Wednesday, April 29, 2015

But They Love Us!

Count me among the people who don't think this proposal from NYCFC to demolish and replace Wien Stadium will ever happen.

I do see some positives from it, but plenty of negatives especially the loss of whatever autonomy Columbia has over the space. And I don't see how the streets in the neighborhood could accommodate even 10,000 more cars coming into that bottleneck 20 times a year.

But here's one completely positive thing to consider: The fact that deep-pocketed private sector investors see our home field and environs as an attractive location is a nice boost. Does anyone think that anyone saw Inwood as the place to be 40, 30, or even 20 years ago?

Hey Ivy opponents, which one of your stadiums or locations has been targeted for a $400 million professional sports stadium and millions more in other amenities? I can't hear you. Yeah, that's what I thought.

The days of deprecating our location just got a half billion dollar slap in the face. No need to actually build this soccer stadium, the proposal says it all.

The negative recruiting of players by using our location against is over and this slams the door on that.

Welcome Eric Hahn

Columbia has picked up Eric Hahn from Bucknell as our new of football operations. He's another guy with Penn and St. Joseph's connections. He's got a lot of work to catch up on as Columbia prepares for its recruiting summer camps at Baker Field and much more.

And ONE MORE Thing...

You MUST check out this great video depicting Columbia's start down the road to success.

This is what the beginning of rising from the ashes looks like:

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

BREAKING: NYFC plans to replace Wien Stadium

A story just out in the NY Times tonight reports that the MLS club, NYC FC is proposing a plan to demolish Wien Stadium and replace it with a 25,000 seat stadium to share with Columbia football.

No comment yet from Columbia. 

Fighting for a Lion

Kirk Gibson

The news came down today that former baseball great Kirk Gibson has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

I'm sorry to say that this disease has also touched the Columbia football community as former standout defensive lineman Jim Daine '93 is also suffering from this disease.

I only learned about Jim's condition earlier this month but he tells me he was first diagnosed in January of 2014.

Jim is treating the disease with drugs, voice and physical therapy out of Helen Hayes Hospital in Stony Point, NY.

I want to do a full interview with Jim soon, but for now he asks all of us to know that Helen Hayes Hospital is trying to be one of the premiere Parkinson's therapy centers in the NY area.

Jim says the program there has gotten him back in the gym and seems to be really helping.

Donations can be made to Helen Hayes Hospital Foundation Inc. 51-55 Route 9W North, West Haverstraw, NY 10993. Please put "Parkinson's program's" in the memo section of the check.

I just want to add that Jim wasn't just a great player, he has been a great supporter of Lions football and a tremendous friend to many alums over the years.

Again, I hope to do a full interview with Jim soon but for now I know he and his family are in all of our prayers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Spring Scrimmage Notes

1st Test: Run an effective spring practice on very short notice. DONE!

I have to start today's post with a comment or two about the Columbia Baseball team. This weekend's series against Penn was high quality, high drama, and just a great example of Ivy sports at its finest. 

And after four games, nothing is decided! We need a one-game playoff between the two teams for the second year in a row to decide the Lou Gehrig Division title. This year, the game will be at home for Columbia at Robertson Field/Satow Stadium. 

I went to the first two games of the series on Saturday after watching football practice and every pitch and ever at bat had an intensity to it that you just don't usually feel in any regular season baseball game. I watched the final two games on the Ivy Digital Network yesterday and it was even more exciting. So don't miss the game this coming Saturday.

Now to football...

Once again these bullet points about Sunday's scrimmage are a composite of a lot of spectators' accounts.

1) The Defense Stepped Up

After appearing to be behind the offense for much of the spring, the defense looked much improved Sunday. There were lots of interceptions despite decent pass protection, so kudos are in order for Coach Jon Poppe and his secondary. Coach Justin Stovall and his linebacking crew also made a huge step forward yesterday. 

DB Jared Katz basically played out of his mind. Matt Cahal and Trevor Bell stepped it up too. Their play and the improved play we've seen all spring from Cameron Roane and Colin Early added to the usual good things Travis Reim shows us has me confident about the secondary as a whole.  

The linebackers who stood out were Gianmarco Rea and Max Keefe. Also making a name for himself in a positive way was Parker Tobia who is coming off a year off the team. 

2) It's Hard to Judge the Offense Now

RB Cameron Molina was out with the flu and some other skill players were banged up. QB Trevor McDonagh was not dressed and WR Marcus Briscoe didn't play either. 

RB Turner DeMuth played very well but was injured at the end of the game. 

WR Cameron Dunn had a sharp game and so did RB Leander Cutler. 

Field goal kicking was a concern all day.

Overall, it's a pleasure to see the new coaching staff quietly and effectively do its work. Spring practice is always a little overrated for the fans, because so much changes when the new players come in for training camp in August. I think the #1 goal for the spring was for the team and the new coaches to get acclimated to each other, and I believe that was accomplished.

Just sit back and consider how important that is. This staff had very little time to even make this spring practice happen, let alone make it effective. Rome may not have been built in a day, but it seems like this spring practice was by a strong and experienced staff. This is a major test Head Coach Al Bagnoli and his assistants have passed, and probably only someone as familiar as Bagnoli is with Ivy football could have pulled it off. 

Now, the next milestone is the official release from the athletic department on the incoming freshmen and transfers. There's a chance we may see some significant news on that front, so stay tuned. 

Oh, and one more note: former Lion and current K.C. Chief Josh Martin '13 showed up to practice Saturday and spent some time talking with the players at the end of the session. He has an added connection to the team now that his former KC coach, Joe D'Orazio is now with the Lions as Tight Ends coach. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

This is What Normal Sounds Like

Peter Pilling

WKCR's sports show, The Firing Lion, interviewed new Columbia Athletic Director Peter Pilling Wednesday night. The entire show is archived here.  Please listen to it.
I have since confirmed that the comment made by Ryan Young at the top of the show -- that this was the first time the Firing Lion had interviewed a Columbia AD live -- was true. Remember, this is a show that's been around for 30 years. So that fact alone is stunning and says a lot about, a lot of bad things, about Pilling's predecessors. It conversely says a lot of good things about Pilling. I am more than overjoyed that Pilling did this interview and really sat in the booth with the student broadcasters for a long time. 
The interview was really a love fest, and that's understandable considering Pilling's very recent arrival and the fact that the WKCR crew was clearly happy to be dealing with a warmer and more cooperative individual.
But that's the whole point. Columbia is now going through a major upgrade in its athletic department simply by the fact that a sane individual, without vindictiveness, defensiveness, and dictatorial control in his heart is now running the place.  
I'll talk more about this mental health upgrade in a moment but based on the interview, there were more very important revelations from the interview:
1) Bagnoli is Pilling's "Guy" and this hire is very much how he'll be judged
Pilling confirmed that he began talking to new football Head Coach Al Bagnoli well before he was hired as athletic director. He admitted that was unusual considering he wasn't hired yet, but that just goes to show how aggressively Pilling was pursuing Bagnoli. In addition to Bagnoli himself, I know that Pilling contacted some of Bagnoli's former players and coaches to discuss the Ivy league, the Penn program and Bagnoli's talents in particular. So, it's simply no stretch at all to say that Bagnoli's track record here is going to be the number one set of data that we judge Pilling by in the coming years. If I were Pilling, I'd be fine with that. 
This educated pursuit of Bagnoli, where Pilling kept after him but still solicited extensive advice and information from people who knew the situation better than he did, stands in stark contrast to the way former Athletic Director Dianne Murphy hired Pete Mangurian. Murphy was also single-minded in hiring Mangurian, but she didn't seek out outside advice or much other information about him from anyone else. The results were disastrous and the fiasco of that hire will forever tar her resume. 
So we've gone from an AD who had Mangurian as her "guy," to an AD who has Bagnoli as his "guy." HUGE upgrade.
2) Pilling relates to people as... gasp... human beings! 
Pilling shared lots of nice personal details about his family, where he's currently living, how his wife is a big Mets fan, etc. 
Can anyone imagine any of our last three AD's talking about things like that? 
Almost everything comes down to human relationships in the end. So this is yet another upgrade.
3) Sanity Arrives
When you're the one sane guy in the asylum, lots of people point at you and call YOU the crazy one... or the trouble maker. 
That's how I and some of the rest of us who have demanded change over the last few years have been made to feel. 
I may not be a psychiatrist, but a person does not need to be a professional to know another person is dealing with mental illness... especially when that person shows those tendencies in public over and over. I say this not to stigmatize the mentally ill, but to admonish all of us who see mental illness to stop ignoring it out of politeness or fear. The worst is when other people support and enable the mentally ill person. I believe people in the Columbia administration were guilty of all of the above regarding Murphy and Mangurian. And I'm not even the slightest bit unsure of that. 
Now Pilling may not turn out to be the greatest athletics director in America and we may not win tons of football or basketball titles under him, but the upgrade in sanity alone is an absolute godsend. 
So let's not even BOTHER Pilling by telling him of the sick and mean athletic department misdeeds of the past. Why should he even hear about that when he's already demonstrated a professional and sane attitude and has acted accordingly? Maybe he'll come to understand why critics like me did what we did to rid ourselves of the madness, or maybe not. I don't care for any more vindication than the firing of Murphy and the hiring of Bagnoli have already brought me. And I am quite certain that the other people who publicly protested and were willing to put their names out there are not looking for thanks or acknowledgements either. 
What we wanted and have always wanted was a department that did the necessary work to make the Columbia athletic teams something the fans and alumni could be proud of. Pilling has already done that. I am sure we are closer to winning in the crucial sports of football and men's basketball than we were just a few months ago. 

South Lawn Campaign
A couple of updates on the excellent, worthwhile, and wonderful effort to have some football walk through practices on South Lawn this fall, (or at least one).
1) Get the Women Involved!
This shouldn't just be about football. Some astute alumni have suggested to me that we also get the women's soccer team, the field hockey team, and men's soccer to do some drills on South Lawn too. Actually, this is something that could make the Friday before Homecoming really special. Women's sports need a lot more exposure on campus and this is a great way to do it. 
2) We've Been Here Before
Former football player and Trustee Emeritus Ed Botwinick '56 reminded me this week that the Columbia football team DID used to have a practice or two each week on South Lawn in his days with the team. So this is not really a new thing and we're now only trying to reintroduce a tradition from Columbia's winning days! 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Spring Morning Session

I checked out football practice this very beautiful morning for about two hours at Wien Stadium.

I could weave a complicated narrative, but I think the bullet points below are better and get to the point faster:

- The coaches don't yell and scream very much. Big difference from the last two regimes. Lots of teaching going on. Very nice to see and hear. 

-On that note, O-line instruction from Coach Jon McLaughlin was excellent. I was able to see and hear most of his unit coaching sessions. O-line will be better.

-Head Coach Al Bagnoli strolled from one unit to the next, spending some time teaching a concept or two along the way. Again, no yelling. Just a lot of explaining. He had every player's undivided attention. 

-Anders Hill is definitely the #1 QB. Hill does a decent job throwing the ball and had one great draw run for a big gainer.

-All of the key offensive skill players seem to be at least healthy. RB Cameron Molina looks faster and 100%. WR Cameron Dunn made an excellent catch on a pass from Hill.

- I saw a lot of nice plays by the sophomore DB's Cameron Roane and Colinn Early. I mean A LOT. They either had a great day or are really going to be seriously good players.

-LB Mark Cieslak had a nice INT.

-DL Dominic Perkovic had some good moves on the pass rush drills a couple of times. 

-Toba Akinleye is in super shape. Looks more muscular and faster. 

-Former QB Hank Trumbull is indeed a TE now, perhaps the position he should have shifted to a long time ago.


Have you told your friends, emailed the administration or done anything yet to get behind the GREAT IDEA to stage a practice walk-through or two on South Lawn this fall? 

This will be an important, visible and tangible event to show that football is a source of pride for this school and its students and alumni. 

Let's spread the word!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Backfield Equalizers

Anders Hill

There's no secret why Columbia is working on a read option offense right now. An option offense, as former CU Head Coach Larry McElreavy puts it, acts as a "great equalizer" for a team that may be over-matched when it comes to a traditional offensive set.

Spring practice so far has been encouraging for a number of reasons, but the way the offense has been clicking better with QB Anders Hill running and gunning out of the more mobile set is maybe the best development.

But for the option to work, Hill needs a large number of talented blockers and runners behind him. And if Columbia doesn't have the most talented backfield out there, it can make up for a lot of that with the sheer volume of doing it all by committee.

With the shifting of Tyler Kwiatkowski to fullback from linebacker, and the two incoming RB's we know about currently, there are certainly enough bodies, (eight to be exact), to keep that committee well-staffed.

Cameron Molina remains the most proven commodity on the offense and he could still excel in this offense and might even do better as opposing defenses won't be able to key on him as much.

Some of the other backs who have impressed include sophomore Turner DeMuth, who was the #2 rusher on the team last year, and the always hard-charging sophomore Chris Schroer.

The junior Kwiatkowski's best asset seems to be his ability to come out of the backfield and catch passes, but fellow FB Leander Cutler seems to be much improved and stronger as a rising sophomore. Check out Cutler beating out LB Mark Cieslak in this video posted to the team's Instagram feed.

Of course, the key man in all of this is Hill. He not only has to confidently run this offense, but he also needs to avoid taking too many punishing hits game after game. Finding the best ways to do that will be an important job for Offensive Coordinator Mike Faragalli and the rest of the staff over the coming months.

Lion football was all on campus before 1923

Get the Lions on South Lawn!!

Yesterday I briefly mentioned the campaign to get the football team onto South Lawn on the main Columbia campus for a walk-through practice or two in the coming season.

I don't think relatively recent fans of the team can truly realize how much of an important statement this would make if the administration found a way to make this happen.

It's been almost 100 years since the varsity football team was visible on the Morningside Campus. Once Baker Field replaced the 116th Street campus center as Columbia's home football venue, the team went out of view and out of mind for too many students and faculty.

Now, imagine how much fun it would be to see the team doing a light practice on South Lawn the day before Homecoming this fall. Or how about just before the team leaves for the Ivy season opener at Princeton?

What football practice used to look like

Whatever the cost of preparing the field and getting it back into good condition afterward would gladly be covered by alumni like me who wouldn't miss seeing something like this for the world.

Let's make this effort more than just an Instagram thing. I'll do what I can in the coming months to keep the issue front and center.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

Spring Changes

Let's see the team HERE this fall!

With just four sessions left to go in spring practice, some of our earlier conclusions about where the team stands now have been reinforced over the last week or so:

1) The Offense is Still Ahead

Confounding what just about every observer expected coming in, the offense remains sharper and more effective than the defense.

None of the skill players is standing out, but the offensive line looks bigger and much improved. The running game has been especially strong for the offense, or stopping it has been especially impossible for the defense... depending on how you want to look at it.

2) Hill is the Leader

He's still in his freshman year, but this team really looks like it belongs to rising sophomore Anders Hill right now. It just moves with more precision and the read option plays execute better. There's a spring in the step for the offense when his unit is in there too.

Yes, Brett Nottingham is back on the field and wearing #4. But he's not getting reps with the 1's or 2's, and I'm not sure where he fits in.

3) Position Changes Galore

The folks in charge of updating the Columbia football roster web page are going to be busy in the next week or so. Changing the positions of a few returning players is very common when a new coaching staff comes in, but it looks like the shuffling will outpace that norm.

Two defensive backs, speedster rising sophomore Dylan Weldon and rising senior Joshua Foster, look like they'll be moved to WR and they looked good at different times catching passes.

We already knew about junior Tyler Kwiatkowski moving from LB to FB, so the list is growing.

On defense, sophomore LB Alexander Holme looks to be moving up to the D-line. He and senior Toba Akinleye appear to be the first team DE's with Niko Padilla of course at DT. The other starting D-lineman may end up being sophomore Lord Hyeamang or sophomore Dominic Perkovic. 

Akinleye seems to bring a special brand of excitement on every play and he's trying to earn the nickname the Columbia football Instagram account gave him: "The Brooklyn Bully." (More about that crucial and must-follow Instagram feed later).

... and then all of the D-line news make go out the window when Chad Washington and Charles Melka return for training camp.

4) Check out the Team's Instagram Feed NOW!

You can check out a lot of very educational photos and videos on the Columbia football team's Instagram feed.

If you know your player numbers, you'll get more of an idea of who's playing at what position. And the video of Padilla and junior LT Kendall Pace going one on one is particularly encouraging for those of us who know the O-line has to improve.

Also be sure to "double-tap" LIKE the pic of campus as there's a movement to have the team do some informal but inspiring walk-throughs on South Lawn this fall.

5) This is Still a Very Happy and Pumped Group

Even as spring practice grinds on, the enthusiasm and just plain joy in this team is still there. It's impossible to describe how much better it feels to watch these guys out there.

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.

Friday, April 10, 2015

First Year Factor

Buffer had a tough start

Yesterday I tried to quantify the value of the new-found enthusiasm surrounding the Columbia football program.

But I failed to document at the hard results on the field that we've seen when new coaching regimes take over.

Al Bagnoli is the 11th head coach of Columbia football since Lou Little retired at the end of the 1956 season. The first year records of the 10 men in between is decidedly mixed.

Five of the coaches have put up the same exact record of the preceding coach's final season. Three have improved on their previous season, and two had worse records in their first years.

Interestingly enough, the three coaches who have brought the Lions a W-L improvement in their first years are the last three coaches, Bob Shoop, Norries Wilson, and Pete Mangurian.

But since Shoop suffered a massive loss to Brown in his final game of his first year, and Mangurian had the 69-0 late season loss to Harvard hanging around his neck like a millstone, I would say it Wilson, with his 5-5 2006 season punctuated with a dramatic win over Brown in week 10 that made his initial season the most promising over the almost 60-year period in question.

Wilson's train derailed the following year with a 1-9, 0-7 Ivy season. It took two more years before he was able to build the program back to a competitive level before it crashed back down again in 2011.

The worst initial season was under Buff Donelli, who took a 3-6 team he inherited from Little and barely got the Lions to 1-8 in 1957. But Donelli learned fast and he delivered Columbia's lone Ivy title four years later.

Most people are putting the under/over on Columbia wins this coming season at one. So if Bagnoli follows recent trends and get the Lions three wins they'll definitely call him a miracle worker.

But just getting a couple more wins this coming season is not the real goal or the real point of hiring Bagnoli. We're looking for a much more meaningful and long term result than that.

So it's important not to get too hung up on the "how many more wins are we gonna get in 2015?" question. Yes we will judge these teams by their wins and losses, but we want more wins over the next decade, not just the next seven months.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Enthusiasm Factor

"The Pope? How many divisions has he got?"

-Josef Stalin

That famous Stalin quote has been on my mind lately as I assess the undeniable leap in enthusiasm and optimism in the Columbia football program. We've seen ups and downs on the optimism scale in the Lions Den over the decades, but rarely has it spiked so high and so quickly.

Yet in the end, how many "divisions" will all this enthusiasm be worth on the field on game day? Will it get the team some wins? Will it get us better players and make our existing players better?

The answer is "yes," albeit a qualified yes.

Currently riding a 21-game losing streak, there's little hard core evidence or stats to hang our hats on. Al Bagnoli and his coaches know that and they must therefore mine all they can out of this existing roster by getting the players to buy in with their heads and their hearts much more than they did under the previous regime, (and with good reason).

Anyone who saw the way the Lions slept-walked through a number of games knows that waking the team up could be worth one or two wins this coming season. With Bagnoli at the helm, I have confidence that the proverbial and inevitable "air out of the tires" loss will not have as much of a lasting effect as it did for guys like Pete Mangurian and Jim Garrett. 

But in the end, it will come down to talent. And here too, the growing enthusiasm has a tangible benefit.

The coaches are now very much engaged in recruiting the next freshmen class for fall 2016. The positive and excited Tweets about Columbia and NYC we're seeing from them are as much for the benefit of recruits as the existing players. This is serious business and with so many former Ivy players finally doing the recruiting for us, I'm seeing our chances of netting top recruits increase by the day.

Not enough former Ivy players recruiting for us in the past has led to a weakness in the entire sales pitch. There are plenty of coaches not from the Ivies who can recruit for Ivy schools very well. But if your staff is almost completely devoid of people who can make the personal case for how going Ivy changed their lives for the better, you're at a disadvantage.

With guys like Mark Fabish and Joe D'Orazio on board, Columbia has already increased its number of Ivy grads on its coaching staff by 100%, but don't forget that recruiting coordinator Jon Poppe is technically an Ivy guy with a dad and brothers who played for the Ancient Eight and since he actually played at the very Ivy-like Williams College, I say he counts.

A great deal of the real work of recruiting for the 2016 freshmen will be over BEFORE the 2015 season starts. So this enthusiasm campaign is really our coaches' best weapon in the recruiting battle right now. If they do it right, it will net at least two or three impact players we wouldn't have grabbed with the old crew. Remember that until we actually play some games under Bagnoli, there's no other way to really measure this new group's success.

Well there are two more ways of course, and one part is connected to this enthusiasm and one part isn't.

The first part that is that recruiting for this coming fall's group of new players is still on in a way when it comes to possible transfers. Players considering transferring to Columbia are going to want to see a fun and enthusiastic program in place. Given that hard core recruiting of potential transfers is not allowed, this is our biggest calling card.

The second part is what the coaches will be doing to re-jigger the roster and change the overall playbook. Emotion will have to actually stay out of that process for the most part as the coaches will have to make cool and calculated decisions based on the hard facts at hand. I think the old veteran coordinators we have in Mike Faragalli and Paul Ferraro are especially well cast for that job. Not that they're unenthusiastic guys, but they weren't hired for their cheerleading abilities.

So far, we don't really know the full details of the changes in place and no one probably will until spring practice is over. But I do suggest that everyone going to the scrimmage practices bring whatever you like to use best to make several notations and changes to the roster.

And finishing up back where I started with Stalin vs. the Pope. What Stalin, and the Popes while Stalin was alive, failed to realize was that the enthusiasm and personal hope that Popes can instill in people could have been a great threat to the terrible regime Stalin was creating and running at the time. It wasn't until John Paul II that we saw a Pope who fully realized how many "divisions" he truly had.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Got a Problem? Hire Better Managers!

A quick thought to begin today:

Did anyone think Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski looked old or tired last night?

Good, because he's 68.

Our new Head Coach Al Bagnoli is 62 and he's as energized and strong as ever.

The coming years for Columbia football could go further than just dispel and debunk coaching ageism.

For me, and for all of us who have spent the past decades shouting from the rooftops that Columbia football's woes are not unique and impossible to overcome, the next few seasons of Lion football will be an important vindication.

More than the losing, more than the wasted efforts of talented players, the thing that has saddened and angered me the most are the Columbia administrators and alums who insisted that we could never really win and the administration and previous coaches were doing the best they could... or doing much more than people were giving them credit for despite all the winless seasons.

Baloney. There is simply no problem that can't be overcome by better human management and skill. And I simply never trust the people who say otherwise.

There are already too many examples of better management in the program to list here, but I am particularly happy to see the open door policy at spring practice that goes beyond the door being open; many alums have already been personally invited to attend practices.

As Coach Bear Bryant always preached: "it don't cost nothing to be nice." And in this case, being nice will reap large benefits as bringing in an enormous number of disillusioned alumni will be a big help to the program in a lot of ways.

The list of remaining practices is below, note there will be full team scrimmages with officials on the 19th and the 26th:

Wednesday, April 8, 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

Saturday, April 11, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Sunday, April 12, 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Wednesday, April 15, 8:00 – 10:00 a.m.

Saturday, April 18, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Sunday, April 19, 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Wednesday, April 22, 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

Saturday, April 25, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Sunday, April 26, 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Wednesday, April 29, 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Giving Thanks and Giving Thanks

The Easter meals represented freedom from the old Jenny Craig regime

On Friday, this blog exceeded the 1 million page views mark. That's not bad at all in just three years for a site that focuses exclusively on just one Ivy League football team. Remember, that 1 million views stat does not include the 7 years this blog was on another site.

I want to thank everyone who continues to come to this blog. Repeat "customers" are really the only way to judge how well website is doing, and this blog has grown in readership every year without fail.

Speaking of thankful, I'm sure the players are thankful for the many opportunities they had to chow down on home cooked meals this past weekend.

Offensive Line Coach Jon McClaughlin cooked an Easter meal for the O-line himself, in what was a really nice gesture when you consider how these guys had been pushed to lose weight by the previous regime.

Based on McClaughlin's Twitter feed, (@coachjonmc), he is a man who is a true connoisseur of good food. Someone might want to make sure he finds out about Fairway and its generous sponsorship of Columbia athletics. Maybe they can work out a deal!

But don't bother to check the football roster page just yet, as the player weights and positions have not yet been changed.

In the past, we've been focused on weight first and foremost. But this year I think there's a chance we see more than just a few position changes. We already know about LB Tyler Kwiatkowski moving to FB, but there will be more.

Illusions and Reality

Paying college players will ruin the game

This is a piece I wrote today for based on some fascinating results to the CNBC All America Poll.

But before you read the piece, I have some important additions to my argument that are especially catered to the readers of this blog:

1) With the shrinking admission rates to the virtually impossible place they are now for Columbia at 6%, one could argue that the only college athletes really getting fairly compensated are Ivy athletes. That's because not only do they get admission to the elite-and-impossible-to-get-into college, but they also have to take real courses. Thus, future employers know their degree is real. That's unlike the degrees athletes at schools like North Carolina get which may or may not be completely bogus based on the flimsy standards and sanctioned cheating systems in place.

2) It angers me that the people who scream the loudest about those scandals and the phony educations athletes at big-time schools receive are also the people who either pay no attention to Ivy League sports or denigrate it at every turn. I realize some may be angry that I called the quality of Ivy League football and men's basketball inferior to the games you see in the big-time conferences, but c'mon folks... we know it's true and we know we take that as a trade-off for a much greater purpose. Anyone who thinks that makes me a less committed Ivy fan is kidding himself.

3) Let's say college athletes end up winning the right to be paid. Even if that happens, I STILL say any student-athlete with the grades good enough to get into an Ivy should go Ivy unless we're talking about someone who's going to be drafted after a year or maybe two in school. Throwing away admission to an Ivy is dumb move for 99.999% of the athletes who choose to do so. A mind and a secure future is a terrible thing to waste.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Right Words

Just listen to this great interview on the local ESPN radio affiliate with incoming freshmen Tre Gabriel and his high school coach:

It's all interesting, but the last words from the coach at the end of the interview really were worth waiting for. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Perception is Reality

One key point I haven't raised during the whirlwind six weeks since Columbia hired Al Bagnoli as head football coach is his age.

There were some naysayers out there pushing the idea that at 62, Bagnoli is over the hill.

Well after what we've seen and heard from him over the past six weeks, I had totally forgotten about the man's age. And that's because there's nothing changed from the I watched coach Penn to nine titles. He's just as energized, in fact a little more so.

So much for the ageism nonsense.

For more encouraging news, check out this article today in the Columbia Spectator. It's 100% great except for the slight boo boo about Bagnoli being a Philly native; he's actually from Connecticut.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BREAKING: Bagnoli/Recco Interview Now Online

Jerry Recco's post 1st-practice interview with new Head Coach Al Bagnoli is now available here.

I thought Bagnoli was a lot more forthcoming than we've become used to under our last few coaches. He talked about changes he's looking to make on offense at QB and even mentioned the fact that we're looking at possible transfers at this stage.

The video of the practice that sprinkles in and out of the interview also provides some clues.

One thing I noticed is that LB Tyler Kwiatkowski appears to be now playing in the offensive backfield.

Watch and enjoy and analyze what you see.

The 6% Solution

94% of Columbia applicants got this message today

All those rejection letters from elite colleges were sent out in the mail yesterday, and a lot of applicants already have the bad news.

I say "bad news" because at the elite colleges the admission rates are so minuscule that even the most qualified students have a better chance of finding a golden ticket from Willy Wonka.

And now, Columbia is leading that list of the impossible with a 6.1% acceptance rate, second lowest to only Harvard.

Now, I have two different takes on this. One is for non-athlete applicants and the other is for our varsity recruits.

For non-athletes, I find this acceptance rate news to be ridiculous. Yes, I am happy that Columbia is so popular a college choice for elite students that 36,250 of them applied to our Alma Mater. But since just about no one who isn't a really top student bothers to pay the fees and fill out the entire common application to Ivy schools, we can honestly say that even the best students out there have basically no realistic chance of getting into Columbia.

Thus, parents who put pressure on their kids to get into Columbia or any Ivy these days should be ashamed of themselves. It's just impossible. Sure, it's worth trying, but so is buying a lotto ticket from time to time, (but not too many).

The story is completely different for top student athletes currently being recruited by Columbia. If you are one of those athletes or if you are the parent or adviser to one of those athletes, these new admit rates MUST make you sit up, take notice, and possibly reconsider any thoughts you might be entertaining about going to another non-Ivy school.

Now as much as I hate to see us lose a recruiting battle to another Ivy, I certainly don't think we lose those battles because the athlete in question has a bad set of priorities. Clearly, that athlete is still putting academics on the top of his list.

But the losing recruiting battles that always stick in my craw are the ones where we lose a good player to his dreams of playing at a "big time" college football program regardless of the academic reputation of that school... especially when it's for a "walk on" slot instead of any scholarship.

Sure, there are some cases where those walk-ons do get real playing time or even a scholarship by the time they graduate. But not many.

And now I just want to shake those kids really hard and yell; "You're turning down admission to an Ivy League school with a 6% acceptance rate where you're likely to be a star on the field and make the connections to set you up for life just so you can sit on the bench at Mississippi State?!?! Are you NUTS?!?"

For many of these recruits who spurn us and the other Ivy offers the answer is, "yes, they are nuts."

So, let me make the case again with my three key points:

1) Columbia is now the second hardest school to get into in the entire world. People with perfect grades and SAT/ACT scores are getting rejected left and right. Getting admitted to Columbia is actually a bigger reward than you could possibly hope for in return for all your hard work in football. Don't walk away so easily from the chance to achieve something more than 30,000 of the best high school seniors in America and their parents are literally crying about not getting today.

2) Your chances of being a star in this league who gets the attention of pro scouts is better than your chances of playing at all at, (fill in the blank), U.  Even "Rudy" only got on the field for two plays at Notre Dame.

3) Even the best players at, (fill in the blank), U. will never even get a chance to play pro football. So, whatever satisfaction you get from the long shot you have of ever playing at that school will end right there. Now, compare that to the lifelong benefits you'll enjoy from having a Columbia degree.

And there's one more part of my pitch that I would make to a recruit who still decides to walk away:

4) I hope things work out for you at, (fill in the blank), U. But if they don't, or you decide your priorities have changed, Columbia cannot recruit you to transfer but you can reach out to Columbia on your own. So even if you're climbing the depth chart, but finding that maintaining your 3.78 GPA is more important to you than it used to be... well, here's our email/phone number and it'll be good two years from now too.

Speaking of transfers, I hope the news that Head Coach Al Bagnoli has come to Columbia is reaching all of the big target recruits he failed to reel in at Penn who went to big time football schools for walk on status. Because we have so many open slots, Columbia is in a unique position to find a place for anyone like that who makes the first move and expresses an interest in transferring here. The other Ivy schools have their hands tied at this late date.

So high school football players, take a really hard look at these admission rates and realize that you have a unique path through an impossible minefield that almost none of your fellow students has a chance to cross.

Don't ignore it.

Who Needs Cronuts? We've Got the Bagnoli!

It could look like this

On WFAN's #1 rated "Boomer and Carton Show" this morning Columbia play-by-play announcer Jerry Recco told Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton that he's going to do a one-on-one interview with new Head Coach Al Bagnoli later today.

Upon hearing that, Carton came up with a genius idea: bakeries around Columbia could start making the "Bagnoli," which would be a combination baguette and canoli.

Okay, call me crazy, but that sounds delicious!