I read with interest the slew of commentary precipitated by the staff editorial, “Fire M. Dianne Murphy” (Nov. 18) In particular, I enjoyed Rebeka Cohan’s “And One” column (Nov. 24), which provided a balanced assessment of the debate surrounding the history and prospects of Columbia Athletics. While clearly different in tone, the editorial board’s statement that “we expect better” (than recent performance) aligned with Cohan’s conclusions that Columbia “should expect excellence” (in athletics) and “our athletes deserve championships.”
Ivy League championships are not deserved, they are earned. Consequently, the starting point for analyzing how well the athletic director is performing lies in a realistic appraisal of how well she has positioned each sport to compete—and there can be no doubt that Columbia’s athletic facilities have been radically improved under Dr. Murphy’s administration. In addition to the Campbell Sports Center, we have renovated the football facilities (Kraft Field), created a state of the art baseball stadium, built and/or renovated competitive facilities for softball, field hockey, soccer, etc. In fact, there is literally no area left at the Baker Complex which is not “turfed” and (happily) covered in the light blue bunting. In addition, there has been a consistent pattern of refurbishment throughout the Dodge Fitness Center since its last full-scale refurbishment in 1995.
Of course, building the facilities does not necessarily ensure that either the athletes or the wins will follow. So what then of the direct investment we make in our players? As a member of the Varsity C organization, I get to see all the resources we commit to athletes, and I think it is fair to say that Columbia invests at least as much—and probably a good deal more—than our Ivy League counterparts in terms of supporting student-athletes in their academic and athletic pursuits. Our advanced enrichment services programs include significant commitments not only to academic performance and career service but also a full-time nutritionist and sports psychologist, which collectively distinguish us among our peers. This is undeniably attributable to Dr. Murphy’s commitment to student-athletes at Columbia.
So what, then, impedes our progress in the win-loss column, especially in football? Is it a coaching issue? As one of the “Friends of Columbia Squash,” which spearheaded the drive to establish varsity squash at Columbia, I can personally attest to the athletic director’s commitment to top-level coaching and recruiting efforts. It is no coincidence that Columbia’s men’s and women’s squash teams will both be ranked in the top 10 (or better) in the country this year. Can football make similar strides? Head coach Pete Mangurian is in his second season, with only one full recruiting cycle under his tutelage, so logic would dictate that we need to wait and we see the progress he makes with his recruited players before jumping to any conclusions about his suitability as our football coach.
None of this, of course, means anything without articulating the standards to which we should hold the athletic department and ourselves. Like Cohan, I cannot take solace in President Bollinger’s well-intended rejoinder that we (in her words) “finished just above the middle of the league more often than we had in the past.” However, I think we need to temper Cohan’s suggestion that “the administration needs to welcome any and all ideas that could bring titles to Morningside Heights.” We cannot manufacture victories, nor should we. Rather, all interested parties need to work together to appropriately position Columbia to earn victories and championships.
So I ask: Are the students attending the games? Are the alumni supporting the athletics department through participation in alumni activities and fund raising? Our coaches and administrators need our support, not in an unconditional sense of blind fidelity to one’s alma mater but in terms of positioning Columbia student-athletes to earn victories and create that all-important pride in Columbia athletics. In the end, no one knows better than the athletic director and the coaches themselves how important winning is in and of itself. One only need look at the various personnel changes that have been made in the past decade to ascertain the primacy of victories in ensuring professional longevity. So while I sympathize with well-publicized frustration surrounding Columbia’s record in intercollegiate athletics, I cannot endorse the acerbic tone of much of the dialogue, as I find it both alarmingly naïve regarding what it really takes to win consistently across the plethora intercollegiate varsity sports offered at Columbia. Go Lions!
The author is a 1979 graduate of Columbia College and a member of the Varsity C Advisory Board. He is an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School and the School of International and Public Affairs.
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