Sports | Sports Columns

ALAM: Bright future possible for many Lions' athletic programs

I’ve heard stories about “the drive” from last year.

No, this isn’t the game-winning drive in the football team’s finale against Brown. If only.

This drive was the car ride back from Ithaca after, arguably, the nadir of Columbia athletics during my freshman year. A total heartbreaker of a soccer match in every sense of the word: Needing a win to clinch the Ivy championship, the Lions drew with Cornell. Imagine if Cinderella’s slipper fit one of her sisters equally well as it fit her. Imagine if Cinderella sprained a toe and the slipper didn’t fit perfectly. Imagine if the prince found a couple of other girls whose feet fit into the slippers better and chose one of them instead. And imagine if you interacted with Cinderella every day.

As reporters, we Spectator sportswriters are supposed to be impartial. But as Columbia students, it’s hard not to be a little happy when a team is successful or a little disappointed when it isn’t.
I’ll be the first to joke that I’ve doomed myself to a sad undergraduate experience for that reason. And yet, somehow, despite coming from the suburbs of Washington (look up the Redskins, Capitals, Wizards, or Nationals to understand my pain), I’m one of the sports section’s optimists.

I’m simply not all that disillusioned by Columbia athletics’ recent lack of success in the marquee sports (basketball, football, and soccer). I understand that we want titles while we’re still students, and that would require quick program turnarounds, which are difficult to execute. But it’s nonetheless possible. And we even have precedents.

Maybe you’ve heard of Tommy Amaker. He got quite a bit of press coverage last year as the coach of the Crimson men’s basketball team, since Harvard was the first Ivy in over a decade to be ranked nationally. The year before Amaker took over, Harvard went 12-16 (5-9 Ivy). In Amaker’s first year, the team actually got worse, going 8-22 (3-11 Ivy). In his second year, though, the team made it to .500, and in his third year, the Crimson became the Ivy basketball powerhouse it is now.

I’m sure you also know that Cornell went to the Sweet 16 in 2010. The Big Red was almost unstoppable in the Ivy League that season, going 13-1 even though Princeton and Harvard were both 20-win teams that year. The team had a great coach in Steve Donahue, who took over an Ivy bottom-feeder in 2000 and created a consistent top-half finisher by 2005.

And that was before his stud recruiting class in 2006. Guard Louis Dale and forward Ryan Wittman were both all-Ivy first-team selections in their sophomore, junior, and senior years, and they were good enough to go up against the best in the country. Dale led all players with 17 points in Cornell’s 2010 tournament loss to Kentucky, and both outscored the eventual first overall pick in the NBA draft, Kentucky guard John Wall.

I could give you plenty of examples from other sports. (Well, maybe not football. I’m the type of person who has read “Twilight” in lieu of watching an NFL game.) The fact of the matter is that, on average, you’re losing about a fourth of your team every year when you coach a college sport. Chances are, those guys or gals were important parts of your team, and one or two were captains. Sustained success comes from bringing in talent every year.

But what if you, fortuitously, had two or three young studs on your team at once? They would anchor your team for three or four years, and by the end of their college careers your team would be very, very good.

That’s what keeps me hopeful—the knowledge that all it takes is one great coach or one great recruiting year to create a dominant team. The catalysts may already be here: Kyle Smith of men’s basketball is a good coach, football’s Pete Mangurian has a solid track record, and the freshmen in men’s basketball and soccer who I’ve seen firsthand are pretty good.

Yes, it’s a tall order. But you also need to do it once. You only need one outlier for a great three or four seasons. And when almost everyone I interact with is an outlier in some sense, it doesn’t seem so implausible that some team can, in the near future, unearth an outlier of its own.

Muneeb Alam is a Columbia College sophomore. He is an associate sports editor for Spectator. Picked Apart runs biweekly.
sports@columbiaspectator.com

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