“In baseball, they joke about the Chicago Cubs not having won a world series since 1908,” says Ernest Brod, CC ’58 and a former Spectator sports editor. In Ivy football, he points out, the joke is on Columbia. It’s been 52 years since the football program won its only Ivy League title, an accomplishment that the Lions shared with Harvard in 1961.
Even before the football team finished its spectacularly disappointing 0-10 season, concerns were raised about the state of the program. It’s not just the record: The lopsided scores, alumni say, speak to bigger problems with the team’s management.
Athletics has suddenly become a hot topic of campus conversation, especially after University President Lee Bollinger’s letter to the editor in Spectator last week, in which he defended Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy’s job performance.
Other letters have expressed concern regarding the general direction of the athletics department as a whole in addition to issues with the football program. These outcries have not only been from students but also from alumni who have dedicated a lot of time, and in some instances money, to the football team.
In Ivy play over the past six years, the Lions went 9-33, a 0.21 winning percentage. Although the losing nature of the football team is nothing new, what disturbs alumni and fans the most is the margin of losses this season.
“My problem is how this kind of losing can just go on year after year, decade after decade. And nothing changes,” Brod, who is also on Spectator’s board of trustees, said. “The ADs come and go, the coaches come and go. And the results are always terrible.”
Desmond Werthman, CC ’93, has written to Murphy asking her to remove his name from the Columbia football Hall of Fame.
“Please take down whatever plaque or description you have of me and no longer print any of the records I hold in any of the programs going forward,” he wrote in a letter he shared with Spectator.
“There’s a certain type of individual who can lead Columbia to success, and there’s a certain type of coach,” Werthman said in an interview. “We just, I think, may not have that currently.”
Dozens of other alumni, many with strong connections to the football team, believe that the losing tradition that’s become the norm of the football program is hurting Columbia’s image and can only be solved with a change at the top.
“Columbia has been branded as losers because we haven’t gotten decent sports teams, even though academically we’re stars,” Robert Levine, CC ’58, said. “I’ve been going to Columbia games for over 50 years. I’ve never seen a team so unprepared for each game and so noncompetitive.”
He added, “Even during the 44-game losing streak back in the ’80s, the team was competitive, and in a lot of the games. This year, they’re totally noncompetitive, and frankly, they look unprepared.”
In his Spectator letter last week, Bollinger highlighted many of Columbia’s recent athletic successes in sports like tennis and cross country. But alumni say that branding relies on more than a few winning teams here and there—successful marquee teams help a school’s reputation.
“I think it’s important to have our major teams be good. It’s nice having a good swimming team and a good track team, but I think that football and basketball are the sports that everyone judges the school on,” Levine said.
Brod echoed Levine’s beliefs, pointing out that even at an Ivy League university, football remains an important institution.
“Football is the way a lot of colleges get defined in the minds of a lot of people,” Brod said.
Despite the losing football program, Murphy disagrees with Levine’s and Brod’s concerns.
“I think that our students that come to Columbia are smart enough to appreciate that our institution is a great university in the greatest city in the world, we have great faculty—and that, yes, athletics is a part of that, we want it to be a part of that,” she said in an interview. “But I don’t think that because we have a losing football team this year, that that’s impacting Columbia’s brand.”
Murphy said she understands why the emphasis is often placed on football, but that it doesn’t make sense to put the focus on only one program.
“I’m not going to tell a young man or a young woman who competes in our women’s tennis team, or our men’s tennis team, or our Ivy-champion, No. 8-ranked cross country team … that we don’t care about them and that they don’t matter. They matter! They matter as much as football,” she said.
By the Numbers
This season, the Light Blue gave up 402 points and scored only 73. The smallest margin of loss was 14 points, the widest 56. Four different opponents scored 50-plus points against the Lions this season, a program first. The last time the Lions went 0-10 was in 1987, and that team only gave up 311 points and earned 104. The smallest margin of loss was only three points, and the widest was 42.
“You can lose games, yes, but … the way we’re losing games is horrendous,” Peter Cohn, CC ’58, said.
The big-picture stats are not in Columbia’s favor, either. The Ivy League formed in 1945 exclusively for football, but by 1954 the agreement was extended to all varsity sports. Since then, Columbia has won a single football championship, not far behind Cornell’s three Ivy football titles, but miles behind Dartmouth at 17.
In an interview shortly before he sent his letter, Bollinger said that he believed the school’s athletics record had been on the rise since Murphy arrived in fall 2004.
“I think there’s been enormous improvement. I really do, and I think the numbers show that across the board,” he said.
Since the 1995-96 season, the Lions have earned 174 individual championships, leading only Dartmouth, which garnered 137. But as for Ivy League team championships since 1956, Columbia is in last place with 89. Meanwhile, Princeton leads with 434 team championships, and Harvard has 369.
Under Murphy, the Lions have won 21 Ivy team championships. On the other end of the spectrum, Princeton has won 99 team championships in the same nine years.
Two years ago, when football went 1-9, alumni called for Murphy to fire then-head coach Norries Wilson. Now, while some want to see Mangurian gone—even though he’s been at the helm for just two years—there are louder voices calling for Murphy’s firing.
Much of that debate has been fueled by Roar Lions 2013, a blog about Columbia football run by Jake Novak, CC ’92. On Monday, Novak reported that about 65 former football players—including three members of the athletic department’s hall of fame—had signed a petition calling for Murphy’s and Mangurian’s jobs. And throughout the season, Novak has been writing about what he considers questionable strategic decisions on Mangurian’s part.
Many alumni, including Novak on his blog, have voiced concerns about Mangurian’s philosophy of a lightweight offensive line.
The average weight of Columbia’s offensive line in the first week of Ivy play this season was 263.8 pounds. Princeton and Harvard, who shared the Ivy title this year, had average weights of 276 and 273 pounds, respectively. While having a lighter offensive line may help players move more quickly, it might also have contributed to the higher number of injuries seen this year.
“His whole concept of these lighter, more athletic linemen … I don’t think is going to fly. And I think this year is an example of that,” Cohn said.
Football alum Rich Forzani, CC ’66, said that numerous parents have approached him this season with concerns about the health of their sons. According to Forzani, one parent he spoke with said that his son was trying to drop 30 to 35 pounds and was passing out because he wasn’t given guidelines for how to drop the weight in a healthy manner.
“Something has to change,” Brod said. “You can’t keep throwing kids out there to get beaten up by 30 or 40 points game after game, year after year. It’s crazy.”
Regardless, Bollinger doesn’t see the need to make a coaching change at this point in time.
“I think Dianne has done an excellent job. She’s totally dedicated to this, and I think the results show this,” he said. “Give him [Mangurian] and give the program some time. I don’t accept for a second that we’ve got to change leadership and so on. That’s not my view, not my position, and it’s not going to happen.”
And though the loudest voices surrounding the team right now are ones of discontent, the program has a major benefactor at the top: Bill Campbell, CC ’62 and the chair of the University’s board of trustees. Campbell served as the team’s head coach from 1974 to 1979 and was the principal donor for Baker Field’s Campbell Sports Center, which opened in 2012.
In an interview, he said he thought two years was not enough time to judge Mangurian’s success.
“I’ve been there, so maybe I am a little more sympathetic than I should be,” he said. “Dianne Murphy has come in, and I think done a really, really terrific job in taking over a program that was so far behind everybody else’s that every step she had to get was an important one.”
“There are ingrained, institutional problems that have to be ferreted out and addressed,” Brod said.
The five alumni from the class of 1958 interviewed for this article urged a re-examination of the recruitment process.
“What I advocate is that there needs to be a real investigation that goes back over a period of years and talks to kids who were offered a spot at Columbia, offered football spots, and they chose to go elsewhere. And we need to understand what are the main reasons that the talented kids that we’re trying to get don’t come,” Brod said.
“There’s gotta be something we’re doing wrong” with recruitment, Robert Waldbaum, CC ’58, said.
Brod’s fear, shared by many other alumni, is that more so than actual problems with the recruiting process, recruits are turning down Columbia because of its history of losing.
This fear has been vocalized quite publicly in the past few weeks—and Murphy sees the very loud criticism as one of the most harmful things to recruitment.
“Quite frankly, I think what’s made difficult about recruiting is the negativity from some of these alumni,” Murphy said. “To me, that’s the hardest thing. To me, that’s what impacts recruiting more than anything.”
Both Mangurian and Murphy also said that a big part of the recruiting process for football is selling the idea of being part of a cultural change within Columbia football.
Although the head coach is honest in recruiting players, he also says that it’s a very special type of player who chooses to come to Columbia.
“Losing is a temporary state, and it’s not one that we’re going to be in for very long,” he said. “And obviously, we’re working very hard to make sure that doesn’t stay that way.”
Another solution—endorsed by the 65 alumni on Novak’s blog—proposes replacing both Mangurian and Murphy before inviting an outside committee of experts to analyze what they describe as systemic issues contributing to the program’s legacy of losing.
“The thing that I feel the University has absolutely never done is put together a real, blue-ribbon committee and do a careful investigation on why this has been going on for so long,” Brod said. “What’s the problem? What’s wrong? There’s something clearly, fundamentally wrong when we can’t compete and haven’t been able to.”
Campbell balked at the suggestion.
“I don’t know that there’s much that’s hidden these days, that you can’t find out how the successful people are doing,” he said.
But the team’s leadership knows there’s a problem.
“We have suffered greatly from a lack of tradition,” Campbell said.
Mangurian would not put any sort of timeline on the process of turning the program around, but he is confident that the systems are in place.
“This is not a quick fix, this is not a Band-Aid. There’s been Band-Aids put on this program for a long, long time. We’re basically pulling the Band-Aid off, we’re going to cure what’s wrong, and that takes time. We’re going to build something that’ll last for a while,” he said.
No one is calling for the team’s transformation into an Ivy Championship-winning team by next season, but everyone wants to see the program be competitive.
“This year has been so disastrous,” Cohn said, “and there is nothing to suggest that next year is going to be any better.”