Columbia does not have an illustrious history when it comes to its football program. In fact, Columbia is the only school in the Ivy League that has an all-time losing record at 373-633-43. It also has the smallest number of championship wins among the Ancient Eight, with just one—from 1961, which it shared with Harvard. This year, however, the Lions are planning to challenge people’s ideas of what Columbia football is all about.
When head coach Al Bagnoli was hired in 2015 after 23 seasons at Penn, Athletic Director Peter Pilling said it was clear that Bagnoli “understood what it took to be a champion in this league.” This faith is what led Pilling to convince Bagnoli to end his retirement after only three months and join the Lions. As Columbia now enters its fifth year under the guidance of Bagnoli—the winningest active head coach in the NCAA—Pilling is hopeful his decision will pay off.
“I think there is quiet anticipation for continued success,” Pilling said in an interview with Spectator. “I think there’s quite a confidence about what we’re able to achieve, and I think we’re excited about, obviously, the future of the program, and now it’s just about our ability to get to the finish line.”
Pilling demonstrated his confidence by signing Bagnoli to an extension on top of his initial five-year contract, though he declined to reveal its length or the date it was signed.
Now, entering the fifth year of the Bagnoli era, this season is the first with a roster comprised entirely of players recruited by Bagnoli. For the now-seniors whom Bagnoli brought in when he first got here, success this season is personal.
“My class, we were brought on as Coach Bagnoli’s first official recruiting class, so when we stepped on campus, our whole mindset was not only changing the culture but bringing a winning mentality to the team,” senior receiver and captain Josh Wainwright, CC ’20, said.
Columbia had been on the climb in the Ivy League in the first three seasons under Bagnoli. After a slow start, going 2-8 in his first year before improving slightly to 3-7 in 2016, Bagnoli’s extensive experience was truly felt for the first time in the 2017 season, when the team went 8-2, finishing second in the Ivy League. Last season, an onslaught of injuries caused the team to take a step back, and the team’s record fell to 6-4, for which it earned a fifth place finish in the conference, marking its first back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the formation of the Ivy League in 1956.
Injuries zapped the Lions of both star power and leadership from the very beginning of last season. Starting in the second quarter of the first game of the year, Wainwright, who broke the school’s single-season record for receiving yards in 2017, tore his ACL. It only got worse from there, as 25 starters wound up missing time due to injuries over the course of the season. With the season opener this Saturday, when the team travels to Saint Francis University (PA), Bagnoli expresses hope that the Lions won’t get sunk by injuries like it did last season.
“You’re going to get a certain degree of injuries,” Bagnoli said. “You just certainly don’t want it to be compounded all in one position. … Hopefully we just get back to normal. It’s a violent game. It’s physical, but hopefully it’s not going to be anywhere near a repeat of what happened last year,” he said.
For the Lions, the one position that was impacted the most by injuries last season also happens to be the most important one: quarterback. Entering into last season, there was uncertainty at the position following the departure of two-time team MVP Anders Hill, CC ’18. Early on, it looked like starter Josh Bean, CC ’20, was the answer before head injuries kept him out of all but four games. Unable to find stability at the position, the team was forced to cycle seven different players under center.
Although no formal announcement has been made, Bean is healthy again and listed as the probable starter in the annual football prospectus. Given his position, nobody’s health is more important to determining Columbia’s success this season.
Elsewhere on offense, the team returns some of their most important players from last season. In addition to getting Wainwright back, the team is returning Third Team All-Ivy League receiver Ronald Smith, CC ’20, all three of the team’s leading rushers from a year ago, and four out of five starters along an offensive line that allowed the second-fewest opponent sacks in school history.
On defense, the star is 6-foot-2-inch, 245-pound defensive end Daniel DiLorenzi, CC ’20, who earned First Team All-Ivy League honors last year after setting a new program record with 9.5 sacks. Despite the fact that teams may target him more after tearing through the Ivy League last year, DiLorenzi doesn’t plan on changing anything this season.
“I honestly just put my head down and keep trying to do what I was doing last year,” DiLorenzi said. “I think the one thing that I have to try and make sure I do is not overthink what I’m doing when I’m on the field and try to block out any thoughts of trying to set records or anything like that.”
Two other players who will be crucial to the team’s success are senior linebacker and captain Michael Murphy, CC ’20, who serves as the heartbeat of the defense, and cornerback Ben McKeighan, CC ’20, who, despite being beaten up all last season, led the team with eight passes defended, seven pass breakups, and earned a preseason Third Team All-Ivy League selection.
Despite the number of playmakers the Lions are returning on both offense and defense, the most electrifying returning player comes from special teams. Sophomore Mike Roussos, SEAS ’22, stunned Cornell in last season’s finale when he returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown, only to follow that up with an 87-yard, game-winning kickoff return with 45 seconds remaining. The performance bested multiple school records and propelled him to become the second first-year player in school history to earn First Team All-Ivy League honors.
As of now, all signs indicate that the team is fully recovered from last season’s plague of injuries. For Murphy, getting everybody back gives him confidence that this team can go far.
“To have all of those guys back … we feel really confident about the level of depth we have, the talent we have on the roster,” Murphy said. “We have really high expectations for what we want to accomplish this year.”
After years of losing, the Lions believe they can buck the historical precedent and finish atop the Ivy League for the first time in over 50 years.
“I think we have all the talent in the world,” Wainwright said. “I think we can be as good as we want to be. We’re deep, we’re talented, have a great coaching staff around us. Really it just comes down to how hard we work and how bad we want it.”
This season might be Columbia’s best chance to capture the Ivy League crown that has eluded them for so long. If they hope to make this happen, and for Bagnoli to tie for the most Ivy League Championships won by a head coach, it’s going to come down to health, stability at the quarterback position, and whether or not five years is enough time for Bagnoli to establish the winning culture he was brought in to create.