Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 17, 2015

Odds Are This Story Won’t End Well

Football of the NFL variety has become the national pastime, but at other levels the sport rises far above the level of mere diversion. It’s been nearly three decades since Buzz Bissinger moved his family to Odessa, Texas for a year to immerse himself in the culture of one of thousands of rural communities across the land that draw their very identity from the local high school team. The result was “Friday Night Lights,” the best-selling book that begat both a critically acclaimed 2004 movie and a more recent TV series that ran for five seasons on NBC.

If towns are defined by the success or failure of their high school team, entire states and even regions are passionate about big-time college football. AT&T Stadium, Jerry Jones’s football palace that is home to his Dallas Cowboys is the largest NFL stadium with seating for 85,000 fans. But that seating capacity is exceeded by fourteen collegiate coliseums, led by Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, where more than 107,000 Wolverines’ faithful assemble on Saturday afternoons every autumn. The home fields of two other Big 10 schools, Penn State and Ohio State, both seat just a few hundred less. Yet fully half of the college mega-stadiums belong to members of the Southeastern Conference, from Texas A&M’s Kyle Field with its 102,733 seats down to the 87,451 at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. In between are the gridirons of Tennessee, LSU, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

The importance that alumni, boosters and students alike attach to their college’s football program is measured not just by stadium size. At many schools football is the sole profit-making sport, in effect supporting all other athletic programs. The recent and often tumultuous realignment among major conferences was driven almost entirely by the needs and desires of football programs, sometimes at the expense of long-time rivalries in other sports.

At the member schools of the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, the top level of the college game, the salaries of head coaches regularly outstrip that of any professor or athletic director, and even the college president. Alabama’s Nick Saban tops the list with an annual payday in excess of $7 million. Prior to this season Michigan lured Jim Harbaugh away from the NFL and back to his alma mater with a deal that included a $5 million salary. In all more than 50 colleges and universities pay their head football coach $2 million or more.

It is often said about the SEC that football is a religion. But in truth the devotion to the college game takes on that level of fervor at many campuses far removed from Alabama or Auburn, and thousands of miles from Ole Miss or LSU.

While fans may kneel before the altar of college football in many locations, it is safe to say that the far northern tip of Manhattan is not one of them. Well removed from Midtown’s skyscrapers, far north of Central Park, up in the Inwood neighborhood one finds the mouthful-named Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium, home field of the Columbia University Lions.  In the religion of college football, Columbia is the antichrist.

As a member of the Ivy League Columbia plays in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, one rung below the FBS in the NCAA’s hierarchy. That means that there will never be a bowl game invitation waiting as the reward for a successful season, though the Lions could participate in the FCS playoffs. Not that it really matters, because over the years perhaps the greatest certainty in the entire college game has been that Columbia will not have a successful season.

For the Lions those years are many. The Columbia program dates to 1870, when the Lions traveled across the Hudson to face Rutgers University. Fittingly for what was to come, Columbia lost by a score of 6-3. Across the decades since another 632 losses have been added to that initial defeat, against just 373 wins and 43 ties.

Ironically the school has a perfect record in bowl games, having defeated Stanford 7-0 in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1934. The Rose Bowl, no less! That sole appearance in a bowl game came during the coaching reign of Lou Little. His quarter-century on the Columbia sideline were, relatively speaking, halcyon days for the Lions. In addition to the Rose Bowl triumph Little’s 1947 squad beat Army 21-20, handing the Cadets their first loss since 1943. Little ended his coaching career at Columbia after the 1956 season with a record of 110-116-10.

No Columbia coach has been close to .500 since. Beginning midway through the 1983 season Columbia set a Division I record by going 44 games without a victory. Relatively early in that stretch of abject futility, the Lions led Harvard 17-0 with just five minutes to go in the 3rd quarter. But the Crimson tallied seven touchdowns in the remaining twenty minutes of that contest to walk away with a 49-17 win.

Ray Tellier won 42 games as the head coach from 1989 to 2002. But he lost more than twice that many. Bob Shoop went 7-23 over the next three seasons, and Norries Wilson won 17 while losing 43 between 2006 and 2011. Pete Mangurian, who had previously compiled a winning record at Cornell, followed. In three years Mangurian’s teams won three games.

All of which makes one wonder, what was Al Bagnoli thinking? After 33 seasons as a college head football coach, Bagnoli retired after the 2014 season. His first 10 years on the sidelines were spent at Union College, a Division III school. There Bagnoli compiled a record of 86-19. Six times he took the Dutchmen to the NCAA playoffs, including two trips to the Division III championship game. In 1982 he moved to Penn, where his record of 148-80 included nine Ivy League titles. Only the legendary Yale coach Carm Cozza won more Ivy League contests.

Yet as happens so often to someone who is used to being in the center of the fray, be it on the field as a player or just off it as a coach, when Bagnoli retired to a desk job last winter he quickly found himself missing the pressure and the excitement, the adrenaline rush of being in the midst of the action. When newly appointed Columbia athletic director Peter Pilling came to make his pitch last February, Bagnoli was a surprisingly willing listener.

So now one of the Ivy League’s most successful coaches takes over the league’s most abject program, one that carries the weight of a dubious Division I record for losing. Columbia opens its season on Saturday against long-time non-conference rival Fordham. One can only hope for the best, but just as our games are packed with stories of athletes who stayed too long, so too there are tales of great coaches and managers lured out of retirement for one last act of leadership that ultimately proved unwise.

From Casey Stengel and the Mets on down through the return of Joe Gibbs to Washington’s NFL franchise, recreating the magic is never a sure thing; especially if the talent isn’t there. Bagnoli has signed a five-year contract and is promising to stay the course, but the one immediate certainty is that at woeful Columbia, right now the talent isn’t there.

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