The Cornell football seniors, like they always do, gathered as one group for their annual class picture to close out the team’s preseason camp. Only this year, they were sporting new, pristine jerseys which represented the mood of the team leading up to the season’s kickoff — a clean slate from shortcomings in years past coupled with the desire to get down and dirty.
But there was one small inclusion in the senior class photo: their head coach, David Archer ’05. This senior class holds particular significance for the fifth-year head coach as it is the first group of student-athletes he personally recruited to join his program. In a way, they represent the final step in Archer’s full transition into the role of head coach.
That is not to say he is new to the team. Far from it. Archer has been the head coach of the program for four years and an assistant coach for six more, not to mention he was also a three-year starter at offensive line for the Red in the early 2000s. He has been with the team through some success but has been around long enough to know the pains and frustration a life in football on East Hill brings as well.
But there is one thing different this year.
With a roster made up entirely of his own recruits, plenty will change for him and the program, both on and off the field. For one, it eliminates the stigma that some of the recent shortcomings can be attributed to playing with guys he never had a direct hand in recruiting.
But now, “it’s a great feeling in the sense that you’ve been involved with these guys from their high school senior year until now,” Archer said. “They’ve been bought in with you from the start.”
“We’ve seen the vision from the start and we’ve had that belief,” added senior captain and running back Jack Gellatly. “Now, it just feels like us seniors have put the work in for the better part of four years, and we are just excited to show everybody on campus around the league and all the leagues we play what we’ve been building here. All the pieces have now kind of fallen into place and we’re just excited to get after it.”
After finally transitioning to his own roster, Archer has noticed a newfound sense of accountability and ownership in this year’s team that might have been lacking in years past. Thanks to a greater sense of family stemming from the fact that all recruits have been hand-picked by Archer, players have begun to play more for each other and the program.
“They know what we want, they know what we expect,” Archer said. “Very little gets to my desk in terms of player accountability or anything of that nature.”
“These guys are committed to getting better every single day with a blue-collar attitude,” added Cornell’s athlete performance director Tom Howley, who has been around the program since before Archer was an athlete. “Guys [are] pushing on each other, relying on each other. That camaraderie and team unity have been pretty evident in how these guys work.”
Howley added that he’s noticed that Archer and his staff have been able to attract that right kind of athlete, one that will buy into the system and sell out for the guy they suffer through sprints with.
Archer has always strived to mold the program into a junior-senior team — one that allows its younger players to develop in their freshman and sophomore years and then get the call-up to starting roles as upperclassmen. With that, Archer believes he can create a team with fewer hiccups and one that does not rely on newcomers to deliver with such little experience.
This year is the first Archer feels he has the personnel to accomplish the desired junior-senior team. In his second year as head coach, Archer was left with just 14 seniors and 42 upperclassmen. This year, that number has jumped to 26 seniors and 56 upperclassmen. Upperclassmen now start at the all-important running back quarterback, linebacker and defensive back positions.
“You’re going to have some turnover because those guys came to play for someone else,” Archer said of playing with his predecessor’s recruits. “You’re basically recruiting all of them, [and] at the same time you’re recruiting the normal recruits.”
Like any job, football is one where added responsibility typically comes with experience. With so much more talent now sitting up and down the roster, it’s no longer on a breakout freshman to be the driving force in a season.
“Our freshmen come in and it’s like, if you’re exceptional then you’ll play on the varsity level. Other than that, we’ve got five JV games for you,” Archer said, whereas in the past, freshmen have been asked to do more without proper development, at times.
And with a brand new sense of accountability that has come with developing a cohesive, unified program, Archer has been able to refocus his current role to one that focuses more on the administrative needs rather than on day-to-day minutiae after finding coaches he has built trust with to call the right plays and run the right drills.
Archer has relinquished daily offensive play-calling to his assistant coach Joe Villapiano, while Jared Backus will continue to lead the defense.
“It’s been fun to be back around the defensive kids. … I missed being the head coach,” Archer said. “I would say my ability to delegate … [and] to be involved in each aspect, but not micromanage [has improved].”
As much as Archer is trying to put his mark on the Cornell football program and community as a whole, it has, inevitably, been leaving one on him as well. Though he may not like to admit it, his hair is slightly graying — two straight 1-9 seasons certainly does not help. He has also found a fiancee through his work — the wedding is scheduled for next summer.
“I’ve found out more about myself, how [to] handle adversity, how [to] keep a resilient type of attitude, more than I could ever explain,” Archer said. “This has been the best experience of my entire life.”