Senior quarterback Anders Hill was just five months old the last time football started a season undefeated through four games. Now, 21 years later, Hill has pioneered the Lions’ perfect start going into Homecoming.
The Lions are currently 4-0 (1-0 Ivy) for the first time since the 1996 season. Coached by Ray Tellier, the Light Blue in 1996 actually started the year 6-0 before dropping a close home game to Princeton and getting blown out at Dartmouth, which topped the Ivy League with a perfect 10-0 record. Columbia finished 8-2, which would prove to be its most successful season since the 1961 team won Columbia’s sole Ivy League title in football.
There has not been a Columbia football team that has performed this well since 1996. Some of the greatest virtues of that season’s team—defensive leadership, late-game heroics, and contagious belief—persist today, though there’s one distinction: This year’s team can score points at will.
The 2017 team features an explosive offense, with Hill and his young receiving corps impressing through four games. Hill, who had only started single-digit collegiate games before this season, has thrived in offensive coordinator Mark Fabish’s system, throwing for 1,107 yards and 10 touchdowns already this season.
Although the 1996 team didn’t have the same sort of talent on offense, its luck and confidence propelled it to a triumphant finish. In its first two Ivy League games of the 1996 season, the Light Blue barely pulled out victories in overtime—the first year college football had instituted a tiebreaking procedure.
“It was crazy, exciting, and infectious,” Columbia Hall of Famer and former NFL player Rory Wilfork, CC ’97, said. “We were pulling out victories of really close games. We couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Out of its eight wins in 1996, the Light Blue only won two games by more than one score. Columbia’s dearth of scoring came to a head during its Homecoming game—a 3-0 thriller in monsoon weather. In their season opener, the Lions were down 13-0 in the fourth quarter to Harvard and came back to eke out a 20-13 victory in overtime.
The 1996 team excelled in leadership above all else. Columbia Hall of Famer and former NFL player Marcellus Wiley, CC ’97, and Wilfork were two of its four captains. On the defensive side of the ball, where Wiley lined up at defensive end and Wilfork lined up at linebacker, the Lions were dominant, mostly because of their impact.
“We had great leadership from our captains,” Tellier said. “We were just efficient enough on offense and didn’t turn the ball over much, but the defense was the strength of the team.”
But the Columbia football program has been mediocre at best since the 1996 season. Usually hovering around three to four wins, the Lions had never recaptured the same success they had found in the fabled 1996 season. And after the graduation of Wiley and Wilfork, the Lions looked like a shadow of their former selves, going 4-6 in the 1997 season.
“The difference is we’re built to last now,” Director of Diversity Initiatives and Talent Retention and Columbia Hall of Famer Ted Gregory, CC ’74, said. “We have a veteran presence, but when that group steps away, we have a very strong foundation. We’re building a program now.”
Following Tellier’s retirement, Columbia was unable to find a coach who could make a lasting impact on the football program. The program’s coaching woes reached a zenith in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, when former head coach Pete Mangurian led the Lions to back-to-back 0-10 seasons.
In the 2013 season, the Lions’ highest point total in a single game was a measly 14, and frustration reached an inordinate precipice after a ;56-0 drubbing at the hands of Dartmouth.
But Mangurian’s time at Columbia would run out just after the 2014 season, and Columbia soon hired head coach Al Bagnoli from Ancient Eight rival, Penn, where he had been the head coach for 23 years and won nine Ivy titles. From the time of his hire, things began looking more positive for the football program.
Bagnoli would only need two seasons to adjust to life in Morningside Heights. This season, he has led the Light Blue to a start that the football program hasn’t seen since last century.
“The day he was hired, there was actually a collective confidence [among alumni] that this day would come, where this team would be good,” Wiley said. “We wouldn’t only be good, but stay good. I’m so happy that it’s coming to fruition.”
Although there are ample comparisons between the 1996 and the 2017 team, the most prominent difference is the younger players’ impact on both sides of the ball and special teams. Despite Hill’s presence as a senior, the offensive skill positions primarily feature underclassmen. The two most productive wide receivers this season have been Ronald Smith II and Josh Wainwright—both of whom are sophomores. They have 411 and 345 receiving yards, respectively, and they’re both on track to obliterate their previous records. Furthermore, sophomore running back Tanner Thomas leads the team in rushing yards.
“The two most exciting things are the offense and finding success with young guys,” Wilfork said. “With sophomores coming in and contributing as they are, you can see as they mature and more recruits come in. That’s how you change the culture.”
On the other side of the ball, the 2017 team has leadership in droves, similar to that of Wiley and Wilfork. Senior defensive back Landon Baty has a forced fumble and an interception already this year, as well as a strong guiding presence, since he’s one of the captains. On special teams, sophomore Oren Milstein was the strongest kicker in the Ivy League last year. He has already kicked a game-winning field goal this year in a home game against Wagner.
According to Gregory, perhaps the most exciting aspect about the 2017 team is its ability to overcome adversity. It has already had two clutch fourth quarter plays in both the Wagner and Princeton games, which bodes well as it heads into the rest of the Ancient Eight slate.
“The alumni group is actually behind them [the 2017 team], and what they’re doing is making a difference on campus,” Gregory said. “I’ve heard people talking about football this week whom I didn’t even think knew what a football was.”
The Light Blue has already made history in starting off this season with its 4-0 record, but it will need more wins to prove it’s a team worth remembering.
“I think in football, it’s a great game of skill but a greater game of will,” Wiley said. “If you’re willing, you’re able to achieve it. Right now, what these guys are doing, same thing we were doing. You just get into that mindset where you just believe and you achieve.”