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Mike Lopresti | | October 17, 2017

How unbeaten Columbia made its way to the top of the Ivy League

The Columbia Lions haven't had a winning season in 21 years. They're starting this season 5-0.

Columbia’s story of football renaissance begins with the reluctant retiree from Penn.

Ninety-two days. That’s how long Al Bagnoli stayed away from coaching football. Hardly time enough for a guy to improve his golf handicap. That was the winter of 2015, after he had coached 23 seasons at Penn and won nine Ivy League championships.

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“Honestly I didn’t count the days, someone told me,” he said over the phone this week. “I had this great plan of transitioning into athletic administration. I wasn’t retiring from work. I wasn’t going down to Boca and play golf seven days a week.”

Do some administrating, shake some hands, see the grandkids more. Why not, at 62? “I tried it for three months, and it just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. It was not very challenging.”

So Bagnoli took a mulligan on retiring. But here’s the thing. Penn already had his replacement.

But Columbia needed a new coach.

“It’s unusual when you look back on it,” he said. “Most coaches don’t come back into the same league, so that was a little bit weird.”

Three years later, the Lions face a huge game Saturday, and how often has that been said lately at Columbia? They are 5-0, and travel to fellow unbeaten Dartmouth to decide who’s atop the Ivy League. Last season, by the way, Columbia finished 3-7 and Dartmouth 4-6.

Even Bagnoli is a tad surprised. “Who would have thunk this?”

But who’d have thunk most of what is going on with the Lions? To appreciate where Columbia football is, consider where Columbia football has been.

Three winning seasons in 54 years, the most recent 21 years ago.

One Ivy League title, ever. That came the same year a Harvard man moved into the White House. John Kennedy in 1961.

These five wins in five weeks match the total victory of the past four seasons, when the Lions were going 5-35. That included a 24-game losing streak, not to be confused with the infamous 44-game losing streak in the 1980s.

Four .500-or-better seasons in Ivy League play since 1956.

An all-time 24.3 winning percentage in Ivy League play. The Lions are 36-65-3 against Cornell. That’s the best Columbia record with any conference opponent.

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So you can understand Bagnoli when he says, “This is the ultimate challenge. So if you like challenges, and I think most coaches do...but I was also smart enough to know that it just couldn’t be business as usual. I had the fortunate ability to know what budgets are supposed to look like from a successful program, to know what an infrastructure is supposed to look like within our league from a successful program. I had to be reassured that everybody was going to be all in on this, because if it was just going to continue with the status quo, we weren’t going to have any more success than the last people did.”

The assistants are now paid better and get help with housing, so New York City prices don’t devour them. Such is life for a school in upper Manhattan. “New York has some wonderful advantages, but it also has some disadvantages with cost of living and cost of housing,” Bagnoli said. “Those are issues I never had at Penn. The institution had to be on board with a lot of things, because this is a very unique environment relative to the other seven schools in our league.”

There is a new bubble for indoor practice, built with $10 million worth of donations. Plus an enhanced strength, weight and nutrition program, for as Bagnoli noted, sounding every bit the Ivy League man, “We inherited a very tall and linear team, with not a tremendous amount of strength and explosion and girth.”

Unwritten rule: Linear ain't good in football.

And something else.

“When we got here, it was obvious our kids were not enjoying the game of football at all. So our first thing was, let’s make this thing fun again, let’s kind of liven everything up, let’s try to be much more positive, let’s surround them with a lot of good people that would look out for their best interests. That was priority No. 1.”

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No more early morning practices, for example. “I just don’t think that the kid in this type of academic environment can ever prosper when you start having 6:30 a.m. practices. His schedule is too loaded.

“So there’s been a lot of things that have happened, some that have been small, some that have been significant. But collectively, this is not something that just happened five weeks ago.”

Look at these fun-loving, afternoon-practicing, transformed Lions now, with their flair for the dramatic.

They opened the season by beating Wagner on a field goal in the last second. Rallied past Princeton on a 63-yard touchdown pass with 1:12 left. Came from 21-7 back in the fourth quarter last weekend to beat Penn 34-31 in overtime – snapping a 20-game losing streak against the Quakers.

With each victory, the needle on the confidence-o-meter goes up. Especially, when it started at what, zero?

“We’re getting more and more belief in ourselves,” Bagnoli said after the Penn game. “We can’t control what’s happened in the rearview mirror. I get nervous every time people bring up numbers here.”

And this week: “I was trying to tell our players, there’s a learning curve on how to handle the moment. I thought in the Penn game, they might have been a little bit over-ready, over-hyped or over-whatever. And they finally took a deep breath. Fortunately, this cast is pretty resilient.”

They’re also Ivy Leaguers. Anders Hill, the quarterback who threw the big touchdown pass against Princeton, is a political science major. Ronald Smith II, the receiver who caught it, is in engineering. Star defensive lineman Lord Hyeamang is pre-med, linebacker and FCS defensive player of the week Michael Murphy is in economics, and Oren Milstein, who kicked the field goal to beat Wagner, won a big calculus award in high school.

“You try to get football kids,” Bagnoli said. “You try to get kids that really like the sport, that like the entire process that gets you to Saturday. So they like the weight room, they like the running track, they like the film room. It’s an impressive group of student-athletes within this entire league and not just at Columbia, of how much the kids can put on their plate and not get overloaded. That’s one of the real joys, I think if you talk to the coaches within this league, to witness what the kids are able to handle.”

The Columbia community is abuzz. Bagnoli gleefully described how the crowd at the Penn game was so loud, he had to turn up the volume of his headset. That hasn’t been an issue in the past. The athletic complex is 100 blocks up Broadway from campus, so Bagnoli holds the Friday walk-through on South Lawn in the middle of campus, to get his team more visibility with the student body.  “It’s hard not to notice that there’s 100 football players out there on the grass."

Presumably Columbia’s alums are excited, too. Is Barack Obama on the bandwagon? New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was at Homecoming. The players liked that, but probably appreciated more the army of students who stormed Robert K. Kraft Field after they won in overtime.

“It just makes the kids feel there’s a lot of people that care," Bagnoli said. "I think that’s a good feeling that may not have always been present here.”

And now it’s big-game week at Columbia. Imagine that. Columbia.

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