Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Return to Philly

Franklin Field

Coming Back

The day the blockbuster news came out that Al Bagnoli was going to become Columbia's new head coach, many of us immediately started thinking about what it would be like when he led the Lions onto Franklin Field for the first time as the coach of the visiting team.

Sure, last year's Homecoming game against Penn at Wien Stadium had some pregame drama too. But actually going back to the place where Bagnoli, and some of his assistant coaches, made so much memorable history is a different and bigger deal. Bagnoli even joked about it last year, when looking ahead to this game he wondered if he would head to the wrong sideline by accident.

It should be a special day. I don't know if Penn is going to do anything to honor Bagnoli Saturday, but I'd be surprised if there aren't a lot of informal words of praise and thanks in the stands on the home side. I keep thinking of great Quaker alums like Gary Vura, who have been so supportive of Bagnoli all along and were so happy to see him come to Columbia because of great personal challenge it posed for him.

But let's look at Penn a bit in a big picture way. Because Penn's story over the last 70 years or so is really the reason why the Ivy League exists today. And Penn's story over the last 35 years is what makes me optimistic that Columbia may someday become a championship team.

If you haven't bought or watched Erik Anjou's excellent "8: Ivy League Football and America," you really should. One of the best parts of the documentary is when the film explains how Penn decided to try to become a national football power after World War II. The groundwork was already there, as legendary Head Coach George Munger had been making the Quakers better since 1938. And with TV coming into the picture in the late 1940s, there was a new incentive to gain national attention.

Penn tried to go big with games against Notre Dame and Michigan, while still hoping to keep the highest of academic reputations. When the other future Ivy schools, especially Princeton and Cornell, refused to play Penn anymore Penn finally folded and decided academic excellence and cache were more important. That got the informal discussions of an Ivy League with special rules going in earnest. Without Penn's brief flirtation with sports stardom, the Ivy League as we know it might never have happened.

The downside for Penn was that it struggled mightily in football for the first quarter century of the league's history. Like Columbia, the Quakers entered the 1982 season with exactly one Ivy football title under their belts.

Gary Vura 

But something was brewing in Philadelphia by then. The Penn administration finally figured out that athletic excellence within the league rules could lead to stronger alumni support and some national recognition. The Quaker basketball team played a big role in helping them figure that out, especially after Penn made the Final Four in 1979. The hiring of new Head Coach Jerry Berndt in 1981 was a key move to fix football at Penn.

'81 didn't have a lot of evidence of success. The Quakers went 1-9 and were not competitive in key games against Yale, Dartmouth, and Harvard. But there were some flashes. Penn did beat Cornell after being blown out by the Big Red three years in a row. And they played a good Princeton team tough in a 38-30 loss.

But nothing really prepared the fans and alumni for the 1982 season, where the Quakers stormed out of the gate with a 4-0 start against Ivy opponents and a championship tie-clinching win over Harvard on November 13th that -- oh so ironically -- was nationally televised on ABC.

From that point on, Penn teams have won championships in football year after year. After hitting a slight bump in the road under Gary Steele from 1989-91, Bagnoli took over in 1992 and pushed the Quakers to an even higher level of excellence.

The question Columbia fans have to ask is: was last year our 1981 Penn season, with a flash of greatness here and there? Or is THIS our 1981, where maybe the remaining six games will provide that flash against our Ivy opponents. In the spirit of "you gotta believe," I gotta believe a turnaround led by President Lee Bollinger, A.D. Peter Pilling, and Bagnoli can be achieved at Columbia following the path that Penn took 35 years ago.


Anonymous said...

What needs to happen to turn the corner is a few signature wins and from there that inspires an expectation and belief that they can win every game. The CU program is not there yet. With Penn, they have been there for a few decades so it is embedded. Without those signature wins the program is still basically idling. From where I sit, I don't see this year's team having the type of offense that can win a lot of games. The improved D is a fantastic to see but they can't carry the full load.

Not sure if this is the same Harvard-Penn game referenced but an interesting write up here.

Chen1982 said...

Our offense can only generate 10~15 points a game. So unless the defense kicks it up yet another notch and scores points (safeties and tds), we will only be able to win games when we hold the opposition to only two scores.

Who can we realitically do that against?

Maybe Yale?

DOC said...

Chen and als, There is potential for more scoring if we can execute a better red zone game plan. We will get better at this and the points will come.

Chen1982 said...

DOC, I buy your logic....new up tempo offense takes time to get in sync...should improve with each game. As it is we went from 9 to 14 to 13 to 15.... which is a upward plotting by most standards. What was encouraging about this past week was our good movement betweeen the 20s.

I am eternally hopeful

oldlion said...

Hollis and Wainwright are not listed in the two deep for the offense. Wainwright is still listed as the PR man.