The following interview, conducted over email, is the first that Pete Mangurian has participated in since resigning as Columbia head football coach in December. In it, he addresses his coaching philosophy, the struggles of the football program under his leadership, the 21-game losing streak, and the letter that emerged in the last days of his tenure, in which players on the team accused him of physical abuse and pushing them to play through injuries, among other allegations. The interview has been posted here in its entirety.
Why Columbia? How big a factor was Dr. Murphy in that decision?
I have tremendous respect for the ideal of Ivy League athletics. I had been a successful head coach in the league with a program that had also experienced limited success. I believed that Columbia had unique advantages that would support our efforts to recruit quality young men and players. That being said, I spent a considerable amount of time speaking with administration, faculty and alumni. During these meeting, I was convinced there was a commitment to turn the program around and support the efforts that would be necessary to do so. Dianne Murphy really had very little to do with the ultimate decision.
What sort of situation did you see yourself coming into? What were the problems you saw with the program, and how did you originally plan to address them?
The program averaged less than 4 wins per year over the last 50 years, so all we had in the way of tradition was a culture of losing. Other coaches that I confided in wondered if I really felt we could be successful given the history. I really believed we could. I knew it would be hard. I knew we would have to evaluate every facet of the program, which proved to be absolutely true. There was a lack of respect for the program that had permeated many people in the university. Most alarming was the lack of respect the team had for itself. As a team we had to create a positive identity, how we dressed, how we lived our daily lives, how we interacted, how we practiced and trained, what our locker room and meeting rooms looked like. The challenges were far greater than what offense or defense we would run. The plan was to develop and support unselfish, hard working young men who were accountable to each other, and put the team first. That goal would never change during my tenure at Columbia.
I've spoken to Dr. Murphy a few times, and she always mentioned that you were trying to institute a culture change. On that note, how would you characterize your coaching style? What sort of tone were you and your staff trying to set for the team?
My expectations as to how we conducted ourselves as a staff and what I expected from the players were consistent. We set the example of what we expected whenever we interacted with the players, in any way. Nothing was left to chance. As a staff we were responsible, accountable, meticulous and detail oriented. I made changes on the staff when it became apparent that those expectations were not being realized.
As far as "coaching style" let me say, I made efforts to have two relationships with everyone in the program, a professional relationship and a personal relationship. I always felt both were necessary, in the case of difficulty in one, I could use the other to bridge the difficulty. If asked to characterize myself, I would say I am consistently demanding and have little tolerance for actions or persons who act in a manner that is not consistent with what is best for the team. I had little tolerance for excuses. My consistent message to the team was "if we want our team to change, each of us needs to change as individuals". Too often we saw change as someone else's responsibility and not our own.
What changes did you make in the early going? In hindsight, how would you evaluate those changes?
In the very beginning it was all about creating some type of order. The most basic needs and practices were not conducive to success. We held position meetings in squash courts. There were locks on every locker so players would not steal from each other. We were doing our running program in Levian Gym because there was no plan to get the team up to Baker. Almost immediately, we instituted morning practices, so we could have our whole team practice together and eliminate class conflicts. We instituted mandatory study hall for anyone who had a semester or overall GPA under 2.4. We established protocols for communication involving absence or tardiness to any mandatory events. We initiated our system of monitoring academic status.
Our practice schedule would evolve over our three years. We maintained morning practices, and took more control over class schedules in order for our team to practice together. Columbia football has suffered on numerous fronts as a result of practicing 100 blocks to the north. Over three years, we implemented a schedule that allowed for productive, effective practices and still supported our player's need for sleep, nutrition and time to fulfill their academic obligations.
What were your expectations for the team heading into the 2012 season? How did you feel after winning the opener? How do you think the team did overall? What was the message you were trying to send to the team before, during, and after the season?
The strength of our team in 2012 was the front 7 on defense. The first year of a new coaching staff is always tough. New schemes and new practice regimens, new philosophy. I really had no expectations other than to be smart, tough and disciplined. It was clear that the league had gotten significantly stronger since I had left Cornell in 2001. We were fortunate to win the opener. We blocked an extra point and won by one point. We lost to Fordham the next week; we couldn't score in the red zone. Princeton came in week three and pushed us around. We ended up 3 and 7; lost some close games, beat Yale and Cornell. We lacked veteran talent and depth up front on offense. I had been very clear with the upperclassmen, that if there were no significant difference between their play and that of the freshmen, the freshmen would play. We were coming off a 1 and 9 season; it wasn't like we didn't need to improve. Coaching changes affect the older players the most; it's difficult but it's the reality. I was also faced with the decision of developing our offense for the upcoming players, or catering to the special abilities of one player. I decided to optimize the learning opportunity for the younger players. When evaluating the realistic expectations of the current upperclassmen against the long-term benefits of teaching the future players in the program, I opted for the future. It was the right thing to do.
The majority of the graduating seniors were committed to being the beginning of a real change; they took pride in that role. It would be harder for others. There was a prevailing feeling on the team that being an upperclassman, guaranteed playing time. I would say our biggest lesson from 2012 was that everything had to be earned. As a player you would be evaluated at every turn, on and off the field. We saw these players everyday; we knew more about them than anyone else. We made decisions based on our observations. There was a good reason for everything we did.
How was the tweeting incident received and handled internally?
At that point we had done very little to create any sense of trust that these actions did not represent anything other than a very small percentage of our team. As a result the whole team was judged by the actions of a few.
The tweeting incident was a byproduct of a history of lack of accountability, control and character. Over the next three years we would address and correct these types of issues both with our current team and throughout the recruiting process.
What were your expectations headed into the 2013 season? At what point did you think that there was a chance you might go winless? What was the message you tried to send to the team over the course of the season and at the end? Why do you think the team fared so poorly on the field?
My experience told me that we would be better in our second season. We had moved into the Campbell center and gotten a new strength coach. We had recruited Brett Nottingham from Stanford, and had what appeared to be a good mix of youth and experience. I was happy about the incoming freshman class. It was a smaller class than I would have liked as far as numbers. We would adjust our recruiting strategies and sign a significantly larger class in 2014. Not having Nottingham in school the previous spring was problematic. He had exceptional throwing skills and I anticipated being able to cover some of our inadequacies with a potent throwing attack. We had what appeared to be a good set of receivers going into the summer. I was disappointed in our summer workout attendance; we needed to improve over the summer. Our entire freshmen class was in town the entire month of July, but attendance and participation of the upperclassmen was spotty at best.
Training camp told the story, and most of it was a repeat of 2012. Players felt that it was their "turn" and didn't perform in practice, professing to be able to do it in the game. I've coached over 30 years and most of that at the highest level. I have only seen two guys who did not do it in practice, but could do it on game day. Our expectations were consistent, "you get what you earn". As a player you didn't get to decide which rules you thought were important and which you could ignore. Unfortunately we had a significant group that put their own interests before the team's and our play reflected that attitude.
2013 would also bring about some staff changes. The offensive line coach left after the 3rd game. He had taken significant time off during the spring and summer; I had coached the line in his absence. He returned to work and claimed to be healthy. It soon became apparent he wasn't. One of our younger coaches got caught up in being buddies with the players instead of coaching them. We went most of the season at least one man down. No excuse, just the facts.
In 2013, I met with the freshmen, sophomores and juniors , and nights respectively. I held a meeting with the seniors nights before each game. I wanted to give each class an opportunity to voice their concerns in a group in which they felt comfortable. My message in these meetings was for each person in the room to ask himself if he was performing at his best. Accountability was in short supply, especially with some members of the Junior and Senior classes.
What was Brett Nottingham like, both as a member of a team and as a quarterback? Some players said they thought he received underserved preferential treatment from the coaching staff—how would you characterize your relationship with him? How did you feel when he got injured?
I would say this about transfer players in general: our team did not make it easy to be a transfer. That being said, transfers don't always make it easy for their teammates to like them. I have discussed the prevailing feeling that most upperclassmen felt concerning it being "their turn." Clearly when an "outsider" shows up and assumes a spot on the team, there is animosity. When challenged, players sometimes put what is good for them in front of what is good for the team, even when it's not their position. I believe it safe to say that it became hard to earn your playing time, and guys felt they had worked too hard for someone from the outside to just walk in and have a spot. Brett was given the benefit of the doubt in many cases, but when his performance grew unacceptable, we made a change, just as we would with any player.
Some players have said they thought there were some class divisions that brewed during your tenure, and there wasn't enough done to address them. Is that something you were aware of? How do you think the players responded to you?
I wouldn't say there were divisions, but there were differences. Different classes had come to Columbia with different expectations. It was unfortunate and hard on the guys who were recruited prior to our time, and I think it natural that they found it hard to adjust and accept a new set of expectations.
At times, it seemed like the younger players received playing time over older, better players. Do you agree with that characterization? If yes, what was the motivation behind that playing time allocation?
We evaluated every player every play. The best players played. With our jobs on the line, what possible motivation would I have to play a lesser player? There was a reason for everything we did. Every decision was made with the best outcome for the team in mind. We used our best judgment based on what we observed everyday on and off the field. It is natural for some players to find it hard to accept reduced playing time.
What were your expectations headed into the 2014 season? At what point did you think that there was a chance you might go winless? What was the message you tried to send to the team over the course of the season and at the end? Why do you think the team fared so poorly on the field? How did you deal with the increasing media scrutiny, and how did you react to sentiments along the lines of " the worst college football game in the worst college football town" (if you were aware of them)?
By the time we got to 2014 training camp, we were starting to feel the positive effects of all the work put in by the players, coaches and the university community that had become active members of the program. We continued to promote our program with the help of Deans, faculty, and representatives from every area of the university that our players dealt with on a daily basis, housing, financial aid, advising and career development.
We had established a team of support for our players' health and development. We consulted with sleep specialists, nutritionists and hired a new strength coach. The freshman class was deep and talented, and notwithstanding the poor 2013 season, shared our vision and wanted to be part of who we would become. We had refined and perfected our recruiting process, our junior day programs and our summer camp process. We had developed a program support system that had substance, was built with teams of people who cared and believed in our players and our vision. Most importantly, the program now was made up of almost three complete classes of kids that had chosen us, and that we had chosen after the full recruiting process.
The entire freshmen class spent the month of July in New York and worked with our strength coach and on the field and with the veteran players that had stayed over the summer. We would be deeper and more talented, but still young. Defensively we had settled into a 3-4 scheme, and offensively we were maturing. We had solidified our practice schedule. We practiced through from . The university had agreed to open up a dining room at , so we could catch an shuttle to practice. We were working with all parts of the university to develop our program. Practices were at a faster pace for a shorter duration, to allow for better recovery between sessions.
Sleep and nutrition were a priority. Class schedules, with the help of advising deans and the cooperation of the players were adjusted and made this schedule possible. We had adjusted and perfected the logistics of Columbia football. We had provided support and guidance in the players' academic, career, and physical development areas. We had eliminated all the excuses.
Where were we going in 2014? I feel confident in saying the system was sound, the coaching process was thorough and detailed, the plan was good. At some point it comes down to performance by the players. These players are talented enough and strong enough to shoulder this responsibility. They can do it; unfortunately, they are surrounded by people who extend them the same excuses that have been used for years. My position was, "you don't need excuses; you can do it, but it's tough." Every player had to do his job.
We had developed a consistency in our preparation, practice habits and our approach to each and every day. We were maturing, and taking some pride in who we were. All of this was great, but the litmus test was, "could we do it for 60 minutes on Saturdays?" As the weeks went on, we would study the video and the truth was hard to deny. There was some good situational football, there were good halves and good quarters, but there was always that fatal series or play that showed up, the moment of truth when we knew what to do, how to do it, but didn't get it done. The moment the player has to recognize and refuse to fail, lose concentration or not be his best. The players saw it, we emphasized it, we practiced it, and we prepared for it. I told the team every week, "you guys are so close, but the last step will be the hardest, and no one can do it for you. Once you get there you will never go back." To their credit, most of them kept working, accepted the responsibility and were empowered by the fact that it was up to them, that they could fix it. Others unfortunately, found it to be too difficult.
As a staff we evaluated and adjusted our process constantly. As a program we never lowered our expectations or our standards. As our team matured, I expected more of - and depended - more on our presumptive leaders. I have never been around a coaching staff that prepared more or worked harder. The quality of preparation, presentation and planning was as good as I've been a part of, at any level.
A defining moment of the 2014 season came after game four. I made a quarterback change. As with every decision, what was best for the team was the only motivation. At some point we had stopped developing and preparing sufficiently at that position. I had tried all manner of techniques to solve the issues, but when you reach the point that you are fighting defiance, it's time to move on, and we did. No one was bigger than the team.
Were you aware of the letter before it was sent? What was your reaction, both to its mere existence and to the specific accusations? Was your resignation related to its surfacing, or were you planning on resigning anyway?
I was made aware of the letter during exit meetings, I don't remember who told me. It was an emotional time. Our night meetings had been affected by what was going on back on campus with the players who were not playing and had not traveled to Brown. There were people outside the program who were getting involved, seemingly with on-going personal agendas.
Things had escalated quickly after President Bollinger came out and supported the program, on the previous . I met separately in my office with two players who I was told were parties to the letter. We had a mature, 'man-to-man' conversation and talked it out. Numerous players had asked me if they should write their own letter in support of what we were doing. I instructed them not to, nothing would be gained by putting player versus player. It wasn't the best thing for the team.
By the end of the night , the players told me that the letter had been retracted. I was notified , however, that the letter had been sent at some point . I never saw the letter or really knew what was in it until the Spectator received a copy from a third party. It was carefully crafted, and filled with innuendo. The buzzwords were all there, and none of them were true.
How would you sum up your time at Columbia? In hindsight, what would you have done differently (if anything)? What's the next step for you, personally?
When I came to Columbia I was given a responsibility, and I accepted it. Winning was the stated goal, but the process was never stated, that was my job. Goals are meaningless without a method to achieve them. Our task was far greater than football. Without discipline, accountability, reliability, unselfishness and self-awareness, we were not going to excel at anything, including football
Our number one job was to create an environment that we could promote and sell to recruits, so we could improve our roster. The contact and involvement that started in recruiting would continue throughout their four years at Columbia.
We reached out to Academic advising and built an interactive advising program that assists in the comprehensive academic development of each player throughout his four years.
We implemented a summer program for incoming freshmen. The entire class comes to New York for the month of July, works, lives in the dorms, attends orientation sessions, resume workshops and becomes comfortable with Columbia, their teammates and New York City. This positions each freshman to be more prepared for school, football and New York. This comfort level has a positive effect on productivity and alleviates the level of stress that all first years encounter.
Our recruiting weekend, junior days and summer camps are by far the most comprehensive in the Ivy League. All of these recruiting events incorporated faculty, administration and alumni. Our goal in every interaction with recruits was for them to know as much about us, and us to know as much about them as possible. There was a person, a face with a name, associated with every facet of a recruit's four years. We made sure the parents and the players know those people. We developed teams of people throughout the university and outside to support our players' academic achievements, career development and physical development.
The physical well being of each of our players was a priority. Nutrition, sleep, recovery and body composition were monitored on an ongoing basis. Physical development was specialized to each particular player's needs. We were the only team in the League that had a dedicated strength coach who spent all his time with football only. This allows the strength coach to watch each player at practice and evaluate his individual needs. The strength coach can also assist in evaluating workloads and fatigue levels, and therefore minimize injuries.
Our career development program was second to none. There was a comprehensive plan for all four years. This program also gave us a way to get alumni involved with our players; that connection had been lost. One of the most important parts of the career development process was the individual player's responsibility to engage. This program was not about getting kids a job; it was about teaching and preparing them to get their own.
The evolution of The Columbia Football Players Club is one of our legacies I'm the most proud of. All Columbia players are bound together regardless of records. That bond means different things to different people. To many it means giving back and maintaining a connection to the University that did so much for each of them. The CFPC sponsors the Rookie draft in August where alums gather and draft an incoming freshman. This mentor relationship is helpful to the player and keeps the alumni connected to the program. The CFPC also sponsors the Gold dinner, golf outing and the homecoming dinner on the night prior to homecoming. All of these events promote a connection and welcome in the players entering and graduating from the program. In a program with very little tradition, the CFPC plays and will continue to play a significant role within the program.
My goal has always been to create things that will last, long after I'm gone. I know we did that. I know we demanded the most of each young man, demanded their best, and would accept no less. There were so many things that needed to be done, things that were ignored and things that no one even had thought of. After 50 years of excuses and rationalization, we shined the light in some dark spaces. It needed to be done. I told everyone the day I was hired that it would take courage to change, that was true. I was never afraid of being fired; I always felt that we were doing what had to be done. We may have done it differently than anyone else, but Columbia football is unique. It called for a different approach.
I am proud of the things we built. Only those who took the time to look and get involved can appreciate what we did. Unfortunately, there are always those who choose to merely stand back and criticize. That is their right, of course, but many others saw through their toxicity and destructiveness.
I have no regrets, except for the young men and their families to whom I made commitments. We didn't fail; we just didn't get a chance to finish. I believe, however, that they now have a solid foundation of personal growth to build on for the future. I will always appreciate their hard work and attitude, the dedication of the coaching staff and the support from so many alumni, faculty and staff who shared our vision and values. For that, I will always be grateful.
Did the events in the allegation happen as described? Which part(s) of the allegation, if any, do you hold to be untrue? How would you respond to the allegation?
Keeping in mind, that there are some legal limitations as it relates to my comments, I would like to make some general comments as it relates to "the letter".
First let me say that the same player, who actively recruited names to be put on "the letter" as support, also wrote the letter of retraction that was sent shortly after the letter itself. Many of those whose names first appeared, chose to have their names removed . In fact there were several names on the list that were put on without permission of the person named.
Practices were closed to the public, although there was seldom a practice in which some athletic administrators were not present. At no time was there any inappropriate or abusive behavior by me – on or off the practice field.
The university issued an official statement shortly after these allegations were made. It stated that the university concussion protocol had been followed. In addition, our training and medical staff were the only ones who diagnosed, controlled treatment and determined when players were cleared to resume practicing.
My most consistent message and efforts were spent making these young men better people, and in turn making the world a better place. The thrust of the post-game speech after Albany was that the world needed more people who care about and feel an obligation to one another. That is what I believed our team needed.
Injured payers that are not going to play do not attend night or pre-game meals; as with players who are not ready to play. This has been my experience at every level of football. My communication with players that had been "medically retired" by the doctors was limited.
We held separate class meetings during the 2013 season. There was a lot of frustration, and many players would not talk in a team-meeting environment. No other coaches were present. It was an open forum. The purpose was to bring any issues out in the open so we could come together as a team.
Body composition is a meaningful component to physical stamina, injury prevention and performance. Any recommended weight loss or gain was done in conjunction with the training staff, the strength and conditioning coach and the athletic department nutritionist. Body composition tests were administered four times a year and done by the head trainer only.
That is all I am prepared to say at this point on these and related matters. I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight. That experience with 'the letter' has reinforced for me Mark Twain's quote that "a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes."
I intend to move on to more positive thoughts as I look to the future.