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.


Chick said...

You're right to caution against over-enthusiasm, Jake. We're all so hungry for positive football that it's tempting to imagine Bags is a magician instead of a football coach. I trust him but he needs a little time. 2014 was a terrible season (so was 2013). I expect to see better execution in all areas. Actual wins may be
very scarce. Building competence, spirit and confidence is this year's task.

Anonymous said...

Great backstory to hiring Bags. If any other AD was hired things would have turned out differently.

What I remember about Penn in those early years was that they had a strong pipeline of recruits. They had a down season here and there but they already knew success under Jerry Berndt and Ed Zubrow. This was a program that expected to win. Columbia does not have that mentality so that is the big difference, plus re-working their recruiting strategy.

Coach said...

It took a few years, but then Penn started the run of alums helping out with the financial aid package, in essence creating full scholarships- Al's genius was off the field. The expectation is that he will do the same at Columbia.
With the talent coming back, Columbia should win at least 3 games.