Friday, March 27, 2015

The Bagnoli Way

Earlier this month I wrote that one of Al Bagnoli’s great attributes is that he always seems to adjust his team strategy to match the talent levels of his current roster. Sometimes that meant using a running QB set, sometimes that meant using a pro-style passing attack. Defensive units under Bagnoli were more consistent in their looks during the Bagnoli era, but we saw some radically different formations from the Quaker “D” from time to time.

But you don’t have to be a long-time Penn fan to know that the two priorities Bagnoli has always stressed for his teams have been a tough defense and a strong offensive line. As long as Penn had those two things, Bagnoli and his players always knew they had a good chance to win games, which they usually did.

Now making that a priority doesn’t make Bagnoli a genius, but the fact that he achieved it just about every one of his 23 years at Penn does.

So as we now are just five days away from the start of spring practice and the real beginning of the Bagnoli coaching era at Columbia, the real question is can he meet those priorities here?

Long term, I think the answer will be “yes.” But can he do it now?

As far as a tough defense is concerned, I think the chances are better. Led by seniors Niko Padilla and Toba Akinleye,  I think the D-line is the strongest unit on the team. There’s talent in the linebacking crew as well and hard work should make the secondary good enough to not stand out as a weak link. I’ll be really surprised if the Columbia defense isn’t stronger than the Columbia offense in 2015.  

Bolstering the offensive line and molding into a real strength is going to be a lot harder. For one thing, creating a solid offensive line is probably one of the hardest things to do in all sports. You need all five players on the line to be good enough individually and in synch to do even a passable job. Meanwhile, one really good WR or RB can make up for a lot of weaker links at the position. You get the picture.

Making matters even tougher for Bagnoli, Offensive Coordinator Mike Faragalli and Offensive Line Coach Jon McLauglin is the fact that the way the offensive line was managed under the Pete Mangurian regime was a case of gross malpractice. Player weights were messed with in a way no other coaching staff in the nation would ever do. The new coaching staff has a lot of damage to fix and it’s probably just as much mental as it is physical. But there’s reason to be optimistic here too. If we believe the previous coaches did such a bad job with this unit, new management might be more than half the battle.

I don’t know how much evidence of real improvement for the defense and the O-line we’ll be able to see at the two public scrimmages on April 19th and the 26th at 4pm. But I do think we’ll see some real joy and excitement on the field and in the stands. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

This Just In: The Team is Excited!

Rising junior Justin Aimonetti’s latest column in today’s Columbia Spectator serves as the best proof yet that the Lion football players are just as excited as the fans are about the arrival of new Head Coach Al Bagnoli.

The column also makes a case for the entire spring practice process from the player’s perspective. But honestly, this is a crucial period for member of this very new coaching staff that needs to see and judge these players for themselves.

Spring practice begins in just six days on April 1st.

The big question is whether there will be any big changes in the depth chart after these practices and scrimmages. And if so, how much of that info will become public?

Maintaining the fan excitement over this offseason with almost six months still to go will be a challenge, but hopefully those active Twitter accounts maintained by the new staff will keep everyone interested for a long time.

More Excitement

Could Inwood soon become an urban tech hub like Silicon Alley further downtown in Manhattan?

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez wants to transform the mostly undeveloped property from 207th to 215th street on the east side of Broadway.

It’s probably a long shot that anything this grand in scale will happen soon, but the fact remains that the area around the Columbia athletic complex is already hotter than any of us ever thought it could be. And a major commercial development in the area to go along with the residential and small business revival  would likely affect the game day experience in a positive way.

I expect to see more parking garages, added transportation options, and lots more restaurants and attractions. I also believe our high school recruits will become more excited about playing in the area when they see it on official visits to Columbia. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Busy Wednesday

Matt King

After a slow return of the news cycle after spring break, we have a good rundown of updates to get through today:

New Staffer

The now-wonderfully Columbia Football Twitter feed announced the hiring of a new "Speed and Athletic Performance" coach. That man is Matt King, who had the more traditional title of "Strength and Conditioning Coach" at Maine. Here's his bio from UMaine that will surely be deleted soon, so click soon!

The Twitter feed goes on to say another staffer will soon be added to the general strength and conditioning staff to make a total of three people working in that vital role for football.

But I can't wait for King to get here so he and I can swap stories about living in Bangor!

And I'm still overjoyed by the expansionist approach the administration is taking to football with all these added hires.

Speaking of hires, at least the pictures of our new staffers now appear on the coaches' page of the football website. The bios should come soon.

Baseball Begins

You'll have to forgive the umpire at today's Columbia baseball home opener against Army if he yells: "P-P-P-Plaaayyy  B-B-B-Balll! in this sub-45 degree weather. That is, if the game does get underway at all. Rain is expected in the NYC area later today. The game was already moved from West Point because of bad field conditions up there.

But the Ivy League schedule starts this Saturday against Columbia's arch-nemesis Dartmouth. The Big Green happen to remain the team with the best chance to stop the Lions from a three-peat of Ivy baseball titles after falling to Columbia in the last two Ivy League Championship Series.

By the way, the weather is expected to be even colder on Saturday.

Just for Laughs

A funny joke article in today's Daily Pennsylvanian "reports" that just-fired Quaker basketball coach Jerome Allen is also coming to Columbia.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Lessons from "Concrete Charlie"

Stay down, Frank!

Penn and Eagle great Chuck Bednarik died Saturday morning at the age of 89.

He was possibly the toughest football player ever, and certainly was the toughest Ivy League football player of all time.

And today, there are two very important things Columbia football can learn from Bednarik's life.

He played for Penn before the formal formation of the Ivy League and at a time when the Quakers were a national power and looking to cash in on a major TV contract. Penn reached such heights and started drubbing its traditional rivals so frequently, that the school finally got cold feet and pulled back. It was that pullback that led to de-emphasis of big-time football for the new Ivy League and the eventual creation of the ban on athletic scholarships for its members.

None of that affected Bednarik, as he was already deep into his professional career when the League started business in 1956. But in an weird twist, Bednarik played his pro ball on the same Franklin Field turf where he made an impact as a collegian... even as his college was drifting further and further away from him and from competitive football.

And "drifting" is a kind word for it. From 1956-81, Penn was a very poor relation in the world of Ivy football. In fact, the Quakers and Columbia were basically the best bet to come in last every year.

Then in a shift I've written about here several times before, the Penn administration under then-President Sheldon Hackney decided to get serious about making Quaker football as competitive as the basketball program had become years before.

In the early days of that turnaround effort, then-Quaker Head Coach Jerry Berndt and his new staff put together one of those football alumni golf outing fundraisers that everyone does these days. When putting together the guest list, Berndt and his aides were surprised to see that no one at Penn had really reached out to Bednarik for years. Word was that "Concrete Chuck" had pretty much given up on Penn football years before and would be a very tough sell. Nevertheless, Bednarik did agree to come.

Former Columbia Head Coach Larry McElreavy was on Berndt's staff, was there that day and he told me this story about what happened:

"Bednarik and many of the Penn alumni were very bitter about the past and skeptical about the program's turnaround rhetoric for the future. But the round of golf went well, and then we got to the dinner and the time when they asked for financial support from the alums. And at that moment, Chuck came right over to Berndt and presented him with a Mrs. Paul's frozen food coupon."

Now the postscript to this story is that when Penn did started winning, Bednarik became very much involved in the program financially and in other ways.

The other postscript was that after a one-win first season under the new regime, the Quakers next four seasons under Berndt were championship seasons.

The point for today is that if Columbia alumni think that we're bitter and that our administration has made egregious errors in the past, they're right. BUT, the same was true for Penn. And Penn has become the best football program in the Ivies since that era of Jerry Berndt and the Al Bagnoli years that followed a decade later.

I don't begrudge the Columbia football alumni who may still be as bitter and skeptical as Bednarik was at that golf outing. But I am happy to see so many very truly abused and ignored football alums not succumbing to that bitterness and apathy. The long-time fans know that the hiring of Bagnoli alone doesn't absolve all the past wrongs, but we know that it and the efforts to put together his excellent new staff are the first significant moves for football by this administration for football in many decades. And we know that it's been the lack of that kind of commitment from the top that is the single biggest reason for the team's failures on the field.

There's one more lesson for today that Columbia in particular can learn from the life of Chuck Bednarik.

Remember, he was a soldier in World War II well before he became a college football player. And you know where I'm going with this line of reasoning: America today is filled with good and even great quality football players who also happen to be returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Can Columbia field a team filled with these veterans? No. But the Lions can find one or two of these still young men who can make a difference on the field right away and can enroll today at Columbia for free in the School of General Studies via our exemplary "Yellow Ribbon Program."

I can tell you now that the new coaching staff is fully aware of the GS option, especially for veterans. I can't say, and neither can they, that the staff will be able to rope in any players via this route. But I can tell you they will try.

And it's an effort worth trying, because I wouldn't be surprised to learn there's another Chuck Bednarik out there, willing to prove he can be just as tough in the classroom as he is on the battlefield and the field of play.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Here Comes the New Look... and the New Pitch!

The new uniforms with an entirely new look for the Columbia football team have been ordered.

Judging by what Head Coach Al Bagnoli said about the light blue color at his introductory news conference, I think we can expect to see a lot less pure light blue in the new look unis.

Ever since I was an undergraduate from 1988-92, I've heard fans clamoring for a black uniform with light blue lettering and trim. That means probably something like the Carolina Panthers home uniforms below:

In fact, I'm going to make a wild prediction that this is a lot like what we're going to see when the uniforms are finally revealed.

But you don't have to wait to find out just what Columbia's recruiting pitch is already sounding like to potential players.

Offensive Line Coach Jon McClaughlin has been tweeting a lot of statements, complete with links to back it up, about the very diverse student body and faculty at Columbia.

Here are some samples:

"Columbia has the highest black freshman percentage for the top-ranked national universities" - the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

"Columbia University's commitment to diversity, creates the Nation's ideal environment for elite student athletes"

"Gentrification is turning all of NYC into the hottest and hippest urban environment in the world"

Recruiting is all about sales, and while McClaughlin didn't go to an Ivy school himself, he's been coaching this league for a very long and knows how to sell it.

Mark Fabish and Joe D'Orazio were stars at Penn and they are more than informed and bought-in. Jon Poppe didn't go Ivy, but he played at an elite academic school and had a brother and a dad who played right here at Columbia.

It's in this aspect of the game that this staff really is a major upgrade from what we've seen in the past. And I sense real energy from these guys as they begin the long process of recruiting the 2016 freshman class.

Of course, there's a tremendous amount of focus on the coming season and ending this 21-game losing streak. But the long game is really in motion and I like the aggressive but sagacious recruiting effort we're seeing now.