In the six short weeks since Al Bagnoli was announced as the head coach of Columbia's football team, he's been a busy man.
Following the departure of outgoing coach Pete Mangurian's staff, Bagnoli stood alone at the helm of the Light Blue. Immediately, he set about hiring coordinators and assistants, pulling staff from inside and outside the Ivy League. At the same time, he began to develop the blueprint to rebuild the battered program.
Bagnoli first focused on bringing in two veteran coordinators. Mike Faragalli, who, like Bagnoli, is a former Philadelphian, will fill the role of offensive coordinator. Faragalli most recently served as the quarterback's coach and playcaller at D-III Christopher Newport University. Paul Ferraro, most recently at the University of Maine, will step into the role of defensive coordinator. Ferraro has served a combined six years on NFL coaching staffs, working with special teams and linebackers.
Working side-by-side is nothing new for Faragalli and Ferraro. In a serendipitous twist, Bagnoli has reunited the two, who had previously served as offensive and defensive playcallers at Bowling Green from 1991-98.
"It's amazing how things come around in circles," Faragalli said. "We've kept in touch over the years, and I'm really, really happy he's here."
But the recent hirings go far beyond the two coordinators. Bagnoli has assembled a staff of nine coaches, who bring an array of experiences to the unit. He has paid special attention to the balance between conference-savvy coaches and Ivy outsiders.
"I wanted to get some diverse guys," Bagnoli said. "I didn't want to get every single guy who was just Ivy League, but we needed some Ivy League guys in here who understood the band and the academic index," he added.
Specifically, Bagnoli hired a coach on each side of the ball with Ancient Eight experience. One is former-Harvard secondary coach Jon Poppe. Last season, four Crimson defensive backs coached by Poppe garnered all-Ivy honors. Poppe, who graduated from Williams College in 2007, brings youth and recruiting know-how to the staff. Additionally, Bagnoli hired a familiar face from his time at the helm of the Quakers. John McLaughlin, the incoming offensive line coach, held the same position under Bagnoli at Penn.
The entire staff has committed itself to establishing a new culture, one that prioritizes enthusiasm and attention to detail.
Faragalli lauds enthusiasm as crucial to the game of football. "Athletes have to be passionate about the game–they have to love to play," he said.
And so far, the players have shown him just that.
"The little bit that I've been here, I've seen that enthusiasm," he said. "I've seen it in the weight room, I've seen it in how they celebrate their victories there. I've seen it in how they worked out on the field the other morning at 6 a.m. You can tell they're a very enthusiastic bunch."
Attention to detail stands beside passion as being the key to growth for the program. Both Faragalli and Ferraro said that the players in their units need to adopt a mindset to do the little things right, so that they can move forward and let their athleticism prevail.
Ferraro specifically singled out solid, proper tackling as crucial to the success of the defense. "That's gotten away from some teams, but we've got to become great tacklers in this league," he said.
While a focus on intangibles creates a culture, Bagnoli's staff knows that culture alone is not enough to turn around a program in the midst of a 21-game losing streak. Accordingly, they have begun to build a specific strategy tailored to the Lions' needs.
Upon his arrival, Ferraro will implement the system he's coached throughout his career, the 4-3 defensive front. Switching from the 3-4 defense that Mangurian ran last year, the move places an additional lineman in the trenches to stand beside the standout defensive tackle, junior Niko Padilla.
The larger front is connected to another point of emphasis of Ferraro's. "We're going to stop the run," he said.
A solid run defense, Ferraro argues, forces the opposing offense to be one-dimensional and reduces explosive plays. For a Light Blue defense that surrendered a conference-worst 273.8 rushing yards per game last season the move is an important one.
Bagnoli has already made many additional changes, including tripling the strength and conditioning staff. The move to three football-specific trainers is part of a move towards bigger, more physical bodies as well as an indicator of Columbia's commitment of resources to improve the program.
Lastly, Bagnoli wants to bridge the chasm between the program and Columbia community, which he said involves opening up practices to the public—a reversal of a Mangurian-era policy—and involving players' families, alumni, and the student body more as the program moves forward.
"We want the alums to be much more included in our program. Just recently, we sent out invitations to come watch spring football," Bagnoli said. "It sounds like a simple thing, but it really hasn't been done yet, which is somewhat surprising."
Most fans and alumni seem to agree that the steps taken by Bagnoli since his arrival in Morningside Heights are proof that the program may finally be moving in the right direction, but Bagnoli says that improvement in the early going will have to be measured by more subtle metrics than just the team's record.
"Obviously, you measure it [improvement] somewhat by win-loss record," Bagnoli said. "But there are other ways to measure it. How much better did we do statistically—scoring offense, scoring defense, yardage per game. And then other things you don't think about; does our retention rate get better?"
Although progress on the field may be slow early on, Bagnoli's staff believes that under his leadership, given the players' dedication to improve, the team will rise up and be able to compete in the Ivy League.
"With coach Bagnoli's leadership, I think we can take it to another level," Faragalli said. "There's no doubt to me that they're sort of itching to get good."
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Bagnoli is a Philadelphia native, but he is originally from Connecticut. Spectator regrets the error.