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The Class of 1961 for Columbia football remains the only iteration of the program to have won an Ivy League Championship. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the winning team.

Somewhere in an athletics facility on Harvard's campus, there sits a large silver bowl engraved with the names of seven Ivy League institutions over and over at its base. Seventeen mentions of Dartmouth, 15 of Penn, 14 Yales, 13 of Harvard, nine Princetons, four Browns, and even three Cornells. If onlookers squint their eyes and really look over the trophy closely, though, they'll notice a single rusty "Columbia" carved near the top of the base under the year 1961. 2011 marks 50 years since the Lions' first and only Ivy title, and after all the seasons gone by without another winner, the team can't believe how quickly the time has passed. It was so long ago "Year in and year out, we look at the calendar and look at each other and say, 'Oh my God, we're 70 years old already, and it was 50 years ago,'" Tom Vasell, the quarterback of the 1961 team, said. According to Spectator's football preview that year, "If practically no one gets hurt, if a few key sophomores come through, and most important of all, if [head coach] Buff Donelli's nineteen experienced seniors get fighting mad, then no Ivy League squad will have a chance against the Lions." The prediction from Spectator sports editor Stan Waldbaum was especially bold considering those 19 returning seniors—the most in the Ancient Eight that year—were coming off two years with Ivy records of 1-6 and 3-4. (Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity football, so none of them were members of the 1-6 1958 team.) In the fall of 1958, second-year head coach Buff Donelli, a former NFL coach with recent success at Boston University, seemed to be right at home with his freshmen, who were just a bit newer to campus than he was. While Donelli did not coach the Cub team, the freshman squad did exceptionally well that fall, going 3-2, and there was already much early hubbub about a revival in the program. "We thought that we could make a difference," running back Russ Warren, CC '62, said. "As a freshmen team, we scrimmaged against the varsity and usually did pretty well, so we thought we were maybe even better than them." "We never scrimmaged against them again," center Lee Black, CC '62, said with a laugh. But while the Cub team was lighting up the scoreboard, the varsity squad hadn't seen a winning season since 1951, and after a demoralizing 43-2 loss to Rutgers to end the 1960 season, many predicted that coach Buff Donelli would be left with just half a team. "He was a very tough strategy guy," Bill Campbell—the senior captain of the 1961 squad and now the chairman of the Columbia Board of Trustees—said of his head coach. "He was a hardass. He really drove us hard." Prior to becoming head coach, Donelli had worked at Columbia as an assistant to Lou Little, the legendary Lions coach who captained the ship from 1930 to 1956 and was best known for his 1934 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford and a 1947 victory over Army that ended the Cadets' four-year undefeated streak. "He was an innovator," Black said about Donelli. His strategies on the field extended beyond the playbook, though. He came up with the plan to assign certain numbers to certain positions, and his system was soon adopted by the NCAA and later the NFL. With Campbell, an athlete Spectator's 1961 football preview described as having the "two most important rhyming football ingredients—fire and desire," and other senior leaders at the helm, the preparation for a title started long before the opening kickoff against Brown in the fall of '61. Because spring football was outlawed in the Ivy League, most of the players played rugby or baseball, using that as an opportunity to stay in shape during the offseason. Campbell, along with newly-hired Columbia assistant coach Don Savini—a recently graduated former halfback—also instituted a strict 10:30 p.m. weekday curfew. "We didn't even permit pastries or soft bread," Campbell said in a November 28, 1961 interview with Sports Illustrated. "Just melba toast." Setting the tone The tone for the season was set from day one, as Donelli led the team through extremely physical preseason camp practices. "I won the Johnson & Johnson award at camp for having the most tape keeping me together," Black said. But through the grind, the team stuck together. On rides up to practice, Black, who was nicknamed 'Bugle' by his teammates for his booming voice, would lead the team in sing-alongs of the latest hits from American Bandstand, such as Dion's "Runaround Sue" or Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife." "Everyone on the team had a nickname. Billy Campbell was 'Ballsie.' I gave him that one," Black said. "We said he had more balls than a brass monkey." The name certainly stuck. "We're calling the new facility up at Baker Field 'Balls Hall,' some of us within the football community," the center said, referring to the new $50 million Campbell Sports Center under construction. With the Law School and Mudd still under construction, the Lions broke ground on a season for the record books. A dominant win over lowly Brown to open 1961 set the tone for the rest of the year. Senior running backs Tom Haggerty and Warren helped Columbia tally more points than it ever had against an Ivy opponent in the 50-0 rout. "We didn't know how good we were going to be," Campbell said. "I just remember how nervous I was in that game, thinking that we really had to be a good team, and we had to do what we can to turn this program into winners." Black downplayed the anxiety about the season opener, though. "We used to have a cheer for Brown. We used to have kids get on one side and there were some on the other. One group would yell out, 'What's the color of horseshit?,' and the other would yell, 'Brown! Brown! Brown!'" Black said with a laugh. "That may be something for the band to do." Led by a unique Wing-T formation, Columbia had its week-two matchup with Princeton—a team it had not beaten since World War II—and the Lions relished the chance finally to take one from the Tigers. With the game scheduled on Homecoming, the crowd of 23,667 at Baker found itself immersed in quite a different atmosphere than what's found in today's sparsely populated stands. Around the stadium, there was a small carnival of rides, games, and animals, and talk of a formal ball that evening. Some things never change But if the Light Blue's 1961 season was the polar opposite of the 2011 campaign, one thing remained consistent: losing on Homecoming. The 30-20 loss dropped them to 1-1 on the year. With injuries to Haggerty and wide receiver Ron Williams, the lack of depth certainly hurt. "Remember now, in those days, you played both ways," Campbell said, referring to the fact that most of the team played both offense and defense. According to NCAA rules at the time, substitutions were only allowed once per quarter, so teams often had an "A" team that played three or four possessions before being subbed in for the "B" team. For a team with only 30 players on the roster—as compared to 106 in 2011—depth was a serious issue, which the Lions tried to mask as much as possible. "We had a couple of guys quit before our senior year, so we were thin in our second unit, so we ended up just playing most of the entire game," Campbell said. At that time, Princeton and Dartmouth were the only two Ivy teams to have separate offensive and defensive units. Columbia, on the other hand, only had 14 players that played regularly. While Columbia didn't use that as an excuse for the loss, Princeton's head coach Dick Colman verbalized what was on Campbell's and the rest of the team's minds. "I'll tell you this much—they had the better team," he said after the game. The Lions certainly didn't disagree. After taking a 14-0 lead, Haggerty bruised his thigh on a scoring attempt that would have put Columbia up by three touchdowns, forcing him to leave the game. But the Lions fought on without their star running back, and after marching down to the Tigers' 13-yard line late in the game trailing 23-20, Vasell called an audible for a quick pass to the split end on fourth down—but Williams barely missed the catch. "I thought we had a chance to hit something quick over the middle with a running fake to our tailback Russ Warren," Vasell said about the play. "So I did a quick play fake to Russ and tried to throw the ball over the middle to Ron Williams, but the defender kind of stepped in and batted it away." The quarterback noted the play as one of the only bad memories from 1961. Despite the disappointment, the team was far from demoralized. "I don't think we ever thought our season was in trouble," Campbell said. "We still felt like we could win the league." "The way a season evolves, you don't start off the season thinking you're going to win the title," Warren said. "But we thought if we just kept plugging away, we'll be OK." Following the loss, the support on campus held strong as the Lions prepared to take on Yale, which had won the title a year earlier with a perfect season. A brief in Spectator even mentioned a pep rally in front of Ferris Booth Hall that would include "the marching band and its melodious music and of course—Barnard girls." Thanks to the heroics of sophomore running back Al Butts, who filled in for the injured Haggerty, the Lions shut out the Elis 11-0 in New Haven. Butts not only tallied the Light Blue's lone touchdown, but also snagged two interceptions on defense. The battle against the Bulldogs was an extremely physical one—at one point, the referees had to replace the ball after Black had cut his finger and was bleeding on it to the point that Vasell almost fumbled the snap. "I always felt like the Yale game was a turning point in the season," Vasell said. "We were on the road and won at the Yale Bowl to get back on our winning ways." A week later, the Light Blue took down Harvard in Cambridge, 26-14, giving the Lions their first back-to-back victories in over 10 years. It was a notable victory for Columbia, but the game was probably more remembered for the giant drum the ever-controversial Columbia University Marching Band built to mock the opponent, which incited a riot at halftime as Crimson students stormed the field and repeatedly stomped on the mock percussion instrument until it was destroyed. Spectator noted the most serious of injuries in the skirmish "included a twisted piccolo." The band's eruption certainly overshadowed the Columbia offense, which struggled for the third week in a row after the team's 50-0 explosion to open the season. "Even though we didn't play our very best game, we still had the ability to beat a quality team like Harvard," Vasell said. "So I said, 'You know what? We've got something. We've got the stuff to do it.'" The Lions returned home to take on Lehigh in a non-conference game, but the action at Baker was overshadowed by the speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. on campus that weekend. The Light Blue allowed two second-half touchdowns after scoring just 35 seconds into the game to fall 14-7. The weekend was not a complete loss for Columbia, though, as Ancient Eight rival Dartmouth fell to Harvard to end its undefeated conference record, leaving only Princeton atop the standings. In the hunt Now tied for second, the team was set to face an ailing Cornell squad, which had lost nine of its 11 opening-day players to injury. Going into the game, Big Red coach Tom Harp couldn't deny that the Lions had become a serious title contender. "Columbia has as good a chance as anybody for the Ivy title. I think it will be between Columbia and Dartmouth," he said the Friday before the game at the weekly press luncheons the team held at Hamilton Hall. All week leading up to Saturday, the status of Warren had been in doubt, as he tried to recover from a severe knee injury he'd sustained during the Harvard game. However, with the emergence of Haggerty and another tailback, Tom O'Connor, the team's innovative offense never felt too threatened. "We could feel the support from the student body and the alumni as well because we were starting to play games at Baker Field in front of full stands of over 20,000 people," Vasell said. "There was a feeling that we were doing well. There was a real excitement at Baker Field," Black said. "We would end up in the newspaper regularly. A writer from the Post interviewed the entire team." Building bridges Off the field, Campbell made sure to engage the players with the rest of the student body and end the division between students and athletes that had been rampant in previous years. "There was no reason," Campbell said about the detachment. "Ed Little ran his own company. Russ Warren is the team doctor for the N.Y. Giants and probably the leading orthopedic doctor in the country. All these guys have been hugely successful. These were very smart, capable people, and why couldn't they interact with everyone else? It wasn't like they were dumb jocks put up in the corner." The integration—along with the wins—helped spark an attendance boom that marked a vast increase at the turnstile rotations after scant crowds had populated the rickety wooden stands the previous two seasons. "In 1961, people came out," Vasell said. "It shows that they were going to support a winner, someone who was in contention." The team seemed to have an avid following for away games, too. Spectator nonchalantly noted that WKCR would broadcast the Cornell game "for those who were too lazy to make the six-hour drive" to Ithaca. Warren's absence proved to be no major hurdle for the suddenly unstoppable Lions. In Warren's place, Haggerty rushed for a school-record 148 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Lions to a 35-7 trouncing. While Columbia was celebrating in Ithaca, it had reason again to thank the Crimson, hundreds of miles away in Cambridge, as Harvard took down another undefeated Ivy squad. This time, Princeton dropped down after a 9-7 defeat to join the Light Blue and Indians (as Dartmouth was known prior to 1974, when they changed to the more politically correct 'Big Green') in a three-way tie atop the standings, with Columbia and Dartmouth set to face the next week. The team wasn't paying much attention to that, though. "We were taking it one game at a time, and I think that's a tribute to our coaching staff," Vasell said. "They didn't want anyone looking ahead or determine what someone else was going to do. We had to take care of ourselves." Vasell was an odd fit at quarterback among the run-heavy Columbia squad. Entering Columbia, he was the third-string quarterback on the freshman Cub team. Hailing from Horace Mann, a high school that had a small football presence, the undersized quarterback never even thought he would play in college, and he was regularly designated as the player for whom Donelli would sub out when the team played on defense. "I was not a good pass coverer or that great a tackler, so they usually brought in someone else to play defensive back," Vasell said. "It saved a lot of wear and tear on my passing arm, so I certainly appreciated that." In fact, many of his teammates did not fully trust him at quarterback during the first couple of years, and sometimes remarked that their high-school signal callers had been more skilled. As Dartmouth approached with the Ivy race in its final stages, though, the team had more than bought into its man under center. "Certainly by our senior year, we were all confident in our abilities," Black said. "Tom was a good leader and made us feel very comfortable that when he ran, the play was going to be run the way it was supposed to be blocked." The 1959 and 1960 squads were not much of a rushing team. They were behind in most games, and usually early too, so as a result they had to unleash the aerial assault to try to catch up. "In 1961, we took on a different complexion, though. We had three very strong running backs, and I was able to mix the run to set up the pass," Vasell explained. The Lions emerged from the contest at Baker with another rout in the books, 35-14. It was a game Spectator sportswriter Howard Perlstein flatly described as a "scalping of the Indians." With Columbia at 5-1 in the Ancient Eight with only one Ivy game left in the season, the campus was alive with fervor for a title. The stellar play of the Lions even prompted a two-part series in Spectator entitled "The Rebirth of Football Respectability." One win away The Lions only needed to close out against Penn on Nov. 18 for a chance to take home the trophy. "I never really thought about the title all that much, to be honest with you," Warren said. "I just wanted to beat Penn." Unfortunately for Columbia, its steadfast leader Campbell would not be available after damaging his knee the previous week. But his injury wouldn't stop what Spectator deemed a "Team of Destiny," as the Lions rushed for 328 yards in a 37-6 victory over the Quakers in near-freezing conditions. Before the final seconds could tick off the clock, the crowd of 17,066 at Baker had already stormed the field in celebration. Meanwhile, the journalists upstairs seemed to ignore the "no-cheering-in-the-press-box" rule, as they jubilantly joined together in a rousing rendition of "Roar, Lion, Roar" while Scotch was poured for anyone who wanted it. The announcer called out the name of every senior—even the benchwarmers who barely played—and each was met with roaring applause. As he exited the field, Donelli even signed autographs. "We didn't think at the beginning that we could win the championship," Donelli said in the postgame press conference. He then paused to look across the room, at everyone in attendance, before continuing, "But this is very much that team." The win even prompted a special tribute show on WKCR called "The Lion Hath Roared." However, as much as the community wanted to celebrate, it still had to wait until the next weekend to see if its team would have sole possession of the title, or if it would have to share with Harvard or Princeton. That didn't stop the student board from awarding the team with a fully operational cannon, to be fired after every Lions score in future seasons. The band tried to march all the way back to campus playing "Roar, Lion, Roar," but the police stopped it before it could leave, citing the risk of hypothermia. "They had a bus that went back, but most of the time, the bus would go, and you'd stay up there with your parents and fans, and then you'd get on the subway with the fans and go back," Campbell said. "We were really close with the fans." As the players proudly took the subway back to campus among their rabid supporters, they recounted their success. Black took a look at his swollen fingers, many of which were broken, and simply uttered a joyful belly-roar of a laugh. The elation had soaked through the ranks of the campus so thoroughly that the following week's non-conference loss to Rutgers hardly put a damper on the celebrations. After a dominating 27-0 win by Harvard over Yale in The Game and a 24-6 loss by Princeton to Dartmouth, the Lions finished the season sharing the title only with the Crimson. 1961 marked the year the Ivy League was turned upside down. Yale, Cornell, and Penn, the preseason favorites, finished at the bottom of the standings, while Princeton, Columbia, and Harvard, picked to finish fifth, sixth, and seventh in the preseason poll, respectively, stood at the top of the heap. The Lions set Columbia records in dozens of offensive categories. At the end of it all, Vasell—who had started off his career accumulating most of his yards in the second halves of blowout losses—broke the career Ivy passing record with 1,741 yards through the air. However, as Vasell is quick to note, "The league only had a four-year history at that point." It's not all content But for all of the '61 team's success, Campbell made sure to stress one point. "Know this: Know that we were disappointed and felt that we certainly could have been undefeated," the septuagenarian said. It certainly would have seemed hard to believe prior to the season that the team would be disappointed with a 6-1 conference record. "We wanted to have the title, but if we wanted anything, we would have just liked to have played Princeton again," Campbell reiterated in a voice that suggested all he truly wanted to do was put the pads back on, lace up the cleats, and have another shot at the Tigers. Little did Campbell know that he would get that shot again when he took over the Light Blue head coaching duties from 1974 to 1979. However, it took him five more attempts before he was finally able to defeat the Tigers. Staying in touch Forty-nine years after that victory over Penn, most of the team did dress up again—not in their uniforms, but in suits and ties for their induction into the Columbia University Athletics Hall of Fame in October last year. A part of the third induction class after the program's founding in 2006, the '61 squad became the fourth team to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and most members were in attendance. The team still meets for annual golf outings and Homecoming. Every time the guys meet to reminisce about their lone title, though, there is a bittersweet air. "We have an email thing that we do that I call 'e-banter,' and when we have something to say, we have maybe 20-25 guys there," Black said. The inbox has been lighting up during Columbia's disappointing past few years. "Of course it's disappointing that, year in and year out, the members of the 1961 team come together at Homecoming, and we look at each other and say, 'Geez, we're still the ones with the only Ivy League football championship,'" Vasell said. "That hurts everybody that's been involved with this," Black said. "You know, there's a certain amount of ego-gratification for us old farts because we're the only ones that have done it, but for the same token, it doesn't speak well for the history of Columbia." "It's kind of disappointing when you think about it," Warren said about the team's performance over the last half-century. "We had kind of hoped that we'd set a new agenda for success for football while we were there, and that it would develop into a consistently winning program." They left a legacy for a short period of time, as the next two seasons produced records of 5-4 and 4-4-1, but after 1963, the team quickly fell back into consistent seasons of only one or two wins. However, the players haven't given up on living to see the stands as full as they once were back in fall days in the early '60s. "This might be an exaggerated term, but maybe Columbia football would be a hot ticket if the team started to have winning records and contend for the Ivy League championship," Vasell said. It seems clear that the Columbia football team of 1961 is excited about new head coach Pete Mangurian taking the reins of a program that has seen only three winning seasons since that '61 title, but they just hope he brings along something with him—an engraving tool to give their name a bit of company on that trophy.

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