The beginning of a new football season brings with it an optimism of things to come. The Crimson lost a number of stars from last year’s Ivy League championship team, but through its first two contests, the team has looked solid, and spirits are high. Meanwhile, Harvard’s rival in New Haven is engaged in what has become a year-long comedy of errors on and off the field.
It all started last year when then-star quarterback Patrick Witt became the poster boy for what is right in college athletics when he was forced to decide between playing in the Harvard-Yale game or attending his final interview for the Rhodes scholarship. Eager to ride the wave, former Bulldog coach Tom Williams spoke at length of his own Rhodes candidacy as a player at Stanford who was faced with the decision of attending an NFL tryout or his own final interview. As Williams told it, he chose football over the prestigious scholarship and his quarterback, Witt, followed suit.
And that’s when the wheels began to come off for Yale football, which in a matter of months devolved from a revered football program to a punch line.
The Wednesday before The Game, The New York Times reported that the Rhodes Trust had no record of Williams ever applying. After initially claiming that he had been encouraged by an academic advisor to apply, Williams eventually resigned shortly after the season’s end following public outcry for his removal as head coach. That season concluded with a 45-7 shellacking by the Crimson in the Yale Bowl that Harvard center Jack Holuba described as “a little boring.”
Adding insult to injury, The Times then reported that shortly before The Game, the Rhodes Trust had learned of sexual assault accusations leveled at Witt and promised to suspend his application if Yale did not re-endorse him. And since it’s unclear whether or not Yale elected to do that, perhaps, The Times said, Witt hadn’t been forced to make a decision at all.
Though things weren’t exactly going well in New Haven at the conclusion of last year’s football season, everything seemed to be looking up after the Bulldogs poached four former Harvard assistant coaches in a rebuilding effort, including current head coach Tony Reno. Heading into the summer, Yale appeared to be finally headed in the right direction to restoring a competitive order to one of the nation’s most famous football rivalries, one in which the Crimson has emerged victorious in nine of the last 10 editions.
But in early August, Bulldog captain Will McHale reportedly stepped down from his position as the 135th captain of the Yale football program following a court date resulting from an altercation at popular New Haven hangout Toad’s. According to the Yale Daily News, McHale exchanged words with former YDN sportswriter Marc Beck before allegedly punching him in the face and fleeing the scene. Beck was left with a laceration that required 14 stitches, according to the YDN.
Though the second-team All-Ivy linebacker remained on the team, Yale entered the season without a captain for the first time in its history.
Meanwhile, even on the field, the Bulldogs have not been immune to disappointment and controversy. Shortly before the season, Reno picked true freshman Eric Williams over junior John Whitelaw to replace Witt at quarterback. Whitelaw then quit.
Finally, after a tumultuous offseason, the Bulldogs opened the year at Georgetown with a 24-21 win, which resulted in a Gatorade bath for Reno in honor of his first victory as a head coach.
But that happiness proved short-lived. The following week, the Bulldogs opened Ivy League play much the way they finished it last season, with an absolute blowout—this time, 45-6—at the hands Cornell. Down 42-0, Yale finally managed to reach the end zone with seven seconds left in the third quarter before botching a two-point conversion attempt.
In isolation, not all of these events would warrant a column. But when strung together in such a short period of time, it becomes more than simply an isolated incident but instead evidence of the decline of a once-proud program. After the events at the end of 2011, we would assume Reno and his staff would emphasize the importance of good conduct in representing not only oneself but one’s football program and university. What has followed has been emblematic of a potentially toxic culture surrounding Yale football that is in fact the exact opposite of the ideal that Witt was once thought to embody.
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Robert S. Samuels can be reached at email@example.com.