‘A Leap of Faith’: Yale Football Assistant Has Roots in Hanover

  • Yale University outside linebackers coach Steven Vashel confers with players during a Bulldogs game. The Hanover High graduate has coached at seven different schools after graduating from Springfield (Mass.) College in 1994.

  • Steven Vashel in a photo from his Springfield (Mass.) College football playing days. The Hanover High graduate is now the Yale University outside linebackers coach. The Bulldogs host Dartmouth tonight at the Yale Bowl.

  • Steven Vashel, Yale University outside linebackers coach. Vashel is a Hanover High graduate.

  • Steven Vashel, Yale University's outside linebackers coach, speaks with a Bulldogs player on Aug. 25, 2013. Vashel is a Hanover High graduate. Yale and Dartmouth clash tonight at the Yale Bowl on ESPNU.

  • Steve Vashel (38) is featured on a collage in the 1987 Hanover High yearbook, the Inde. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, October 05, 2018

Hanover — Steven Vashel’s football career began at Dartmouth College and blossomed at Hanover High. However, he’ll be on the other side of the field tonight when the Bulldogs and Big Green clash at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn., in a game for the Ivy League lead.

Vashel, a 1987 Hanover graduate who endured an injury-plagued career as a Marauder, is Yale’s seventh-year outside linebackers and kicking coach. His current post is his eighth since graduating from Springfield (Mass.) College, where he was a reserve defensive back for the Pride, at the time a Division II program.

“It’s been a fun run here and so cool because of the environment and the history behind this program,” said Vashel, who helped the Bulldogs win last year’s Ivy League title. “It’s different for me now when I walk into a living room, because we can recruit against Power Five schools.”

Vashel loved football early, but youth programs were somewhat sparse here in the 1980s. Then a Newbury, N.H., resident, he used an almost literal connection between his father, Bob, and then-Dartmouth coach Joe Yukica for entree into the sport. The older Vashel worked for a phone company and got to know the coach while rewiring the Big Green football offices. An invitation to the program’s weeklong summer football camp ensued, and Steve attended every year.

Vashel and one of the sons of Dartmouth assistant coach Jerry Berndt were the only elementary-school attendees, but they soaked up the game and the coaches’ affection. Don Brown, a Big Green assistant who later became Hartford High’s coach, is now Michigan’s defensive coordinator, and he and Vashel remain friends.

“I met lots of coaches who inspired me,” said Vashel, who was on track to attend Kearsarge High, which did not have a football team at the time. “Don Brown is the one who told me to go to Springfield College.”

Vashel’s parents divorced as high school approached and his father relocated to Etna, buying a $17,000 lot on Blueberry Hill and building a log cabin there. Steve found the academics at Hanover a distinct step up from what he was used to but thrived in his new environment. He played four years of football and baseball at Hanover, alongside stars such as running back Matt Houde and quarterback Paul Gamble.

Vashel broke his arm when a Windsor opponent stepped on it in a pileup during his sophomore year. Returning as a junior, Vashel broke his leg when his foot caught in a rut on the notoriously uneven surface at Thompson Terrace, a minimally maintained group of playing fields near Mink Brook and roughly a half-mile from the high school.

“The first thing I remember about Hanover football is jogging on the path through the woods to get to practice, and there was goldenrod growing all along it,” Vashel said with a groan. “I’m allergic to goldenrod, so I was always miserable going down there.”

It was while watching practice on crutches one day that Vashel got his first shot at coaching. Alan Rozycki, an area physician and former Dartmouth star, was coaching his sons on a middle-school team that practiced near the varsity. Rozycki persuaded Vashel to hobble over and offer insights and tips to the younger boys.

“Nobody loved the game or studied it like Vash,” said Richard Stark, a former football and baseball teammate now living in Florida. “He practiced every day in shorts and no pads and was still a voice on the team. It says a ton about him that he didn’t give up on being a teammate when he was hurt.”

Vashel was able to stay healthy as a senior, being voted a tri-captain and competing as a blocking fullback for Houde, one of the most prolific runners in Upper Valley history. Houde also played linebacker behind Vashel, who lined up at defensive end, and went on to play freshman football at Dartmouth. He is now Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s vice president for government relations.

“I think I was more broken-hearted than he was when he stopped playing football,” Vashel said of Houde. “To this day, he’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around.”

Led by Houde’s power sweeps, Gamble’s passing and scrambling and a burly line that included future Boston television weatherman Pete Bouchard, Hanover managed a 5-4 record under head coach Les Lawrence in 1986, the Marauders’ first winning record in years. That campaign helped the program turn a corner, and it’s been a frequent state playoff participant in the three decades since.

“Football was my identity, and I loved the guys on the team,” Vashel said. He even has fond memories of sprints up one of the inclines surrounding Thompson Terrace, a slope dubbed “Blood Hill” after a teammate filched a Norwich road sign with that name and stuck it at the top.

Seeking a similar bond and an environment conducive to a coaching career, Vashel landed at Springfield, long known throughout the Northeast for the quality of the sports instructors it churns out.

“It’s a big athletic environment, and it fit my personality,” said Vashel, recalling how he and about 100 other football freshmen had their numbers quickly cut in half through attrition. “Division II was a little bit above my talent level, but I had some really good coaches. We ran the triple option, and it was live practice contact three or four days a week.”

Vashel began his college coaching career under Trinity (Conn.) College legend Don Miller, New England’s career victories leader at the Division III level. After a year, it was back to Springfield as a graduate assistant, where he earned a master’s degree in sports management in 1994. There was a year’s stop at Harvard for longtime head coach and Springfield graduate Tim Murphy, then a three-year hitch at Division III King’s College in Scranton, Pa.

It was there that Vashel hired an intern named Tony Reno, who is now Yale’s seventh-year head coach. The next stop was at Maine’s Bates College for a seven-year stretch as defensive coordinator, followed by three seasons at Bucknell (Pa.) University. The University of Maine called for Vashel’s services as a defensive backs coach, and he joined Reno at Yale in 2012.

“It’s nice to be at a place where we’re one of the haves and not the have-nots,” Vashel said. “We don’t have problems with financial aid and it’s a lot easier to recruit here than at Maine. I have a former player in the NFL, another who’s in Navy SEAL training and another who’s making more money than I can even comprehend.”

Vashel’s coaching odyssey might not be over, and it’s not uncommon. Keith Clark, Dartmouth’s offensive line coach, is on his seventh stop, and among them were Maine and Yale, where he spent 12 years and helped the Bulldogs win two championships. Clark recalls sleeping in an attic the first year of his career and renting a room in a trailer park when he got to Maine.

“You have to have that grinding mentality and be the first one in the office and the last one out of it,” Clark said. “It’s an unsteady, transient profession, so you have to cultivate connections and relationships, but people also watch your players live and on film; that’s your product out there.”

Vashel has two older sisters and a half-brother, Tom, who played basketball at Hanover High. He and his wife, Cathy, have two teenage sons, one who’s allowed to play football because he has a sturdy build and another who’s trying to achieve a similar physique so his parents will let him suit up.

Looking back, Vashel said he knows his path from the Marauders to the Ivy League has been somewhat improbable.

“I took a leap of faith. and it worked out really well,” he said.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.