Friday, April 17, 2015

Overcoming the Bumps in the Road

After new Columbia Head Coach Al Bagnoli turned Penn from a bottom dweller to a contender in 1992, the Quakers won two straight Ivy championships in 1993 and 1994.

But that was not the only turnaround story for Bagnoli at Penn. While none were more statistically dramatic than the five-win improvement from 1991 to 1992, some of the other rebounds he oversaw were just as impressive.

The first real bump in the Bagnoli road came at Penn just when most successful coaches start to have success. The 1996 season was the first year when the entire Quaker team was truly all Bagnoli's players. But the '96 Penn team was snake bitten by close loss after close loss. All five Quaker losses were by less than seven points, including a 20-19 OT loss to the Lions at Franklin Field. Penn finished 5-5 and 3-4 in the Ivies.

The next season, things got worse. A respectable 6-4, 5-2 Ivy season was wiped out at the end of the year when it was discovered that standout defensive star Mitch Marrow was an ineligible player. Five of Penn's wins were vacated and Bagnoli faced the most serious crisis of his coaching tenure in Philadelphia.

So what happened in the following season? The 1998 Quakers went out and won another championship. Led by Duke transfer QB Matt Rader and the great RB Jim Finn, Penn went 8-2 and 6-1 in the Ivies to silence those who thought Bagnoli had run out of gas.

The next five seasons saw the Quakers win three more titles, including two straight undefeated Ivy seasons in 2002 and 2003, and an overall 10-0 season in 2002.

But the next bumps in the road came in 2005 both on and off the field. Senior Kyle Ambrogi committed suicide, casting a pall over what looked like a promising season out of the gate. Penn lost its last four games and finished 5-5 and 3-4 in the league.

The next two years weren't much better as the Quakers couldn't find any consistency with QB Robert Irvin and Penn finished 3-4 in the Ivies in 2006 and 2007.

Then I believe Bagnoli had an epiphany. While his championship teams in the past at Penn had all been great defensively, they stood out for their offensive stars like Finn, Rader, and then another great QB in Mike Mitchell. By 2008, Bagnoli seemed to realize that great offensive skill players were getting harder to stockpile and he seemed to change his focus into creating a solid overall team defense and offensive line and then try to consolidate the talent in the skill positions by committee.

The '08 Quakers started the recent Penn tradition of winning ugly. They went 6-4 overall, but 5-2 in the Ivies with three of the conference wins by less than a TD.

That set the stage for an incredible 2009 championship run where none of the offensive skill players put up very impressive numbers, but the defense and the offensive line made Penn unbeatable in the Ivies. The Quakers lost their first two games of the season in tough matches against Villanova and Lafayette, but then they didn't lose again. Along the way, Penn allowed just eight points per game to all its Ivy opponents and only Dartmouth and Columbia scored more than seven points in a game against the Quakers.

The 2010 Penn team put together another championship season with the same formula but also with the winning ugly play of QB Billy Ragone who never had the greatest stats, but found ways to win time and time again.

A bit of a down year on defense doomed Penn to a 2nd place finish in 2011, but a number of Ragone-led gutty comebacks brought the Quakers a surprising championship in 2012.

Bagnoli's last two seasons at Penn have been well documented as not his best, but they don't look like they were any worse to me than the 1996, 2006 and 2007 seasons and we know how well the program rebounded from those years.

The point of all of this is to show that Bagnoli hasn't been just on some kind of long cake walk at Penn for the last 23 years. There have been several challenges and now he's taking on a new kind of challenge at Columbia. And just like there are a lot of people who say the Columbia problem can't be solved, there were a lot of people who said Bagnoli and Penn would not recover from those clusters of consecutive non-winning seasons he suffered in Philly.



Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Turnaround Al's" New Challenge: the numbers

Sundiata Rush

Head Coach Al Bagnoli and how he was hired by Columbia earlier this year is the subject of a more in-depth report from the Spectator's Kyle Perotti and you can read it here.

Be sure to enjoy the great pictures of spring practice included in the piece. If you're like me, seeing Bagnoli in Columbia swag is still weird but also great.

There are already a lot of versions of the story of how Bagnoli came to Columbia, and Perotti's is as good as anyone's. My sources tell me the Perotti account is pretty much how it went, but there was a little more initiative from Bagnoli at some point than there was than from Villanova Head Coach Andy Talley or our new Athletic Director Peter Pilling. But Bagnoli was constricted by the fact that he was under contract, so he was absolutely recruited for the job according to the rules.

But folks, it really doesn't matter how this started. Columbia has walked away from superior and exciting candidates before for reasons ranging from ineptitude to ego. Give Pilling the credit for not screwing this up as so many of his predecessors probably would have.

Now it's time to really take a look at the challenge Bagnoli has before him.

He's turned around programs before, but this is probably his greatest challenge in that department.

We're all trying not to focus on the past, but we have to be fair and not forget that this Lion team has lost 21 games in a row, and all but two of those 21 losses were blowouts where Columbia's opponents were able to bench their starters early.

The Penn team that Bagnoli took over in 1992 was not so much at rock bottom. It had suffered a poor 2-8 season in 1991 highlighted by two squeaker wins at home against weak Brown and Cornell teams. But the Quakers also lost some very close games, including defeats by less than a TD to eventual champ Dartmouth, up-and-comer Princeton, (the Tigers won the title the following year), and at Columbia.

The '91 Quakers were not terrible on defense, but the offense was anemic. Penn only scored 20 or more points once and averaged just 14.2 points a game,

By contrast, last year's 0-10 Columbia team broke the 20 point barrier twice, but averaged just 10.3 points per game.

The 1991 rushing leader for Penn was Sundiata Rush, a very talented player who would go on to an even more explosive 1992 season. But in '91 he still ran for a very respectable 787 yards and three TD's with a yards-per-rush average of 4.1.

Columbia's top rusher last season was Cameron Molina with 460 yards and a 3.2 yards-per-rush average. He also had three TD's.

Penn's top receiver in 1991 had just 28 catches for 256 yards and no TD's. Molina was also the top receiver for Columbia last season with 44 grabs for 395 yards and no TD's. But the top actual wide receiver was Ryan Flannery with 31 receptions for 421 yards and two scores. Flannery is graduating, meaning the top returning Lion wide receiver is sophomore Marcus Briscoe who had 16 receptions last season for 141 yards and one TD.

Bagnoli's inherited QB from the '91 season didn't look like much at the time. Jimmy McGeehan was just 6-feet tall and 195 pounds. But he would develop into a great all-time player for Penn. McGeehan threw for just 848 yards on 179 attempts and just a 41% completion rate. (the next season McGeehan wasn't much better, but in the 1993 championship season he threw for 2,197 yards, 24 TD's, and completed 57% of his passes).

Columbia's top returning QB is Trevor McDonagh who threw for 1,349 yards on a 130 completions and a 52% completion rate. But McDonagh may have already been eclipsed on the depth chart by Anders Hill, who passed for just 310 yards last season on 52 passes and a 50% completion rate. Hill may be more in the mold of McGeehan, and he seems a lot more effective in the mobile/pistol offense so far, but you could argue that at this point the QB situation Bagnoli faces now at Columbia is not all that different from what it looked like he was facing at Penn in 1992.

Let's get beyond the stats and look at some of the key moments from that 1992 turnaround season for the Quakers. Many of us remember that Penn went 7-3 overall and 5-2 overall in the Ivies that year. But it's important to note, and Bagnoli would probably be the first to do so, that the Quakers were still an error-riddled team on the field most weekends. Penn was only dominant in a 38-0 win over eventually winless Brown in week six. It's only other "easy" win was over Colgate in week two.

But that win over Brown was a turning point as far as team psyche was concerned. The Quakers went 3-1 the rest of the way, only losing in a very close game to the '92 champion Princeton Tigers, 20-14.

A realistic look at Columbia right now leads me to believe that this season's goal should be to get Columbia up to the level the Quakers were in 1991 and then hope for a 1992 Penn style jump into serious contention in 2016. The Lions 2014 stats are bad, but still positively misleading because so many opponents shelved their "A games" early on or never brought it out against Columbia in the first place.

But that's just me and we certainly root for a win every week.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Talkin' Baseball

Joe Falcone

Getting away from football and athletic department internal news for a second, may I just write a bit about how much of a joy it is to follow Columbia Baseball?

I don’t know if the team will win its third straight Ivy title, but the Lions are still tied for first in the Gehrig Division and the pitching and offense are impressive.

My favorite development this year has been the resurgence of senior Joe Falcone who had a rough junior year after exploding on the scene as a sophomore in 2013. Of course, Falcone is a favorite because of his time as a Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq. At 29 years old, he’s a welcome change of pace and a heartening story.

Another great development is the fact that the loss of pitcher David Speer hasn’t been as much of a killer as expected. Junior Kevin Roy has stepped up his game on the mound and fellow junior George Thanapolous has been more solid this year. And Senior Mike Weisman might be the ace of them all. Weisman only threw 19.2 innings last year and just 14 innings in 2013.  This season, he’s already thrown more than his last two seasons worth of innings combined and he has a 2.97 ERA. I wonder if Head Coach Brett Boretti wishes he had given Weisman more playing time in the past or if he just improved big time over the off season.

Other than Falcone on the hitting side, Jordan Serena is having another great year with a .339 average and a perfect 15-15 on stolen bases. One of the surprises in the Ivy part of the schedule is senior 3B David Vandercook, who is hitting well above his career average at .436 with 15 RBI.

There are many, many more individual names to point out, but do yourself a favor and watch the games on the Ivy Digital Network or in person and enjoy.

The whole genre of college baseball and the Ivy version of it is also really enjoyable. The games move fast, each weekend is filled with two doubleheaders, and with all the players under 30, every team has exciting speed. 

It Started Badly, it Ended Badly

Traci Waites

One of the best student journalists and broadcasters at Columbia over the past 25 years was a young man named Phil Wallace. 

Phil has never let Columbia sports get too far away from his mind in the more than a decade since he graduated. And now, his investigative and persuasive efforts have finally uncovered the story behind the mysterious and sudden firing of Women's Basketball Head Coach Traci Waites. 

I highly suggest all of you read this article by Phil very carefully.

I know lots of my critics will hit me with accusations that by posting this, I'm kicking outgoing Athletic Director Dianne Murphy even though she's already defeated and in retreat.

But the reason I post it is to show what the reality was in this athletic department for the past 13 years. The Wallace article rings true not only because of Phil's hard work, but because Murphy's alleged actions all follow what in my opinion was a familiar and destructive pattern during her tenure at Columbia. That is, coaches who she did not hire or she did not think she could completely control were likely to be let go. In this case, a very promising and talented coach was gone before she could establish a record of any kind.

Another reason why I post this story is because Waites' reputation was so badly sullied by the firing and it was all based on rumor and innuendo. We were told she had a past history with substance abuse, and the public was almost forced to believe that Waites had suffered some kind of relapse. In fact, that was the prevailing "story" many of us were told.

And so Waites deserves to have her side of the story made public now, no matter that Murphy is leaving anyway and Columbia is preparing to give her a loving sendoff dinner.

I strongly believe that Murphy's conduct, exemplified early on by the way she treated Waites, badly hurt the athletic department at Columbia and that her overall record was not a good one at all.

If Murphy wants to respond to Phil or Waites or me, I will make sure her comments appear here.

And even though I believe Peter Piling has already done a lot of the right things so far in his tenure as her replacement, we need to hear these kinds of reports to remind everyone about what should and shouldn't happen at our school.

Spring Practice Takeaways #1

Anders Hill on a read option

Due to the generous and warm open policy Al Bagnoli and his staff have extended to Lions fans during this spring practice period, my usual number of reporters and sources has multiplied nicely. And I plan to visit a practice myself in the coming days and I'm looking forward to it.

But even though the number of my reporters has shot up, the reports I'm getting are not varied at all. There is pretty much universal agreement that the information and impressions below are the undisputed truth:

1) The Offense is Ahead of the Defense

Based on our roster and the usual way of things, I would have thought the defense would be dominating so far at spring practice.

Not so much.

The new read option offense is working pretty well and it's opening up the passing game in a way we just haven't seen since Sean Brackett '13 used to roll out and do his damage.

Rising sophomore Anders Hill seems to be handling this new offense better than the other QB's. I know I'm biased because I have favored this kind of offense for Columbia and all the Ivies for that matter for a long time. But this is working better, period.

There's been good enthusiasm on both sides of the ball, but the biggest exclamation point of practice so far may be the impressive run and beating RB Chris Schroer put on on LB Gianmarco Rea on Saturday. Schroer ran him over like a truck. That's great news for all of us who worried that Schroer's ankle injury last season may have taken some air out of very noticeably high octane play. And it's good news because Rea is still one of our best linebackers and he'll learn from this experience for sure.

2) Players are Coming Back

I'm not sure when we're going to see a truly updated roster, but when it is fully refreshed we should see some familiar names back on it.

I expect Nicholas Annabi, Brendan Blackshear, Isaiah Gross and even Brett Nottingham to be back in the fold officially. I don't know if any of them will really get on the field on game days, but I like the fact that the new coaching regime is rekindling their desire.

3) More Position Changes this Year than Usual

We already know about Tyler Kwiatkowski switching from LB to FB, but we'll see more news of this nature in the coming weeks.

I wouldn't call it a position change exactly, but for now OL Marshall Markham is the starting center.

Much of the other shuffling will be in the front seven on defense between the D-line and the linebackers and there's been some shuffling of the depth charts there as well.

Some of the backups have been acting a little, err... testy among themselves during practice. It's possible this is an attempt to get noticed. The coaches are aware.

Truth is, I like the emotion and even a touch of the desperation. We want guys who want to win and get on the field to make it happen. Within reason, they should be almost reckless in their pursuit of this.