The View from the Press Box
By Thomas Hauser ’67, ’70L
Columbia has savored gridiron glory. The Lions beat Stanford 7–0 in the 1934 Rose Bowl. In 1938, after trailing 18–6 at the half, they rallied behind quarterback Sid Luckman ’39 to a historic 20–18 upset over mighty Army. Nine years later, Columbia recovered from a 20–7 halftime deficit to upset Army again, beating a cadet team that hadn’t lost in 32 games by a score of 21–20. The 1961 Lions shared the Ivy League championship with Harvard. But there have been harsh times, too. Entering the 2009 season, Columbia had lost 605 games. Only two teams in college football history — Northwestern (614 losses) and VMI (612) — have lost more. The last Columbia coach to compile a winning career record was Charles Crowley, who relinquished the reins in 1929.
The first Columbia football game I saw was the home opener against Princeton in 1963. In the 46 years that I’ve been following Columbia football, the Lions have had three winning seasons. During that time, their record has been 103 victories, 330 defeats and 9 ties. Discounting the ties, that comes to a .238 winning percentage. This is not good.
On the plus side, the Lions are true student-athletes. Football is an extracurricular activity at Columbia, not an obsession. And Lawrence A. Wien Stadium (which replaced the old wooden Baker Field in 1984) is a nice place to watch a football game. The sightlines are good. There’s a beautiful view of the Palisades, Spuyten Duyvil and the Henry Hudson Bridge. Tickets always are available.
During my years at the College and Law School, I went to every home game except for one that fell on the same day that the Law School Aptitude Test was administered. Now I go to one game a year and listen to several more on WKCR.
My sport of choice has become boxing. As a writer, I’ve covered hundreds of fights from ringside. I realized this summer that, for all the times I’d seen the Lions play football, I’d never been in the press box. I decided to fill that void by writing about this year’s home opener against Central Connecticut State.
September 26 was a perfect day for football. Blue sky, a gentle breeze, temperature in the mid-60s.
The press box at Wien Stadium overlooks the field from behind the top row of the stands. A long, built-in table and 16 chairs are set against a windowed wall that offers a panoramic view of the field. A second table and 10 chairs stand on a platform close behind. Adjacent rooms house radio broadcasters as well as assistant coaches from the teams, who communicate throughout the game with their brethren on the sidelines.
This was the inaugural meeting on the gridiron between Columbia and Central Connecticut State. CCSU had split its first two games of the 2009 campaign. Columbia had beaten Fordham 40–28 in its season opener and was bidding to win its first two games for only the fifth time in 57 years.
There had been 27 requests for press credentials. I was seated in the front row overlooking the 50-yard line. Major media was largely absent. The Columbia Daily Spectator was well-represented, as were several college-football Web sites. Most of the reporters were of student age; I was one of the few with gray hair. I was also one of the few writing longhand on a yellow pad, as laptops were the predominant instrument in note-taking. Wi-fi was available.
Muffins, bagels, fresh fruit and bottled beverages were set out on a table at the north end of the press box. Copies of the Columbia football media guide and the day’s game program also were available.
The game began at 12:30, and Columbia returned the opening kick to its own 44-yard line. A facemask penalty against CCSU, a 28-yard pass from M.A. Olawale ’10 to Taylor Joseph ’10 and three well-executed rushes by Ray Rangel ’10 followed. Just 76 seconds into the game, the Lions led 7–0.
Three minutes later, Columbia got the ball again, pinned inside its own 1-yard line. Rangel for 49 yards on first down. Rangel for 34 yards on first down. First and 10 Columbia just inside the CCSU 17. The Lions looked like Ohio State.
Then the drive sputtered, and a Columbia field goal attempt was blocked. Late in the quarter, CCSU blocked a punt and recovered at the Lions’ 1-yard line, but a heroic defensive stand stopped the visitors cold. At the end of the first quarter, the Lions led 7–0. Darlene Camacho, Columbia’s director of sports information and media relations, and her staff passed out statistical summaries, as they would throughout the afternoon.
The second quarter began with an extension of hope. An 11-yard pass from Olawale to Austin Knowlin ’10 gave Columbia a 13–0 lead. But CCSU blocked the extra point attempt (its third blocked kick of the half) and returned the ball the length of the field for two points. The Lions led 13–2, but I was starting to feel uneasy. I’d seen this tragedy acted out before.
Late in the second quarter, CCSU narrowed the margin to 13–9. Just before halftime, an athletics department intern came through the room asking each of the writers if we’d like a turkey, tuna, chicken salad or Caesar wrap.
The wraps were good, as were the chips and cookies that came with them. Still, something was missing. The press box obviously is a fantastic place to be when it’s 20 degrees outside and the wind is whipping in off the Spuyten Duyvil. But on a warm sunny day, it’s immensely satisfying to sit close to the action, surrounded by cheering fans and the Columbia band.
All I’ll say about the second half is that it had a sadly familiar ring. CCSU scored 13 unanswered points for a 22–13 win.
After the game, the media was offered an opportunity to meet with some of the players and the head coach of each team. Nine of us made the trip to the second floor of the Chrystie Field House.
CCSU head coach Jeff McInerney spoke first. He called Columbia “a traditional Ivy League power” and said that Lions head coach Norries Wilson was “a great coach who will win a lot of games.”
CCSU senior quarterback Aubrey Norris, who had taken the reins in the second quarter, completed all eight of his pass attempts and rushed for 75 yards, was less diplomatic. Asked what he thought of the Lions, he responded, “I don’t think they were tackling that well.”
That assessment later was echoed by coach Wilson, who declared, “They came out in the second half and stuffed it right in our faces.”
Then Wilson was asked why it has been so difficult over the years to turn Columbia’s football fortunes around. “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “Snowballs roll in two directions. They can roll bad or they can roll good. We’ve got to find a way to turn the snowball around.”
Thomas Hauser ’67, ’70L is an attorney and the author of 37 books.