During the 2010s, Columbia Athletics was able to clinch 33 Ivy League championships and 12 national team titles. Under two athletic directors—M. Dianne Murphy, who served between 2004 and 2015, and current Athletic Director Peter Pilling—Columbia Athletics began a transformation, developing nationally-recognized programs such as fencing, men’s tennis, and cross country. Such teams have routinely found themselves among the top 25 in the nation.
According to Murphy, this transition for athletics began when University President Lee Bollinger began investing more resources in Columbia’s athletic programs, starting The Fund For Excellence to finance an illustrious future for the department and the construction of the Campbell Sports Center, which originally would have cost $30 million. This has paid off, as there have been increases in performance, alumni engagement, and fundraising for the athletic program.
Murphy had one objective when she came to Columbia: to make the Columbia sports teams nationally-known. In previous years, Athletics had not been given the resources necessary to succeed, and in accepting the job, Murphy made it clear that she would need University, alumni, and donor support. While Murphy and her department spent her tenure rebuilding relationships with alumni, she also said that University President Lee Bollinger provided her with the University resources that enabled her programs to thrive within the Ancient Eight and on the national stage.
“Before President Bollinger got [to Columbia], and before my tenure, the programs did not have what they needed, really,” Murphy said. “None of the programs—including your more visible sports like football and men’s and women’s basketball—they really didn’t have all the resources that we needed to be successful.”
Murphy worked alongside alumni to create new programs for men’s and women’s squash, which had previously been club teams. With the proper coaching and resources that accompanied its varsity status, the Light Blue was instantly vying for titles and climbing the national standings; squash routinely sits within the top 10 programs in the country.
During Murphy’s portion of the decade, the Lions won eight Ivy League titles and developed strong, winning programs in men’s tennis, cross country, and fencing. She emphasized that all sports, regardless of whether they were high-profile or not, deserved adequate funding and support from the athletic department, a tenet of the culture that she built while at Columbia.
However, throughout her tenure, Murphy clashed with students on tailgating at the Baker Athletics Complex, club sports and space usage, and banning the Columbia University Marching Band. What truly drove a wedge between her and Columbia’s population of sports fans was the continued mediocrity of the football program under coaches Norries Wilson and Pete Mangurian.
Wilson was fired after a 1-9 season, which was followed shortly by two disastrous winless seasons under Mangurian, who resigned after 25 members of his team claimed that he was abusive and denied concussion diagnoses. Wilson and Mangurian’s tenures are remembered as the worst stretch of Columbia football since the team’s 44-game losing streak in the 1980s; Columbia holds the record for the second-longest period without wins in Division I FCS football history. Tensions were so high that the 2013 football season—in which the Light Blue went 0-10—finished in a matchup against Brown during which a plane flew over Kraft Field with a banner stating, “THX SENIORS GO LIONS LUV U!! MANG & MURPHY … JUST GO.”
Discontent from students and alumni led to calls for both Mangurian and Murphy to be fired, which culminated in a letter signed by over 60 football alumni demanding Columbia Athletics replace them. In response, Bollinger wrote a Letter to the Editor for Spectator defending the athletic director and football coach; this is the only time that he has written for a student publication to this day.
“I’ve been going to Columbia games for over 50 years. I’ve never seen a team so unprepared for each game and so non-competitive,” Robert Levine, CC ’58, said in a 2013 interview with Spectator.
According to Murphy, the sheer lousiness of the Columbia football program during her tenure is her “biggest regret.” However, this is not a problem new to this decade or Murphy’s time with the Light Blue. Instead, this is an institutional problem caused by a lack of resources that can be traced back to when the program joined the Ivy League 60 years ago.
However, under Murphy, Columbia Athletics was able to create alumni relationships that generated the funding necessary for a more successful football program. She spent a lot of her time on the road meeting with alumni and creating connections in order to bring them back to the Columbia community, working on The Fund for Excellence, and building the Campbell Sports Center at Baker.
“We spent a lot of time working and developing and cultivating relationships with people. And it paid off. And what we found was that our Columbians and Barnard women really care deeply about Columbia Athletics, but we really hadn't developed those relationships,” Murphy said.
This had paid off insurmountably as donations for the athletic programs soared and ticket sales increased, resulting in the opportunity for Columbia Athletics to revolutionize itself. Murphy described resources that were delegated to career services and sports psychology specifically for athletes and were created to help them balance their roles as students and athletes. Moreover, according to Murphy, Columbia was able to use these extra funds to recruit more talented student-athletes, hire superior coaches, and adequately pay assistant coaches. This laid the groundwork for competitive Columbia Athletics programs.
“We changed the culture of Columbia Athletics from to the point of quality and excellence in all that we wanted to do. We’ve had expectations for winning. When I came there, there really wasn’t a great emphasis on winning,” Murphy said. “We expect a win. Our coaches expect to win. The student-athletes expect to win.”
In 2014, Murphy announced her resignation effective June 2015.
“As a leader, you make hard decisions. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong, but I think we made more right than wrong ones. I’m certainly not perfect. I certainly made some mistakes. But at the same time, I think I got more rights than I got wrong,” she said. “I feel really good about what’s happening there now, and I continue to support Columbia and always will.”
The search for a new athletic director was long and lacked transparency, but in March 2015, Peter Pilling, the former vice president of IMG College, a collegiate sports marketing company, was named the new athletic director. Coming into the job, his first priority was to reinvigorate the football program and find a replacement for Mangurian.
Then entered Al Bagnoli—the winningest coach in college football—who had retired from Penn just three months before joining the Light Blue. He immediately came in and ushered in the transition from winless team to winning season by creating a better buy-in among his players.
With Bagnoli’s coaching, the Lions were able to achieve their first winning season in 27 years, snapping a 24-game losing streak that rivaled the one broken in 1988, which led to fans storming the field and breaking the goal post.
Bagnoli’s winning culture and Pilling’s choice in coaches was applauded by alumni, who felt that this was the correct move for the program. The new coach mirrored Pilling’s emphasis on creating stronger relationships between students and alumni through open practices.
It has become obvious that these efforts have been successful; Giving Day donations soared as Pilling expanded upon Murphy's work connecting with alumni and instilling a culture that broke away from Columbia’s traditional complacency.
While Pilling’s legacy at Columbia has only just begun, in his five full years at the helm, his teams have already won 25 Ivy League titles.
“[Success in athletics] is being done now, and I think that was what we were able to put into place. And it was a great job that Peter’s doing and the great job that Al is doing, the great job the young men and coaches are doing,” Murphy said. “I feel really good about that because I think I had a small part of that.”
The 2010-2011 academic year opened with a harsh new reality for club teams. The University made the decision that Recreational Sports Consultants, who fill the responsibilities for club sports, would now be considered part-time University employees. This shift forced RSCs to enroll in the University’s insurance policies rather than their own and caused club sports teams to foot a bill sometimes thousands more than they were previously.
Under former Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy, finances were more spread out between the different varsity sports. Her administration’s mentality was “all of our sports were representing Columbia, not just your high profile sports [like football and basketball].”
This was reflected in Murphy’s fiscal policy as well. In 2014, the final full-year of Murphy’s tenure, there was only a $600,000 disparity between men’s and women’s sports. Factoring in the immense price of football, funding was rather equal, especially compared to other universities whose football budgets eclipse those of all other sports.
However, since Peter Pilling’s term as athletic director began, the amount of funding going to the football program rose dramatically, a change that was stipulated when Columbia hired head coach Al Bagnoli. By 2018, the football team was only given $1,000,000 less than all of Columbia’s women’s programs combined.
While this change in funding has allowed football to win after being unable to do so in decades, women’s sports have not received the same program transformations. In a 2016 report from Spectator, it was revealed that Columbia has the largest disparity in funding between its men’s and women’s sports among the Ancient Eight.
Still, Barnard—which footed half the bill of the athletic consortium that allows Barnard students to compete for the Division I Columbia teams, as of 2018—continues to contribute millions despite making up just 10 percent of the female athletes on campus, well under 5 percent of the general athlete population.
However, in a September interview with Spectator, Pilling described new initiatives in order to bridge the gap between funding for men’s and women’s sports. He extended the contracts for a few women’s coaches and announced a “Women’s Sports Equity Endowment,” a $5 million fund that was supposed to be financed throughout the 2019-2020 academic year. As of the date of publication, there has been no public announcement about this fund.
This has not been the case for general alumni fundraising throughout the decade, which has risen exponentially. Under Murphy, the University began The Columbia Campaign for Athletics: Achieving Excellence, a $100 million campaign under the tenets of “people, places, and programs.” With this fund, Columbia Athletics was able to retain better coaches, build the Campbell Sports Center, and cover operational costs for sports.
These initiatives allowed the acquisition of Bagnoli and the success of the football program, which is largely seen as a cause for the department’s recent success with donations. In 2016, after Pilling’s first full year at the helm, donations for athletic programs skyrocketed for that year’s annual Giving Day. The 2017 iteration followed a massive Homecoming win, coupled with a perfect 5-0 record at the time, raising the number of funds garnered by 30 percent; 2018 followed a similar pattern.
This trend continued until the 2019 Giving Day when Athletics saw a decrease in donations of over $1 million.
In an effort to increase fundraising and exposure for Ivy League athletics, the conference signed a contract with ESPN+ in 2018 to broadcast many live games, generating a larger fanbase for the Ancient Eight. While there are many places where ESPN+ streaming has been unsuccessful—many matches were unable to be recorded and streamed at the Dick Savitt Tennis Center last spring—it has enabled many athletes and Ivy League programs to be recognized for their efforts.
There have been two projects that have created the space to allow the Lions to soar to new heights: the Campbell Sports Center and the bubble that sits over Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium.
The $30 million Campbell Sports Center project was completed in 2012 under former Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy in order to accommodate the needs of athletes and their coaching staff. Previously, athletes whose sports were housed in the Baker Athletics Complex had to do strength training at the Dodge Fitness Center; coaching offices for Baker-centric sports also remained on campus. Now, strength-training facilities and administrative offices are located at Baker, creating a space for athletes to study and meet with their respective teams.
However, with the construction of the Campbell Sports Center, the boathouse marsh, and other improvements at Baker, concerns from Inwood residents arose regarding the University’s commitment to the neighborhood. With these renovations came an agreement that the University would provide 32 scholarships to local children for summer camps at Baker as well as extended hours for the community to utilize the different facilities. Locals feared that despite the University’s promise to allow residents to use the facilities, they would slowly strip these privileges away.
The boathouse marsh opened in January 2014, two years later than expected. Columbia only opened up 10 percent of the land that laws about public use of waterfront space traditionally stipulated.
With Athletic Director Peter Pilling and head football coach Al Bagnoli came the desire to build a $10 million inflatable bubble to cover Baker’s outdoor facilities during the winter, allowing athletes to utilize these spaces during the colder months. The bubble, which was opened in 2017, provides more space than both the Dodge Fitness Center and Levien Gymnasium, where sports had previously been forced to practice during this time period.
The bubble was monumental for some spring outdoor sports, whose seasons began before the winter months ended. The 92,000 square feet of space allowed these sports the opportunity to practice and compete with proper accommodations between December and March each year.
But these kinds of accommodations are not equally distributed for different groups. For the entirety of the decade, and even before it started, club sports struggled for space allocation and recognition on campus. Especially on a campus in New York City, space is hard to come across, and Columbia’s athletic facilities were not built to accommodate 31 varsity sports and a myriad of club teams. Accommodation has consistently been a problem.
In 2013, members of the women’s rugby team spoke to Spectator about often being double-booked, the lack of communication between Columbia Athletics and the club teams, and no clear way to mitigate these problems. According to players, there have been times when there was no communication and the lights were off at Kraft Field and during preseason, the football team would kick women’s rugby off the field despite rugby having booked the space with Athletics weeks prior. Brian Jines, director of intramural and club sports, claimed in 2013 that the women’s rugby team should be grateful for the opportunity to even book the varsity field despite the mix-ups.
However, for many other club teams, the struggle for space is not their only priority. The women’s club soccer team spent fall 2019 fighting for recognition and selling T-shirts in order to raise money for uniforms, and the men’s club soccer team has had similar struggles throughout the decade as well. Students are forced to raise massive amounts of money as a club team since the University will not officially recognize them.
This follows a University policy that states that club sports “must not duplicate another club sport or a varsity sport.” Columbia has both men’s and women’s varsity soccer programs, so the club teams are not eligible to be recognized by the University. Though this rule has been enforced for the soccer teams, there is a club tennis team as well as a club women’s volleyball team despite both featuring alternatives at the varsity level.
Other club teams have asked for more resources and support from the University in spite of these struggles. Those teams, like men’s club lacrosse, have tried to replicate the process of the squash program—which transitioned from club teams to a varsity program in 2010—in order to create a varsity men’s lacrosse team to match Columbia’s varsity women’s program. This effort has been unsuccessful since the team first petitioned for varsity status in 2008.
According to Murphy in a 2013 interview with Spectator, a large part of the reason there is a lack of space is because Columbia was set up as a single-gender university, and thus there are only supposed to be enough resources for men’s varsity teams. While Murphy spent her tenure championing women’s sports, throughout the past decade women’s teams have also struggled for space.
In a 2018 op-ed written for Spectator, Alex Andrejev, CC ’18, explained why she left Columbia’s volleyball team during her sophomore year. Andrejev claimed that volleyball would have to begin practices at 6:45 a.m. in-season to accommodate for the desired practice time of the men’s basketball team, which was off-season.
In agreement with those who believe that the Dodge Fitness Center provides an inadequate workout space, Pilling announced in October 2015 that he was looking into ways to update Dodge in order to meet demands. However, almost five years later, no cemented plans have been announced.
There are few groups on Columbia’s campus that have generated more conversation than the Columbia University Marching Band. While the “cleverest band in the world” was first founded in 1904, since its inception as a scramble band in the 1950s—the CUMB claims to be the first band of this kind—its relationship with the student body and Columbia Athletics has been defined not only by unending controversies but also by moments of student solidarity and social change across campus.
These tensions culminated throughout the 2010s when the band and the University clashed over the CUMB’s Orgo Night tradition, its status as an unrecognized special group that received University funding without being under a governing board, and its role as a representation of the student body.
After a November 2011 football game during which the Lions lost 62-41 to Cornell, cementing the team’s ninth consecutive loss in as many games, the band began to sing a rendition of “Roar, Lion, Roar.” However, instead of the traditional lyrics, the CUMB sang “We always lose, lose, lose; by a lot, and sometimes by a little.” Athletics responded in a statement referring to the performance as “inappropriate” and “embarrassing.”
As a result, the band was barred from performing at football’s final game of the season against Brown, which traditionally signals the transition between the CUMB’s annual executive boards. However, in the days following its initial statement, Columbia Athletics went against its original mandate and decided to allow the band to perform. Then-Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy said in a statement, “We come to the conclusion that the core free speech values of the University are best served by providing a forum ... for speech that might sometimes offend.”
While the band would not come head-to-head with Columbia Athletics again until the latter half of the decade, it spent the remainder of the early 2010s creating conversations and debates across campus, with controversial Orgo Night scripts and posters making jokes about the Gaza Strip and battered women. This changed, however, in the tenure of Tyler Benedict, CC ’13, the then-poet laureate. Under him, the band decided to tone down the “aggressive sexist and misogynist humor.”
However, the discontent of some students with the CUMB’s previous performances and actions led to Barnard banning the band from entering its campus altogether in fall 2014 and not allowing the band to perform in the Quad after spring 2015 to minimize disturbances to students. However, in fall 2016, the band disregarded Barnard’s decision and played in the Quad. Halfway through its first song, the band was promptly kicked out of the Quad and onto the Barnard lawns.
The band’s storming of the Quad followed its first Orgo Night performed outside of Butler. In the days leading up to the fall 2016 Orgo Night, the University informed the band that it would not be allowed to perform within 209 Butler—a years-long tradition—due to the band’s previous missteps.
Despite this, the CUMB continued its tradition of political activism and knelt during football games throughout the fall 2017 football season despite disapproval from head football coach Al Bagnoli.
The CUMB has always marched to the beat of its own drum, even if that meant going against authority. This came to a head during the fall 2017 Orgo Night when the band stormed 209 Butler to fight the University’s “war on fun.”
Band members snuck instruments into the room prior to the event, knowing that they might face disciplinary measures for their actions. However, no Public Safety officers took the UNIs or names of band members participating in Orgo Night.
That next semester in fall 2017, then-head manager Vivian Klotz, a sophomore at the time, announced that the CUMB would once again defy the University and perform Orgo Night in Butler. However, after receiving threats from the University regarding individual sanctions—which could jeopardize students’ financial aid—the band made the decision to hold Orgo Night outside of the library.
Still, Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science cut their $15,000 contribution to the band’s yearly budget, leaving it with just the $10,000 given by Columbia Athletics. Klotz was told that the band would need to become a University-recognized student group in order to once again receive funding from Columbia College and SEAS; if not, it would also lose its funding from the athletic department.
The CUMB failed to file its recognition forms on time and as a result, was stripped of its funding from Columbia Athletics and banned from performing at Columbia Athletics events three days before football’s home opener.
According to senior Cameron Danesh-Pajou, then-head manager of the band, the 2017 Orgo Night resulted in Athletics’ decision to defund the CUMB.
“If you follow the timeline, this stems from Orgo Night in 2017. Orgo Night happens; Columbia College pulls their funding from the band; because we’re not funded, we’re not recognized; because we’re not recognized, Athletics won’t fund us; because Athletics won’t fund us, then we can’t play at Athletics events,” he said in September.
The University informed the band that members would receive individual sanctions under Dean’s Discipline if they brought instruments to Athletics events. The band played on, however, performing field shows before every football game on Low Steps and attending football games, where members would sing their chants and make trumpet noises with their mouths in order to create a band void of instruments.
Without funding from Athletics or the undergraduate colleges, the band’s alumni began a GoFundMe to pay for travel expenses and instrument repairs. The band raised over $7,000 in two days. After five days, the CUMB had exceeded its fundraising goal of $25,000.
“The marching band is an accepting place for everyone on campus. It really was for me when I came to Columbia, so people are really passionate about keeping the band alive. The band has been around for decades. My father was in the band 40 years ago; I was in the band. It has touched a lot of different people,” Zach Leiwant, CC ʼ06, a former band member and the creator of the GoFundMe, said in October.
Almost two weeks later, the band came to an agreement with Columbia Athletics and was reinstated the day before Homecoming. The band is now fully-funded by Athletics and considered a spirit group like the dance and cheer teams.
At Homecoming, for the first time all season, the CUMB was armed with its instruments—trumpets and wet floor signs alike—to cheer on the Lions to their largest Homecoming victory in program history.
Former Athletics Director M. Dianne Murphy declined to comment.
Editor’s note: This section contains some graphic language in quoted materials.
This decade in Columbia Athletics began with a hazing scandal involving the women’s field hockey team. First-years on the team were expected to drink heavily and follow senior team members to the different fraternities on campus.
At the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house, brothers were instructed by the team to ask the first-year players questions such as “Do you swallow?” and “What is your favorite sex position?” The night concluded when a member of the fraternity threw a cup of water onto a field hockey player, which resulted in him being loudly kicked out of the event and a noise complaint being filed. This noise complaint caused the University to discover the hazing that went on within the brownstone, resulting in the athletic department placing several field hockey players on probation. Unlike the team-wide suspension on Cornell’s men’s lacrosse team, which was caught hazing players months prior, no athletes were ever suspended from the Columbia field hockey team.
The InterGreek Council revoked ZBT’s charter as a result of the fraternity’s actions. However, Kevin Shollenberger, dean of student affairs, reversed this decision the following month and put ZBT on social probation along with an action plan far stricter than ALPHA Standards, which Columbia fraternities and sororities are expected to follow.
Later that year, senior members of the baseball team, who were no longer members of ZBT after failing their internal membership review, hosted a party at the fraternity house following the Lions’ 2014 Ivy League championship win. Months later, after all the brothers had moved out of the brownstone, facilities found remnants of a keg—which indicated behavior that went against the University’s action plan for the fraternity—and revoked the ZBT brownstone.
In fall 2014, Columbia football’s defensive lineman Chad Washington, CC ’15, was arrested for aggravated harassment after he yelled racial slurs at Asian students and allegedly pushed an Asian student against a wall. The next day, racist, homophobic, and sexist tweets from members of the football team were released. The athletic department and then-coach Pete Manguirian released statements in response to the incidents, but there was no penalty for Washington or the members of the team whose tweets were released.
Although Murphy resigned at the end of the year, problems with the football team continued. In January 2015, following a second winless season for the Light Blue, 25 members of the football team wrote a now-withdrawn letter to University President Lee Bollinger, Board of Trustees Chair Jonathan Schiller, and former Board of Trustees Chair Bill Campbell, alleging that Mangurian created a culture of animosity between older and younger players, set unrealistic weight regimens for his players, and cursed them out after a 42-7 loss to the University of Albany, saying “The world would be a better place without you.”
Moreover, Mangurian allegedly accused players of faking concussions, denied them concussion diagnoses, and encouraged players with diagnosed concussions to play. The day after the letter was published, Mangurian resigned, which Bollinger referred to as “in the best interest of Columbia Athletics.”
Mangurian declined to comment.
In the months that followed, then-senior Dragos Ignat—presumed to be the No. 1 singles player on the Ivy League champion men’s tennis team—was arrested at Mel’s Burger Bar for assaulting two members of the heavyweight rowing team. He was subsequently kicked off the team and was suspended from the University for two years. In 2017, he was acquitted on both charges of second-degree assault and possession of a weapon.
Ignat declined to comment.
Members of the wrestling team were also kicked off the team when, in the days before the team’s first meet of the 2016-2017 season, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic messages from a class of 2017 GroupMe were revealed. The messages showed comments such as “Columbia bitches feel entitled to something when In reality they are all ugly socially awkward cunts” and “You fucked a bald black girl so you came out like 2 months ago, basically.” Players used the N-word on multiple occasions in reference to students; UPS workers; protesters in Ferguson, Missouri; rapper Rich Homie Quan; and others.
Once the messages were released, Columbia Athletics suspended the team from competitions while it conducted an investigation. Within the following days, seven seniors and one junior were removed from the roster.
Students responded with a widespread petition calling for team members to be removed from the team permanently. This was accompanied by protests at the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity house—where many wrestlers are members—and at the Dodge Fitness Center.
The wrestling team wrote an apology letter, admitting to a toxic team culture.“We are prepared for any deserved repercussions from our actions,” they wrote.
Columbia Athletics suspended certain wrestlers from competing for the remainder of the year—the final season of their college career for some—while others, who were less involved, were only suspended for the fall semester. Those not implicated in the scandal returned to competition that weekend.
However, the serious actions taken against the wrestling team were not what then-first-year Clay Watson of the heavyweight rowing team experienced. In March 2018, Watson was detained by Barnard Public Safety after entering a student’s room in the Quad without their permission. Watson, intoxicated and nude, allegedly urinated on the student’s bed, carpet, and desk before being apprehended.
Athletics responded to the situation with a statement that said it had a “zero tolerance” policy for actions like Watson’s. He was suspended from the team later that month and charged with one count of criminal mischief with the intent to damage property, the penalty being up to one year in prison or three years of probation if convicted. However, Watson was reinstated to the heavyweight rowing team within mere weeks and continued to compete, even as his legal battle continued.
According to a source close to the team, Columbia Athletics told members that Watson’s legal matters had already been resolved; in reality, he had not yet made an appearance in court. Columbia Athletics refused to give Spectator any rationale behind Watson’s return to the team. He continues to compete to this day.
As of the date of publication, Watson’s case is no longer active.