Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dave Cecchini and the Yale Coaching Search

On any Division I football program that goes from 4-7 to back-to-back league titles in the span of two years, you have to expect that other Division I football teams will be looking your coaching staff, dangling opportunities for bigger things.

Such was the case this year with much-beloved Lehigh offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini.


When Yale head football coach Tom Williams resigned as head coach after it came to light that he exaggerated claims on his biography, while there was no "official" word that Cecchini was in the running for Yale's head coaching position, it wasn't surprising that rumor mills had his name list for consideration for the top job, among other worthy finalists.

What happened next, though, was surprising - and heart-stopping for Lehigh fans.


For those that were looking around on the world-wide-interwebs, several rumored candidates were revealed shortly after December 21st.

Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, a former head coach at Columbia, was one high-profile candidate that was rumored to be offered the job relatively early in the process, but weeks later it looked like he turned down the head coaching job.

The next hot name was former UMass head man, and current UConn defensive coordinator Don Brown.  But, according to The Third Rail, he also turned down the position for specific reasons:


Don Brown, a favorite of Yale legend Carm Cozza, was first in line and actually turned down the job. Internet chatter says that it was either about money and/or presidential interference from Richard Levin, or that Yale had bought out Williams' contract and couldn't afford what Brown was seeking. 
Their first two candidates having turned them down, the search then centered on three other finalists: Georgetown head coach Kevin Kelly, Harvard assistant coach Tony Reno - and Cecchini.

The presence of Kelly, who some might say has engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in football, came as a surprise to many Hoya-watchers.

Kelly was able to turn it around--first, by exceeding expecations with a 4-7 mark in 2010, then, by surprising the rest of the PL that marked a "W" next to Georgetown on the schedule with an 8-3 mark, one game remvoed from an NCAA playoff bid. He earned the respect of his peers and his University by making Georgetown football relevant and respected by opponents. Like the welterweight that takes out a couple of light heavyweights, his PL coach of the year award was a reflection by the rest of the league that winning eight games at Georgetown is an astounding accomplishment in a league with such financial disparity. 
So when Kelly heard about the Yale opening, well, you strike while the iron is hot. Had he applied for Jack Siedlecki's job at Yale in 2008, his 5-27 record would not have returned any phone calls. But the coaching fraternity took note of Kelly's unusual turnaround at a school where the odds are stacked against it, and took his call. With no previous tiles to the Old Blue, Kelly was nonetheless one of the initial finalists for the job.

Jack Sidlecki - a former Lafayette assistant coach - illustrates the nervousness that Lehigh fans felt all throughout Yale's process.  Back in 2008, current Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore was a hotly-rumored candidate before they settled on Williams.  Add to that Cecchini and Kelly, and you have more than half the Patriot League involved with Yale at some time or another.  As others fell by the wayside, Cecchini's name stood out more and more.

When Kelly abruptly, publicly stated his intent to "finish what he started at Georgetown" - a nervous panic started to set in with Lehigh fans.


"I'm flattered to have been considered for the position, but have decided to withdraw my name from consideration and will remain at Georgetown. We are coming off of our best season since I've been here and with a tremendous group of young men returning, I look forward to continuing to build this program and compete for a Patriot League Championship in 2012. My family and I enjoy being a part of the Georgetown community and we love living in Washington, D.C. We really want to finish what we've started here at Georgetown."
Why?  There simply weren't that many candidates left.  The only two left were Reno and Cecchini - and neither Cecchini or Reno, a former Yale and current Harvard assistant coach, seemed to have the inside track.  (Cecchini, too has Harvard connections: he was Tim Murphy's offensive coordinator for five years.)

When Yale scheduled a press conference for 4PM on Thursday, that's a dead giveaway that the white smoke was coming from the chimney - that Yale had made their decision.

That's when Lehigh fans did an internet search - and saw this:


Yale University says it will introduce a new head football coach on Thursday. 
The announcement Wednesday evening came less than an hour after Georgetown University football coach Kevin Kelly withdrew his name from consideration for the job, becoming the second coach this week to bow out of the process. 
The New Haven Register reported Wednesday that the job will go to Lehigh offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini. Yale officials did not immediately return an email and phone call seeking comment.

Almost immediately, Associated Press picked up the New Haven Register report, meaning it went out all over the globe that way - and was (responsibly) tweeted by myself and Michael LoRe of the Express-Times, among others.

No more than five minutes after the news "broke", however, the New Haven Register issued a retraction:


OK, let's try this again. 
I got burned in a big-time way from a source who confirmed Dave Cecchini to be Yale's next football coach. However, I apologize for putting that out there before I was able to get a secondary confirmation. That same source got back to me to inform me that he was messed up and that it is indeed Tony Reno who will be named head coach.

No offense to Tony Reno - who apparently got an edge in the interview with the good word of some former players that were coached by him at Yale with Sidlecki - but Lehigh fans to a person heaved a sigh of relief that Cecchini was not taking a one-way trip to New Haven.

It doesn't take much to see that Cecchini's influence in the Lehigh offense has been a huge positive force - on three separate occasions in his life.

Not only was he Lehigh's leading receiver in 1990 and 1991, his junior and senior years, as an assisant coach in the 1990s he was a key architect of the Lehigh offense that created the first round of playoff success and put the Mountain Hawks back on the national map.

And when the opportunity came for him to come back to South Mountain, athletic director Joe Sterrett didn't hesitate in reuniting him with head coach Andy Coen.



 “I’m sure the entire Lehigh community will be excited to have Dave back home," Coen said announcing Cecchini's return.  " He is a very bright football mind who has been able to adapt his offensive philosophy to three different programs and been able to best utilize the players in that particular program to achieve success.  I look forward to Dave putting his personal touch on our program.”

He's been instrumental in developing the success of junior WR Ryan Spadola and senior QB Chris Lum, which resulted in Chris' second place finish for the most valuable player in all of FCS.  Like Lum, Sterrett and Coen, Cecchini was in Frisco for the Walter Payton awards ceremony, supporting the quarterback whose success he helped make happen.

Small wonder, then, why many Lehigh fans' hearts might have stopped with the mistaken press release.

In the end, Tony Reno goes to Yale, where he tries to build on Williams' 5-5 record and reverse the Eli's dismal recent record against Harvard.

And Dave Cecchini looks like he'll be staying at Lehigh for at least one more season - to the delight of Lehigh fans.





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