National Football League. A local newspaper columnist, Brian Dohn of the New Haven Register, wrote: “Enthusiasm and energy count. But so does knowledge of the Ivy League and the Academic Index and the idiosyncrasies and traditions of Yale and Yale football. That is why Siedlecki wasn’t given a ghost of a chance when this process started. That is why it is perplexing that he was hired.”

But Beckett says he has no doubt that Siedlecki is the man for the job. “We feel we hired the right guy, and the months we’ve worked with him have validated our choice. He has been responsible for assembling one of Yale’s most impressive recruiting classes [35 players, including three highly-touted linemen] and he has hired a great staff. Of course it’s a difficult task to find a successor to a legend, but we feel we’ve found a rising star.”

During the news conference last December when Siedlecki was introduced as Yale’s new head football coach, he faced the “second choice” question head-on: “Whenever jobs like this open, very good people get involved. I feel tremendously important to be standing here today. Maybe I’m the last guy standing I don’t care. I’m the new head coach at Yale.” Then, turning to his wife, Nancy, and their three children—Kevin, 13, Jackie, 11, and Amy, 8—Siedlecki remarked, “They all look pretty good in Yale blue. It’s a big day for us. I’m excited. I’m nervous. I’ve been blessed to get this opportunity.”

Six months later, during an interview in his office, Siedlecki still seemed excited, but not at all nervous. He had put in several successful months recruiting on the road, had worked with his new team in a series of spring practices, and had assembled a new staff. It includes defensive coordinator Rick Flanders, the former secondary coach at the University of Pennsylvania; defensive line coach Duane Brooks, also formerly at Pennsylvania, as coordinator of football operations; offensive coordinator Keith Clark, the former offensive line coach at Columbia; and quarterbacks coach Joel Lamb, who was Harvard’s quarterback in the early 1990s. (As customarily happens when a new head coach arrives, most of Cozza’s former staff had to find new jobs elsewhere.) Perhaps to counter criticism that he lacks Ivy League experience, Siedlecki singled out those on his staff who have coached in the league. He also pointed out that when he was an assistant coach at Lafayette College from 1981 to 1987, “We played some Ivy League teams—and we won more of those games than we lost.” Siedlecki is not a man who naturally boasts about himself, but he does not hesitate to stand up for himself either. “In 21 years of coaching, I’ve only had two losing seasons. The bottom line is that as a head coach I’ve been very successful in turn-around situations.”

Siedlecki is well-known for his wide-open play-calling, often relying on long passes, in contrast to Cozza’s preference for grinding out the yardage on the ground. “The biggest thing is, we’ll put an exciting football team on the field,” Siedlecki says. While cautioning against expectations of “an overnight turnaround,” he has also told his players that there won’t be a slow rebuilding in a “four-year plan” to coordinate with his four-year contract. He knows the team’s seniors don’t want to hear about long-range rebuilding, nor do Yale football fans. Siedlecki’s biggest challenge this fall is the quarterback position. His original pick was Ben Steinberg ’98, who suffered a dislocated shoulder in pre-season play. Two other possible starters were also hurt before seeing Ivy action. “We’ve got to take what we’re dealt and deal with it,” defensive end Pete Sarantos ’00 told the Yale Daily News. “It might not be a bad hand.” Siedlecki admits, however, that “our main strength is our defense, up front. They’ll have to lead us until the offense gets its feet on the ground. We’ve got good players. If we stay healthy, we’ve got a fighting chance.” Siedlecki considers it “unrealistic” to pinpoint exactly how many games he expects to win this season, but he says, “Our initial goal has got to be to have a winning season. Our second goal is to beat Harvard, or win the Ivy League title.”

Siedlecki is intimately familiar with intense football rivalries, as he noted during his December news conference. “I’ve been at Lafayette-Lehigh, which is the most-played rivalry [132 games], and I’ve been through four of the Amherst-Williams games. I remember as a young coach my first Lafayette-Lehigh game. I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on here? These people are nuts.’ And when you look at the Harvard-Yale and Yale-Princeton games, those are the games that started college football. That’s what makes it fun. You can’t beat the rivalry games.” Unfortunately for Siedlecki, his Amherst teams never beat Williams. “That was his only unfinished business,” says Amherst Director of Athletics Peter Gooding. “But he played Williams to a tie once, which ended Williams’s streak of beating us about eight times in a row.”

Perhaps Siedlecki’s biggest disappointment came last year when his team lost to Williams, spoiling what would have been an undefeated season for Amherst. “We were winning with about four minutes left in the game,” recalls Joel Lamb, who coached under Siedlecki for four years at Amherst before coming with him to Yale. “But then Williams went more than 90 yards and scored with about a minute left. We got the ball back, but we just ran out of time.” Lamb explains that after every game, Siedlecki would address the team in the middle of the field. “It’s one of the hardest things to do after a loss.” says Lamb. “I remember on that day, he tried to turn something negative into something positive. He said, ‘This is a tough loss to take, but let’s reflect back on the first seven games and how enjoyable they were. Hey, we had a great season.’”

E. J. Mills, who was on Siedlecki’s coaching staff for all of his four years at Amherst, says Siedlecki is a great motivator and delegator. “He gives you a tremendous amount of responsibility and expects you to get your job done. But he’s fun to be around and very down-to-earth, a regular guy. He won’t let it go to his head that he’s head coach at Yale.”

Mills says that, like Cozza, Siedlecki takes a personal interest in his players and their off-the field problems. “One year we had a kid who was missing team functions, had a ‘me, me, me’ attitude, and was disrupting the team with his selfishness,” Mills recalls. “The rest of the coaching staff said, ‘We don’t need this guy, let’s get rid of him.’ But the coach said, ‘No, he’s a young kid, he’s having some problems, we need to keep educating him.’ The coach saw him through it, and the kid did a complete turnaround. Football became a guiding force for him; he’s now going to law school.”

But Siedlecki does not believe in coddling. “His whole philosophy is, ‘Let’s get it done, we don’t need any excuses,’” says Lamb. “At Amherst, all of the freshmen players have to see their academic advisers. During our second year there, one of the kids didn’t do it. He had some excuse, but the bottom line was, he didn’t get to his adviser, he didn’t ‘get it done.’ So the whole team had to run 100-yard sprints because of that one kid. Coach’s message was, ‘We’re all in this together. If one person screws up, it affects the whole team. Academics are important, too.’”

Greg Schneider, who played under Siedlecki at Amherst for three seasons, says the coach knew how to balance his intensity with humor. “Whenever we left the field,” Schneider says, “he would shout, ‘Linemen: go eat! Stay big!’ And he shouted to one of our smaller guys, ‘Go eat! GET big!’ He used to tease me about how I tried to make things too complicated; he called it ‘paralysis through overanalysis.’ Coach was an excellent teacher, taking time to explain concepts. He has been a huge influence in my life because of his ‘Get it done, no excuses’ adage. He always challenged us to look in the mirror and not look elsewhere for answers, not to settle for anything less than your best. That’s a solid philosophy to carry through your life.”

Siedlecki’s outlook can be attributed in large part to his father, who was the high school football coach at Johnstown (NY) High School for 25 years. Young Siedlecki played for his father before going on to Union College, where he was a running back and linebacker. Siedlecki’s wife, Nancy, says her husband has an “obsession” with the game, and he doesn’t disagree. “I’m basically football and family; those are about the only things in my life. I love the game. I love coaching.”

Like Cozza, Siedlecki absolutely hates to lose a football game, but he tends to be more animated than the famously contained Cozza on the sidelines. “He’s not a wallflower,” says Gooding, the Amherst athletics director. “He’s an excitable man.”

Unchained emotion may play well during games, but patience may be the most useful virtue for Siedlecki in his dealings with Yale’s financial aid and admissions officials. Like his colleagues at other Ivy schools, Siedlecki must contend with the Academic Index—the League’s complex formula setting minimum admission standards based on grades and test scores for players in football and several other sports (Yale Alumni Magazine, Feb.). Because the index reflects each school’s academic standing, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton sometimes have a relatively harder time obtaining the top athletes. This system often frustrated Cozza, but Siedlecki seems optimistic that he and other University officials can, as he puts it, “streamline the process.” For example, he says Yale now has instituted a “likely letter” policy, enabling Siedlecki to, in a timely manner, tell a candidate who is being recruited that he is likely to be admitted to Yale and letting him know how much financial aid he can expect. (Athletic scholarships, for those who need reminding, are not permitted in the Ivy League.) “Some of the other schools in the league have been more aggressive in getting things done, and the ‘likely letters’ is the number-one reason,” Siedlecki says. “We won’t be at a disadvantage there anymore.”

Another area where Yale has fallen behind is in fundraising to support the increasingly expensive costs of on-the-road recruiting. “We have to do what the other schools are doing,” Siedlecki says. “We must have a broader-based recruiting. Harvard and Penn have done this over the past few years; this is what allows you to be competitive. I was in Boston recently meeting with a group of alumni, and the spirit is there; we just haven’t asked enough. I will ask!”

One man who is watching all of this with great interest is Carm Cozza. Reluctant to retire completely from the Yale football arena, he accepted the University’s offer to stay on as an adviser to Beckett and Siedlecki. “He’s a great resource,” says Siedlecki. “He knows everybody: the players, both past and present, and the alumni. He told me he’s trying to stay away, but he said he might sneak out and watch practices from his car!”  the end


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