After leading football to a second-place finish in the Ivy League in 2017, head coach Al Bagnoli attended Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, Minnesota during the offseason.
Amid the exciting matchup, Bagnoli’s attention was drawn to the sidelines. There, Bagnoli saw something an Ivy League coach can only dream of: his former player coaching an NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles, to a Super Bowl victory. That player was Joe D’Orazio. D’Orazio didn’t know it then, but he was auditioning.
Months later, after the departure of tight ends coach John Audino and a bit of shuffling on the coaching staff, D’Orazio would join the Lions as the running backs coach.
Over the past four seasons, coach Bagnoli has led a Lions program that has consistently shown signs of improvement. This improvement culminated in a second-place Ivy League finish, Columbia’s best in 20 years.
Columbia now looks to improve upon what has already been built, relying on Bagnoli’s first few individual recruiting classes. For the first time in a long time, the Lions aren’t looking to shake things up.
Bagnoli has stressed at various points the importance of a strong coaching staff. With that in mind, he has enlisted two new assistants for the 2018 season: D’Orazio and defensive backs coach Andrae Murphy.
Neither coach is new to Columbia, but their roles within football are a direct product of the system Bagnoli has implemented—both D’Orazio and Murphy are looking to coach to the team’s strengths and build upon the culture Bagnoli has cultivated over the past four years.
An offensive lineman for Bagnoli at Penn from 2008 to 2011, D’Orazio joined the Lions for Bagnoli’s inaugural season in 2015. He departed Columbia to accept a coaching position with the Eagles.
After garnering two years of professional football experience, he returns to Columbia with an NFL pedigree and a Super Bowl ring. For a team full of players whose greatest ambition is to make it to the NFL, D’Orazio is an example of success at every level.
“You know he was here before we got here and the other guys would always tell us he really knows his stuff,” junior running back Lynnard Rose said. “We knew he had played for coach Bagnoli at Penn and won two Ivy championships there. … We had high expectations.”
While D’Orazio isn’t looking to revolutionize Columbia’s offense, he wants to cultivate versatile players.
“Whether it’s pass protection or running or catching the football, the most important thing is being able to do all of those things on any given play,” D’Orazio said.
The strategy he stresses the most—even more so than versatility—is getting to know his players off the football field. This is not lost on D’Orazio’s players.
Rose and junior running back Tanner Thomas emphasized the importance of the time they spent in the meeting room getting to better know their coach. They say he’s helped instill a culture of responsibility and of holding one another accountable, and that he has done so through personal connection.
D’Orazio is not the only new coach focused on building strong relationships with the players.
Andrae Murphy, transitioning from the role of defensive quality control coach to defensive backs coach, credits his smooth change of positions to the connections he developed with players last year. These close relationships and knowledge of the team allowed for greater continuity in play.
“When he came in, I just knew there was going to be a lot of continuity with the scheme and with the system,” said junior cornerback Ben McKeighan. “He was going to be able to carry over from the good things we did from last year.”
Between McKeighan, sophomore cornerback Will Allen, senior safety and captain Landon Baty, and senior safety Ryan Gilbert, the Lions returned one of the most talent-laden secondaries in the Ancient Eight this season.
Rather than focusing on big, sweeping changes, Murphy has been able to use his knowledge of the team to emphasize development and create a more cohesive unit.
“He has really taken that next step of leading the unit as a whole,” McKeighan said. “He has looked to get us, the four of us, out there all on the same page.”
Both D’Orazio and Murphy are focusing on elements of a team that are hard to quantify. The relationship between coach and player, team dynamic, and consistency in game strategy are all crucial to a team’s success. The statistics for the 2018 season, however, have not demonstrated a marked change in defensive or offensive play.
In conversation with the players, many applaud the strategies employed by both D’Orazio and Murphy. The Lions, however, have a ways to go if they are looking to match or exceed last year’s performance. One would think the Lions would have the depth to support a coaching strategy that relies heavily upon player development, even with the barrage of injuries they have faced this season. But objectively speaking, the Lions are giving up more passing yards and rushing less yards per game, reflecting poorly on both the offense and defense.
Despite that statistical anomaly, synergy between the players and coaches seems to have become the norm at Columbia. However, given how young the team is, Bagnoli and company are optimistic that the change in culture, enhanced by D’Orazio and Murphy, can help propel the Lions to success.