Before Peter Pilling even took over as Columbia’s athletic director, he had set plans for arguably the most momentous move in Columbia Athletics’ recent history: hiring Al Bagnoli as head football coach.
While still in the hiring process himself, Pilling contacted Bagnoli—a former Penn head coach who Pilling had heard was growing tired of his new administrative post—and received serious interest. With Bagnoli on board, Pilling became athletic director on Feb. 3, 2015, and just 20 days later, Bagnoli donned the Light Blue.
That hire was the first step in turning around a football program that had seen some of its worst play in history, and hinted at what Pilling would do for athletics at large. Between a 20-game losing streak, a former coach who faced allegations of verbal and physical abuse, and a scandal surrounding players’ use of ethnic slurs on Twitter, the program was in disrepair.
“There was a laissez-faire, kind of chill attitude that this is Columbia. We’re not expected to win,’” Richard Forzani, the chairman of the Committee for Athletic Excellence at Columbia that had called for M. Dianne Murphy’s dismissal, said.
In football, that manifested itself in the second-longest losing streak in Division I FCS history, and a 55-year Ivy League championship drought. It’s also emblematic of Columbia Athletics’ historically lagging performance: Since 1956, Columbia has totaled only 102 Ivy conference championships, the lowest of any athletic program in the Ancient Eight and 21 fewer than the second-lowest, Brown.
But under Pilling, that attitude has changed, and Columbia’s perennially low-performing program has shown that it can compete with the best in the Ivy League and potentially escape its hapless history.
With hopes of righting the ship, Pilling has hired a new batch of coaches and administrators and consciously revamped the culture within athletics. He’s also shown a staid consistency in responding to the problems that his department has faced.
“I don’t think these things were ever in place at the same time—a president who cares about athletics, these coaches, a board of trustees where six of 24 are former athletes,” Ted Gregory, CC ’74, a former all-conference football player and member of the varsity football committee, said. “I don’t know that we’ve had that kind of lineup in history. A part of that is due to Peter’s influence, but the fact that it’s all coming together now is significant.”
Gregory, a member of the committee that hired Pilling, sees the athletic director’s preemptive onboarding of Bagnoli as a precursor to Pilling’s healthy risk-taking.
“That’s him,” Gregory said. “But it showed that he was thinking outside the box a little bit and was thinking about our situation.”
But even before he hired Bagnoli, Pilling prioritized changing the culture within Columbia Athletics, rather than simply filling positions.
“The first thing that he did was to establish the culture under which he wanted to operate, more so than the vision or the plan or the direction,” Jacqueline Blackett, Columbia Athletics senior woman administrator, said. “It is one of family, one of kindness.”
In that sense, Pilling’s tenure has been one of strong and measured reactions. The turmoil in football, replacing coaches, the recent wrestling GroupMe scandal—each has been met with a quick, firm resolution.
In the case of the wrestling incident, Pilling took the time to gather the facts of the situation before he made any decision, and he emphasized that his decision to suspend the senior members of the team who were involved in the group chat was an opportunity to educate and further drill home the culture that he so carefully laid out.
“I looked at it as a positive opportunity to continue to message what it means to be a student athlete at Columbia,” Pilling said. “Our hope and our understanding is that our vision and our mission and our values are living documents. That they’re not just something you read on a website.”
Newly-hired wrestling head coach Zach Tanelli was another key figure in responding to that crisis. Just four months into his tenure, Tanelli was tasked with handling the scandal during the team’s delay of competition. According to Pilling, he responded well, especially considering he was just seven years removed from his undergraduate career.
Along with coaches like Tanelli and Bagnoli, the hires that Pilling has made have proven to be integral to the new successes of Columbia Athletics. He has approached each of these with a degree of scrupulousness that rookie women’s basketball head coach Megan Griffith, CC ’07, didn’t expect in her hiring process.
“He doesn’t ask the obvious people who you are, he asked the people that I wouldn’t think he would ask who I was, and about my character,” Griffith said. “I was like, ‘Oh, he talked to so-and-so and so-and-so, and I didn’t even know they were on my references necessarily, but he knows.’”
Just as he chose Griffith and men’s basketball head coach Jim Engles quickly but with attention to detail, Pilling added administrators to the department. He introduced a division of labor that was non-existent prior to his arrival: the internal-external divide.
Joe Quinlan, who was an athletic director at both St. Bonaventure and Seton Hall, was hired in May 2015 to take on the role of senior associate athletics director for internal operations, the first new position created under Pilling’s leadership. Given his experience at the helm of a Big East school, Quinlan takes on the day-to-day responsibilities of overseeing Columbia’s most revenue-rich sports in football and men’s and women’s basketball.
Six months after Quinlan was brought on, Pilling hired Anthony Azama as senior associate athletic director of external operations. The balance between those two posts, along with the institutional knowledge that Blackett provides from her nearly 30-year tenure with Columbia Athletics, has allowed Pilling to focus on the big-picture needs of Columbia Athletics—including improving athletic spaces for both student-athletes and non-athletes.
The bubble at Baker Athletics Complex, an inflatable, temperature-controlled structure placed over Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium, officially opened on Feb. 3—the two-year anniversary of Pilling’s hiring. The facility allows teams to use a real field during the winter months without having to face harsh weather.
But one facilities question lingers: What to do with the often-cramped Dodge Gymnasium?
While Pilling first indicated in October 2015 that a third party consulting firm was evaluating what improvements could be made to the University’s only undergraduate fitness center, he said this January that the group would give its final recommendations at the end of the academic year, with an eye toward adding cardio space.
But how that will happen and what the changes will entail remains unclear. The firm, Brailsford & Dunlavey—which was unavailable to comment on the matter—will give its final recommendations at the end of the academic year.
“I’ve seen plans either way,” Gregory, who also sits on the committee to consider Dodge improvements, said. “Refurbish, rebuild, blow up stuff—it hasn’t been decided. But you can’t do much with what we’ve got.”
Though the fate of Dodge is uncertain, the bubble’s addition had a lot to do with what colleagues point to as the reason behind Columbia Athletics’ sudden change: Pilling’s personality.
He and Bagnoli personally met with and “re-recruited” a number of donors to get on board with the bubble addition, which cost around $10 million, as well as other program needs.
“Most importantly, and what none of these other people [athletic directors] had, he knows how to talk to the alumni,” Forzani said. “And it’s not in a canned, official manner—which his predecessor did just fine—but in a warm, personal way which elicits support and enthusiasm from the people that have enough money to contribute to his program.”
As Forzani indicated, that quality has quantifiably fostered more support from the alumni base—it was pivotal in raising the funds necessary for the bubble, as well rising totals allocated to athletics on Columbia’s Giving Day.
While the warmth that Pilling exhibits does serve a practical function, nearly everyone who comes into contact with him is quick to praise his personality.
Perhaps most importantly, Pilling’s character was what kickstarted his tenure before he took the post. His personability drew Bagnoli to him, laying the foundation for a football program turnaround, and potentially a department-wide one.
“A lot of being hired is having a really strong comfort level with the athletic director,” Bagnoli said. “We had a very good relationship right from the first time we spoke—and it had to do with Peter’s people skills. … His people skills are about as good as I’ve been around.”