Robert Kraft, billionaire owner of the Patriots, didn’t play football in high school.
This wasn’t for a lack of wanting. Hebrew studies and observance of the Sabbath kept him occupied during after school practice and through game time. His father, Harry Kraft, was a lay leader at Congregation Kehillath Israel, an orthodox synagogue in a small town in Greater Boston called Brookline. He wanted his youngest son to become a rabbi.
Instead, Kraft became head of one of the largest private paper and packaging companies in the country, amassing a net worth of $6.6 billion, and purchasing the New England Patriots in 1994 for a (then) record $172 million. But before his rise to American riches, he was here at Columbia—as president of his fraternity Zeta Beta Tau, as senior class president, and as member of Columbia’s lightweight football team.
Only, according to Michael Holley’s book, “Patriot Reign,” the Kraft family wasn’t entirely clued in on their youngest member’s new pastime.
One Saturday evening, the Kraft’s receive a call. They are unable to answer, though, because it is Sabbath. The calls keep coming in, unanswered, until the Sabbath ends. When they finally pick up the phone, at least three stars have appeared in the night sky. The call is about their son, Robert. He’s been injured in the game and will need surgery.
“What game?” Sarah Kraft, his mother, asks.
Robert Kraft’s connection to Columbia football, once unbeknownst to his own mother, now cannot be ignored.
Kraft’s name now appears in the largest set of letters on the glass panels inside the Campbell Sports Center. It says he is one of two lead benefactors who have contributed $5 million or more to the center. Columbia's football field, called the Robert K Kraft field, is named after him.
There is no doubt that the contingent of alumni who give to football is strong, extending beyond Kraft: During this year’s giving day, football raised more than double that of the next highest earning sport. Kraft doesn’t even attend all the games, unlike some other dedicated alums. But Kraft is at the center of Columbia football today. Columbia football doesn’t just benefit from his deep pockets––it also benefits from what he means to football culture outside of Columbia. In a place like Columbia that lacks a concrete football culture, the pomp and circumstance of a National Football League team owner on our field appeals to fans who are here for the occasion of it all.
Winning is Robert Kraft’s brand; it is his top priority, and his personal record in the NFL. During a reunion in his honor last April, Kraft addressed this season’s Lions:
"There is no better experience in life than playing the game of football," Kraft said. "Of all the great things you experience at Columbia, the highlight will be playing football and what you build together. The camaraderie, relationships and what you build together as a team is priceless. Nothing beats winning.”
Unlike Columbia football, the Patriots have been an enormous success for a while now, appearing in the playoffs 18 out of the 23 times since Kraft's purchase. They are a team to be taken seriously.
Kraft has achieved consistent greatness in football and become a public face in New England, known for his long standing philanthropy and, more recently, for his complicated friendship with President Donald Trump despite his own support for progressive causes. His personal brand is large and variable, but his identity as a Columbia alum allows the University not only to appreciate his financial loyalty, but also the public face he provides.
Robert K. Kraft Field, Wien Stadium, Columbia vs. Dartmouth, HOMECOMING 12:15pm
Frank Partel sits in the quiet stands and tells me about about winning a shirt from every team he rowed against except for Harvard, whom they lost to twice, he recalls. Kraft and Partel, both from the class of 1963, were presidents of their respective fraternities, lightweight walk-on athletes, and members of the Van Am society. For Partel, Homecoming serves as a place to catch up with old buddies, or chat about Contemporary Civilization and how his alma mater has changed.
“But to be perfectly honest with you,” he tells me, “if we didn't have a football team at Columbia, that would be just fine.”
Indeed, playing football is not something Columbia football has been historically good at. The Billingsley report, a college football rating system developed in the late 60s, allowed Columbia to retroactively claim one national title in 1875 (shared with Harvard and Princeton). Besides that, we have only one conference title from 1961. Our record from 1962 through 1981 was 47-130-4, meaning we won just over a quarter of the time. Between 1983 and 1988, Columbia had a 44 game losing streak and in 2015, we broke another 24 game losing streak.
But since Al Bagnoli’s hiring as head coach, Columbia has begun to change that narrative: these past two years have been the first two consecutive winning seasons since 1962. The response to our improving team has been mixed according to the New York Times, which featured fans bemoaning our new found success. So how does our football culture, historically centered around comically losing, shift with our record?
The stands are starting to fill. The eventual attendance for Homecoming would be 12,506, the 4th largest in the history of Wien Stadium since 1984. Still, attendance records (like the Homecoming game from last year: 13,081) reminds us that winning means more people in the stands. Does a football culture automatically appear once a team begins to win?
Like now, Kraft’s time at Columbia saw the beginnings of a renaissance of Columbia football. Partel and Kraft’s junior year, the varsity team won Columbia’s first and only Ivy League Championship, sharing the victory with Harvard. Under captain Bill Campbell, a strong team would later see five of its players named All-Ivy (a recognition of athletic and academic achievement): Bob Asack, Lee Black, Tony Day, Tom Haggerty and Russ Warren.
But despite this strong season, during the 1962 season, Kraft’s senior year, the football team returned without hope of another Ivy League title. The yearbook write up that year was entitled “The Renaissance of Columbia Sports,” and refers not a a renaissance that was, rather one that could have been.
The writeup bemoans the various reasons for the failure of Columbia athletics to maintain glory for more than a season. It asks why Columbia cannot seem to be competitive in any sport other than fencing, concluding that “Columbia’s failure thus lies in the quality of its coaching and the physical conditions under which its athletes must participate.” These concerns would continue to haunt our football program for years to come, albeit with different coaches and different facility improvements in mind.
Robert K. Kraft Field, Columbia vs. Yale, 1:15pm
Jovin C. Lombardo, who graduated in 1961, sits in the windy stands, protected by his NASCAR bucket hat and rain gear, far more insulated than me. An ophthalmologist in Brooklyn, he tries to attend all of the Columbia games, rain or shine.
Lombardo has suggestions for the athletic department. He wants the ash trees that block the Hudson view from the stands in Wein to be cut down. He’s critical of the PA system, of the marching band, even of our mascot. Some of it seems warranted. As we stand for the anthem, the song cuts in and out. Lombardo seems to be more upset about this than any win-loss record Columbia puts up. “I'd prefer to win,” he says,“but [that] doesn't interfere with my appreciation of the day.” Instead, Lombardo says he likes the pageantry of college football and while he won’t get much of that today, Homecoming was a sight to see.
When Lombardo speaks of pageantry, he can mean many things. He can mean the choreography of a play or the field that fans look out upon. He can mean the marching band, the announcing, or the fans themselves.
But it’s hard to compare anything here to what you would see at most other tailgates. In place of the beer-laden rowdy parking lots of Big Ten schools, people here roam the lot in Columbia blue fall jackets, with flutes of champagne. One tailgater stands out. Maybe it’s the top hat.
Brooks J Klimley, who graduated in 1979 and aforementioned top hat wearer, is head of the unofficial King’s College Tailgating Society–he also teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs. The week after homecoming, he organizes his annual show stopper. This year there is a tent for weathering the day, but it is fully catered by Klimley himself—Columbia and Barnard students bartend, offering tailgaters this year’s signature drink, the Mexican Bulldog. Blue beads are passed out and someone places the last necklace over my head. It’s a lot of fanfare.
It’s also largely unconnected with the team’s performance. Klimley doesn’t think Columbia’s on-field improvements have impacted the tailgate which is filled not only by alums, but by friends and family who have come to take part in the tradition. He’ll be out each year, full of fanfare, no matter the team’s record.
Football games are merely a vessel of expression for these graduates–their loyalty to our football program is more about their loyalty to Columbia itself. Lombardo and Klimley find their connection to the school through the event they have made of a Saturday football game, and therefore it matters. It matters what the anthem sounds like over the PA system, and it matters that every person be given a Columbia blue beaded necklace at the KCTS tailgate. While things are external to the Lions' play, they are the moments that keep a lifelong loyalty to our institution alive.
Harvard Stadium, Harvard vs. Columbia, 12:10
But there is a dichotomy in our fandom: certainly some fans, Kraft included, are concerned with our record.
On another wet Saturday, this one in Massachusetts for the Lion’s game against Harvard, Peter Leone, from the class of 1983, leans toward the play with his entire body, following the players intently. We stand in the visitors section of Harvard’s massive stadium and the day’s wetness adds to the possibility of peril, as people make their way up and down the steep concrete stairs. The particular U shape and neo-classical architecture of the stadium makes it feel as if we are here to observe a roman spectacle. It hurts to watch your team lose, and I can see the pain in Leone’s stance as we watch Harvard beat Columbia 52-18. He’s traveled all the way from Pittsburgh to see the game and says he tries to attend most games.
I ask if others in the Columbia section, with Columbia hats on, are Columbia alumni like him.
They are not.
“I’m here with Peter,” says one—many are Leone’s daughter’s friends from surrounding Boston schools. He’s a Columbia alumni who played on the football team from 1979-1983. Leone is happy with the past few years of football at Columbia, thrilled about the facilities and the change in coaching. After a disappointing 24 game losing streak, hiring Bagnoli meant something to football alums: it meant that the administration was finally taking football seriously.
Kraft straddles this dichotomy of caring about the game for its spirit and its pageantry and caring about the the game towin. There’s no denying he cares about winning—and gives Columbia money so we can win—but he also adds the personality to a game like homecoming. In lieu of a ten tuba marching band or a functioning PA system, his smiling face on our field is a sight to behold.
54 years after the almost-renaissance of 1961, Kraft and his checkbook have helped the University begin to realize a second renaissance. The field is named after Kraft because of a gift of 5 million dollars he made in 2007. Kraft is not the only one who has made our football program their top priority. Campbell Sports Center, a singular building of stone and glass and outdoor stairs, is named for Bill Campbell, the one that captained our 1961 championship team, coached from 74-79, and was a figurehead in the football alumni community. Campbell and Kraft, steadies in our football community, lived through those sub-frigid treks and facilities that made our program feel uncompetitive. Now, they are able to try and fix it. With the arrival of Bagnoli, Columbia football has already begun to see an administration willing to invest in building athletics at Columbia.
Kraft’s public face of athletic and financial excellence seems to align with how Coach Bagnoli and the athletics department have marketed our football program over the last couple of years. Although Kraft may not have anything to do with the hiring of Bagnoli, their brands merge together. Kraft periodically hosts Bagnoli at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots play. In 2016, Athletic Director Peter Pilling tweeted out a photo of the two on the field captioned: “Two people very serious about building Championship football programs.”
Jared Katz, once Columbia football cornerback, graduated in 2017 and after four years on the football team under two different coaches, saw that shift in marketing of the team, even internally.
When he was recruited, he tells me, he felt the program was all about the past—how the history of this losing team was going to be turned around by the fresh batch of recruits. But when Bagnoli became coach in 2015, Katz started to hear more about what the program was giving him: the only place to play football on the island of Manhattan while receiving a world class education. His practice schedule improved, his studies improved, and the football team improved.
Robert K Kraft Stadium, Columbia vs. Dartmouth, HOMECOMING Half-time
As Kraft enters the field, the stadium is filled by students and alum. Columbia alum Marcellus Wiley, former defensive end for the Buffalo Bills and former co-host of ESPN’s SportsNation, shoots t-shirts into the student section while his book is sold at kiosks around the stadium.
Kraft wasn’t available to comment on this story, but in an email from the Patriots’ vice president of media relations, Stacey James, he said, “Mr. Kraft loves Columbia.”
With Kraft’s “nothing beats winning” mentality, he becomes the face for how to take our historically suffering team seriously, but also the way in which we add a flash of pageantry. We start to resemble, very briefly, a real football team, like the one he owns.