While it’s easy nowadays to poke fun at the job done by former Columbia football head coach Norries Wilson, thanks to a difficult 2011 season it’s also easy to forget that he, like his successor, once gave the football program plenty of hope as well.
Wilson came to Manhattan with a solid resume. He was the offensive coordinator at Connecticut for four years and was one of five finalists for the Frank Broyles Award—given to the top assistant coach in the country—in 2004. Wilson’s first few games also went very well. A 37-7 debut victory over Fordham in the first week of the 2006 season was the largest margin of victory for the Lions in over 30 years, and the Light Blue also beat Georgetown 23-21 and Iona 24-0, giving the team a 3-1 start. The Lions finished 5-5, allowing only 16.3 points per game, only a year after allowing an average of 33.7, more than twice as many.
Despite a solid first season, over the next five years, the Lions twice finished with four wins, and also twice finished with a single win. They allowed 32, 24.5, 22, 22.8, and 32.8 points per game, respectively. The team under Wilson may have made some real progress defensively, but it’s hard to win consistently when its offense averages only 22.5 points per game in its best season. In fact, Columbia only once finished with a positive point differential overall—+5 in 2009, when the Light Blue went 4-6 and finished in a tie for fourth in the Ivy League. Its -13 in 2006 was its second-best mark.
For comparison’s sake, during the Wilson era, Yale and Penn were each outscored once—last season—while Harvard has not been outscored. (As we now know, the Crimson, in terms of competing on a level playing field, is not especially proficient.)
There is a chicken-and-egg element to this discussion. We can ask whether the Lions looked poor because of their coach or whether the coach looked poor because of the roster (Let’s just focus on these two factors in team success for simplicity). I don’t see enough evidence to pin the blame on one or the other, so I think it’s fair to say it’s a bit of both.
As all of you no doubt know from following the NHL, new hockey coaches frequently come in mid-season to more success than their predecessors, but the improved results don't last very long. While Mangurian may find some spark or find his players more responsive than Wilson did last year, from our distant vantage point, it’s tough to know whether that’s a result of Mangurian or the result of a new voice, which happens to be Mangurian.
It’s also tough to know how much of the win over the weekend is attributable to the element of unfamiliarity and opponent quality (which was prominent in Robert Griffin III’s NFL debut, for example) versus longer-term successful strategy. In other words, after a few games, or perhaps even a full season, it can still be tough to know whether the team’s results are indicative of a coaching talent gap between Wilson and Mangurian or if it’s because of other factors. By the end of the season, it may still be tough to know where the team will be headed in one, two, or even five years.
But I feel like we should be able to see tangible improvement in something like recruiting in a much shorter timeframe. I don't see the same sort of confounding factors, and the potential for improvement through recruitment is, obviously, gigantic. Although Mangurian feels the players are bigger factors than he is in terms of talking to potential recruits, he is the most notable change from last year to this year. If the team gets better results, Columbia should be able to net better players, in theory. But even if the results are the same, merely one-upping Wilson in terms of having a good relationship with his players, for example, Mangurian should also net better players for the team the following year because his players will relay the word to high school seniors.
I feel like the most reliable way for Mangurian to truly change this program’s fortunes, for the long-term, is to make it more of a talent hotspot. Coaching can only take a team so far. It’s part of his job to attract talent, after all. Wins and losses aside (I'm not expecting anything horrible or spectacular to happen to the Light Blue’s record), that's how I'll judge his performance over the next year or two—through the talent he recruits to the team.
Muneeb Alam is a Columbia College sophomore. He is an associate sports editor for Spectator.