Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How to Build an Ivy Winner: Step 2

Time for a Bold Money Move

Columbia's endowment has now grown to $7.7 billion (Up anout $1.2B since 2011)

To his credit, Columbia football Head Coach Pete Mangurian has been fully aware of the new financial realities in the Ivies from the earliest days of his return to the league after a 12 year absence. Mangurian cited the new tuition and financial aid pressures as the #1 difference in the Ivies when he was asked last year about what changes he’d noticed across the league.

To make a long story short, tuition in the Ivies has continued to skyrocket well beyond the rate of inflation despite the economic crisis and resulting recession and slow recovery.

The result is that the prospect of recruiting players from non-super wealthy families is a great new challenge. It’s one thing to ask a family making $75K to $100K a year to swallow the cost of an Ivy education; we’ve always known that was a tall order. But now even rich families making upwards of $400K can legitimately be scared off by what amounts to a $250K price tag for four years of tuition, room, board, transportation, etc.

The clear winners in this new financial game have been Harvard and Princeton. They were the first to institute massive cuts to tuition costs based on a families annual income almost a decade ago. The impact for Harvard sports was immediate, while it took a little longer for Princeton.

Columbia isn’t totally out of the picture in this tuition relief movement, but it should be more competitive considering the relative health of its endowment compared to Yale, (Yale took a bigger hit from the recession, so did Harvard to be exact). And every one of our athletics coaches needs to keep pounding the table about improving the financial aid picture at CU. Again to their credit, I believe most of them really are.

Nevertheless, it does seem like the number of wealthier students on our key varsity teams is growing. And there’s no denying that the 200% increase in tuition since I graduated in 1992 has to be the biggest reason for that.

But instead of playing catch up on financial aid, Columbia should take the lead on something more radical: actual tuition REDUCTION.

Sounds crazy, but that kind of move would get noticed for all the right reasons. The old argument that lowering tuition would make a school look desperate is ludicrous at Columbia with its effective 6% acceptance rate, (and it’s more like just 1% for non-varsity athletes). Financial aid is one thing, but there’s nothing like that sticker shock to deter a lot of great applicants.

Think about it: what is the only “undiscovered country” left for the Ivy admissions officers who continue to scratch for more racial and geographic diversity? I’d say it’s those kids from middle class families who might be able to get lots of tuition assistance but still lack for help covering all the other costs. Plus, don’t underestimate the culture shock some teens and their families don’t want to experience as they become the obviously poorest kid in the dorm or on the team.

I very much fault Mangurian and co. for not recruiting the right personnel and using them properly, but this financial hurdle is not their fault and I don’t think they’re able to remotely fix it on their own anyway.

But it is a fact of life in the Ivies. Unless Columbia flexes its financial muscles and really cuts its costs rather than create more financial aid programs, we’ll always be behind the Harvards and the Princetons on this one.

There’s no reason why Columbia shouldn’t be destroying smaller schools with less money like Dartmouth and Brown when it comes to what we can offer recruited athletes financially. Penn and Cornell are also well behind us when it comes to endowment and other liabilities. Yale might have more money, but not as much more as you might think. In other words, we are one of the financial big boys of the Ivies. We should start acting like it. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

How to Build an Ivy Winner, Step 1

Dalyn Williams takes off 

Columbia’s recent fall from somewhat competitive in 2009 and 2010 to crashing down to historic poor play is not really an issue of bad players or even bad in-game coaching decisions.

The issue is how the team is being badly structured to compete in today’s Ivy League.

By my analysis, there are three major changes that have occurred in the league since 2000 that make this a much different place to play than it was. Successful coaches like Phil Estes at Brown and Bob Surace at Princeton have adjusted to these changes to compete with the traditional Harvard and Penn powerhouses. Dartmouth is finally getting it. The jury is still out on Yale’s Tony Reno. Columbia and Cornell are failing miserably.

Today, I’ll focus one the #1 key change and look at how the successful teams have adjusted.

#1: Face it, you’re not going to get a great RB or O-line, so you need a running/gunning QB

I’ve documented the demise of the 1,000 yard rusher in the Ivies for years, and it’s still as hard as ever for Ivy schools to produce a 25-30 carry a game, 1,000-yard+ running back. The fact that we had two 1,000-yard rushers in the league last year made 2013 almost like a boom year in a dying market. But even Penn and Harvard didn’t get a 1,000 yard rusher or a single back who came close to averaging even 15 carries per game. League leading rusher Jonathan Spooney had just 150 total carries himself.

But as I’ve said many times this running back drought has been true for some time, the new development in the league is the drop-off in offensive line play as a whole… and that decline coupled with the running back issues has changed the way the game is being played.

I’m not sure whether to blame the whole “blind side” movement or whatever, but the major college programs are loading up on any and all potential O-line talent with a vengeance. That leaves fewer scraps for the Ivies. Consider that Jeff Adams, Columbia’s best offensive lineman of the last 20 years, has made a few NFL practice squads but his level of play at the combines and camps he attended after graduating in 2012 was widely derided by the scouts. It’s to Jeff’s credit that he put in the work to keep his shot at the NFL alive, but it says something that a 3-time 1st Team All Ivy player was so far behind the pack.

Harvard’s amazing recruiting advantage has indemnified the Crimson from this reality for the most part, but all the other schools – even Penn – have to face it. And all the other schools, except for Cornell and Columbia have responded with a focus on more mobile QB’s who can help make up for spotty pass protection and run blocking all at once.

Penn’s recently graduated Billy Ragone was a good example of all of this. Frankly, he wasn’t the greatest runner or passer. But put together, he was a good enough threat to run or pass effectively enough of the time to make the Penn offense go. Without a stellar RB or WR during his tenure, (Penn did have a great season from RB Lyle Marsh in 2009, but Ragone was out most of that year), the Quaker still won championships.

Princeton’s current QB, Quinn Epperly, is a better passer than Ragone and a decent runner. He’s the biggest reason the Tigers tied for the title last year.

Dartmouth’s Dalyn Williams had the luxury of having a 1,000 yard rusher behind him, but his combined running and passing ability was the biggest reason why the Big Green really emerged as serious contenders last season and got better week after week. Dartmouth’s win over Princeton in week 10 should serve as a message to the rest of the league for 2014.

Brown’s long-time response to the O-line reality has been a little different. Instead of going for mobile QB’s, the Bears have opened up their passing attack even more to include a lot more short passing. But Spooney’s super season last year helped Brown avoid the worst of what could have been a tougher year. As it is, the Bears still did not have a winning Ivy record.

Cornell has been avoiding making this crucial adjustment for an understandable reason. The Big Red had a super pocket passer in the traditional sense with Jeff Mathews and it didn’t make sense to pull him from the lineup for any reason. But now that Mathews is gone, Head Coach David Archer is going to have to show whether he’s figured out the playing field.

That leaves us with Columbia’s Head Coach Pete Mangurian, who is steadfastly insisting on putting together a pocket passing offensive attack. I’m not sure if he doesn’t recognize the O-line realities at Columbia and everywhere else, or if he just refuses to accept them. But so far, the results are a 3-17 overall record, an unnecessarily restrained Sean Brackett in 2012, and the worst performance of any Ivy football team in history in 2013.

I’m not saying that players like Epperly, Williams, and Ragone grow on trees because they don’t. But refusing to even go after players like this is disturbing. It’s one thing to buck the trends for winning in the Ivies when you still are competitive like Brown. But it’s something else entirely when you’re so far behind the pack. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

End of an Era

Al Bagnoli 

The big news today is that Penn Head Coach Al Bagnoli has announced he will retire at the end of this season.

Bagnoli took over a struggling Penn team, (the Quakers had dominated much of the 1980’s, but stumbled during the Gary Steele era of 1989-91), and made it the most consistent championship contender of his time.

… and he could have been ours.

Al Bagnoli was offered the head coaching job at Columbia in 1984, but he rejected the offer, noting that the administration at CU was clearly not all that committed to winning.

This story from Sports Illustrated from 1995 makes it even more clear that Bagnoli backed away from Columbia because he saw a weak administration. 

He was right, of course.

But there’s a chance this story could turn in our favor now that Penn has made the unusual move to already announce Bagnoli’s replacement. That honor is going to current Penn defensive coordinator Ray Priore.

I can’t ever remember a time when a replacement for a retiring Ivy football coach was made so far in advance. And I have to think this is disappointing for all of the other people who wanted this job.

Tom Gilmore

At the top of that list is Penn linebacker legend Tom Gilmore, currently the head coach at Holy Cross.

Gilmore’s general record at Holy Cross has been stellar despite some real financial challenges facing his program. And his stature remains high with all the former CU players who worked with him when he was an assistant coach for the Lions in the late 1980’s.

It’s no secret that Gilmore has been my top choice to be the Columbia head coach for many years now.  

When Pete Mangurian is officially dismissed in 214 days, Gilmore should be more than ready to step in here. And I hope he’ll come here with an extra chip on his shoulder as he looks to prove Penn made a mistake in overlooking him.

Our day is coming... 

Monday, April 21, 2014

SDLSS (Springtime Delusionary/Low Self-Esteem Syndrome)

Over the long weekend, the Athletic Department officially announced the football class of 2018. 

There were some changes to the class as of my last check on Feb. 14th.

Gone is Benet Academy linebacker Nick Surges, and added to the list are WR Landon Baty, DB Colin Early, and OL Benjamin Robbins.

There's no sign of the possible transfer from Minnesota.

I’m encouraged by a couple of the names on the list, specifically QB Anders Hill and DL Collin Breckinridge, but there’s nothing to tell us whether this class is better or worse than any we’ve had in the past. Anyone trashing these guys excessively, (other than noting that so many of them have absolutely terrible highlight videos), is going too far just as anyone praising them too much is also too removed from reality. There’s a reason the rest of the league’s fans laugh at us so mercilessly and it’s not just because the football team loses. It’s mostly because so many of the football fans at Columbia routinely cheer anything and everything other than wins and expect to be taken seriously. How any fan can get all excited about the football quality of this class before it plays one game, let alone wins one, after all that we have been through is stunning to me and laughable to everyone else.

But as I say every year, it isn’t wrong to say that all these young men are already winners. Why? Because they and their parents have made the wiser choice to go to an Ivy League program when most of them could have walked on, or at least tried to walk on, to a bigger football program.

Think Big: We're Selling Pure Gold

They're also winners because they’ve basically won the lottery. A friend of mine recently ran the numbers and found that non-varsity sports athlete applicants have less than a 1% chance of getting into Columbia or any other Ivy school. These kids are in, and most of them will do as well if not better than the non-athletes after graduation. Good for them for seeing the forest for the trees, but no matter how poor our football program is, I fear too many of the readers here are missing the fact that getting into any Ivy for any reason is a major achievement that a lot of players and parents are willing to forget about win-loss records to attain.

In other words, everyone here who thinks our recruiters are geniuses and Head Coach Pete Mangurian is doing something right simply because we pick up a few quality recruits is deluding themselves. Columbia, and all the Ivies, sell themselves simply with our name. The only thing we should look at is how badly Ivy recruiters do at selling something as easy to sell as an Ivy League education and diploma.

I say this as a general indictment of all the league, not just Columbia. I hope a lot of you got a chance to check out  this amazing story about the former UNC fullback Devon Ramsey who had an un-named friend who went to Columbia to play football. Ramsey was dragged down by an academic scandal at Chapel Hill, but he realizes that it would have been better for him to come to CU like his friend and get a real education for life while still playing ball.

Question: why doesn’t Columbia and the rest of the Ivy recruiters do a better job of getting this message across? I realize some players and their parents will forever be deluded about their chances of going pro, etc. But our “catch rate” for better basketball and football players should be higher. I would make the point that Harvard has made its move to the top in basketball based very much on honing this pitch to best of all recruits. It’s time for Columbia to do this too in football.

It’s time to shake off the low self-esteem we all have when it comes to Ivy sports and stop celebrating getting commitments from only the mid-major prospects.

We have something priceless to sell, let’s start selling it better.

Baseball Gets it Done

It was another thrilling weekend for baseball, as the Lions swept a tough four game series over a super-pitching Cornell team in Ithaca. The Lions are now tied with Penn for the Gehrig Division lead at 13-3 with the all-important four game home-and-home series with the Quakers beginning on Friday in Philly.

Men’s tennis also won the Ivy title this weekend with a win over Princeton.

I like this piece by Peter Andrews in the Spectator today documenting the strong spring for CU athletics after the terrible fall. But Andrews is also 100% right that this should do nothing to relieve the pressure on Mangurian and Murphy when football season comes along. He also makes the point that winning just one game this fall is not good enough to be considered an adequate improvement.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Don’t You Get It?

I got rid of the athletic department and coaching staff trolls on this blog a couple of months ago.

So the 1-2 commenters defending Head Coach Pete Mangurian are legitimate fans who for some reason don’t see the reality right in front of their eyes.

So here it is in three quick points:

1)      Mangurian is destroying this team and the entire program may not recover. Until he goes, or radically changes everything he is doing, I’m not going to let up on him and neither should anyone who purports to be a supporter of Columbia football. If you agree that Mangurian is a poor choice, then you have to stop making the weak claim that we should support him anyway for team morale. That makes no sense, because the thing that helps team morale is wins and Pete hasn't delivered. Now, you can claim that Mangurian is not hurting the program, but then you'd have to give me some proof. Anyone defending Pete from now on has to give us proof and not platitudes about being a "team player."  

2)      The success of the other teams in Columbia Athletics, such as it is, is NOT an argument for excusing Athletic Director Dianne Murphy for this egregious hire and delay in dismissing Mangurian. It’s like excusing a child abuser because he hasn’t abused his other kids. Murphy is becoming more and more aware of the fact that Mangurian was a terrible mistake, and yet she still does nothing. Her disdain for the football players and fans suffering under this guy is immeasurable. 

3)     I say “delay in dismissing,” because Mangurian will be dismissed on November 23, 2014, the day after the season ends. We will likely be 0-10 and Murphy - who is barely on speaking terms with Mangurian as it is - will finally have the courage to pull the trigger. I take no solace in knowing this, because it’s obvious and also because it will be at least a year too late. That may be just another year to us older fans, but it’s 25% of the entire college career for the players. And it’s another wasted year as we will have to wait for yet another rebuilding program to begin. 

223 days to go...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How to Spread the Wisdom

Brett Boretti

Columbia Baseball star Jordan Serena Tweeted this on Sunday:

Two great weekends in a row for @CULionsBaseball and not a peep out of @GoColumbiaLions #wheresthelove #IvyChamps #wewingames

The official CU Athletics Twitter feed did have some Tweets a little later on, but Serena’s point is well taken when it comes to the most important part of his Tweet: “We win games.”

Anyone who has watched the baseball team has to be impressed with the stunning depth on the roster and the way Head Coach Brett Boretti has simply reloaded instead of rebuilt the squad year after year.

As I said in the comments section in an earlier post, it’s no surprise that a warm, engaging and consistently strong communicator like Boretti is the best coach Columbia athletics has seen in at least 25 years. It’s no surprise because a person like that is going to be a great recruiter, and recruiting is everything.

Compare that to the barely acceptable-in-polite-company behavior you get from football Head Coach Pete Mangurian. I’m sure he turns on more charm when he meets with recruits and their parents, but that’s the thing: a genuine good coach and good person doesn’t have to turn anything on. He or she is very transparently a quality person.

There’s no way Mangurian is fooling some of the more discerning players and their parents with whatever sales pitch he’s using. He doesn’t have it in him. Anyone who makes private calls to big donors like Bob Kraft to trash his own players doesn’t have the class. And he also doesn’t have the brains if he thinks calls like that won’t become public, which they did.

Boretti should be made the de facto “Dean of Athletics” at Columbia. I usually hate more levels of bureaucracy, but the best performing coach for the longest period of time should be given some kind of added advisory role within the department, (and that includes advising admissions in general as well), to counterbalance the administrative types who are too far removed from game action and results.

Because, as Jordan Serena Tweeted, we all want to be able to say: “we win games.”

Jacked for Jaclyn Tradition Continues

Here's a chance for some more positive visuals and a nice good deed too:

On Friday, April 25th, Columbia Football is hosting its fourth annual "Jacked 4 Jaclyn" Lift-A-Thon to help raise money for the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. 

Bench presses will be set up on campus as players attempt max repetitions of 225 lbs. Each player has been asked to seek out at least 5 sponsors to pledge or donate on their behalf, no matter the amount, big or small for each rep.  Every dollar and every rep counts. Our goal is to raise $10,000. 

Donations can made via this link..  Simply click the "Donate" link on the front page.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Gopher Transfer on the Way?

I’ve been holding off on this story for some time because I don’t have an exact name yet.

But I have learned that DB/RB from the University of Minnesota will be transferring to Columbia and will be eligible to play this fall.

Running back is an acute need for the Lions right now, so my money is on this player converting to RB only if this transfer goes through.

For those of us who like to speculate, you can check out the the Golden Gopher roster here.

Happy hunting.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Is Columbia Playing Moneyball?

These guys don't look so tough

I continue to be amazed by what I find out about our football players via Twitter.

First, we had the problem of too many players posting inappropriate comments.

Then we had the problem of some players posting inappropriate pictures of themselves.

But now, I can’t help but notice how many Tweets by our players and incoming recruits unintentionally give away the extreme wealth their families enjoy. Spring break was especially telling, with player after player chronicling their exotic vacation locales.

Now as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I’m no enemy of wealthy or the wealthy. I’m a dyed in the wool supply-sider who believes we can grow the pie and make everyone wealthy… and that would be a good thing.

But I have more and more evidence that the average net worth of our football players’ families is sharply higher, (even if adjusted for inflation), than it was 15-20 years ago.

As one fan told me last week: “No wonder we went 0-10 last year, most of these guys look like they were born 10-0… what do they need to win football games for?”

Every former player I've spoken to recently tells me he can't remember more than one player from their time who was remotely this wealthy.

And that makes me suspicious.

Let me explain.

In his excellent book, The Price of Admission, former Wall Street Journal writer Dan Golden explained how Ivy schools still find a way to admit the richest applicants despite the rigorous academic requirements.

One new way was to find super-rich applicants who happen to play lower-profile sports like squash and Equestrian events and park those kids on the bench on those teams where no one would be the wiser.

That’s not the most “sporting” thing to do, especially for those few not-so-rich squash players and horse riders who get pushed out to make room for a billionaire.

But is there a chance Columbia is now doing this in the key high-profile sport like football?

I certainly hope not, and the argument could be made that rising Ivy tuitions are effectively attracting a higher percentage of wealthier applicants and crowding out the middle class kids more and more.

But the trend is worth noting and we should keep an eye on what’s happening here. Is there anyone here who would put it past our vaunted administration to use such a ploy to ensure that more full tuition-paying students fill our athletic teams… even if it costs us a few wins here or there?  

Even I’m willing to say this administration is still innocent before proven guilty… but I’m watching… always watching.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Gone with the Wins

I took some time off this week to find that I hadn’t missed much.

Yes, I’m aware that earlier this week Head Coach Pete Mangurian held a Twitter Q&A.

I know there was a time when we would have been excited by such an exchange, but after an 0-10 season in 2013 and an extremely likely 0-10 season in 2014, I know I’m through celebrating anything but victories.

I’m not sure what to take away from a “conversation” that included no promises to actually win a game this fall. That would have been nice even if it wasn’t backed up by any truth.

The bottom line is the football team is light years behind everyone else in the Ivies. This is like an instructional league team without the proper instructors.

I’m also seeing many of the fans making the same old mistakes and assumptions. There was almost universal acceptance of Mangurian’s claim that the offensive line will improve with experience this season. Sorry, but I haven’t seen the O-line do anything but get worse week after week since Mangurian took over. The linemen are scrawny, slow, and clueless out there. And there’s no use thinking the Lions will be able to win any games with such a subpar unit up front.

There’s a time to be an ever-optimistic fan and a time to be a realist who can affect some real change.

I think we all know what time it is right now.

The only real question is whether Athletic Director Dianne Murphy, who is feuding with Mangurian at present, will have the guts to fire him in year three of his four-year contract.

For those of you who insist I be more positive, I will… when I write about the baseball team.

Count me among those who believe this week’s 2-2 start was not indicative of how good Coach Brett Boretti’s guys are. This weekend should be very interesting with games against Harvard and #1 rival Dartmouth. The Dartmouth games come first with the doubleheader tomorrow.