Moving the Sticks

Peter Pilling ushers in a new era for Columbia Athletics.

Few people have had as auspicious a start to their jobs as Peter Pilling did after becoming Columbia’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Physical Education in February 2015. Almost before the ink was dry on the headlines announcing his hiring, he had persuaded none less than the winningest coach in Ivy League football history, Al Bagnoli, to take on the challenge of waking up Columbia’s slumbering program.

A man in a suit, his hands folded

Jonathan Lattif

Pilling was reminded, during an interview last spring in the Dodge Fitness Center, about an episode of Seinfeld that has to do with fast starts and timing. George Costanza goes into a meeting in a somber boardroom, tries to lighten the atmosphere by telling a joke and watches in amazement as everyone in the room cracks up. Knowing he has nothing of substance to contribute to the meeting, George realizes there’s no place for him to go after the joke but downward. So he leaps to his feet, raises his arms in the air triumphantly and shouts, “That’s it! I’m outta here!” and departs the room.

“So you’re suggesting that maybe I should have quit after my first month?” Pilling says, laughing, when reminded of the episode. “Maybe that would not have been a bad idea.”

Don’t believe it for a minute. For Pilling, leading Columbia Athletics is the culmination of a career in sports marketing and management that included senior positions at schools like Brigham Young and Villanova as well as a vice presidency at IMG College, the nation’s largest collegiate sports marketing company.

“It has always been my goal to serve as an athletic director at a great university,” he says.

He could not wait to roll up his sleeves and get going — and in fact, he didn’t.

Even when he was still just a candidate for the AD job, Pilling did his due diligence regarding his potential employer and realized that the No. 1 priority at Columbia was reviving a football program that was languishing with a 21-game losing streak. To do that, he knew he needed to identify the right man to replace Pete Mangurian, the coach who had recently resigned, and convince that man to take on the challenge of turning around the Light Blue. It figured to be his first hire, and one that would go a long way toward shaping his tenure — assuming he got the job, that is.

In kicking around names with a former colleague from Villanova, Pilling’s ears perked up when he learned that the winningest coach in Football Championship Subdivision history just might be available. Bagnoli had recently resigned after 33 years and 234 victories as a head coach, including 22 years at Penn that produced nine Ivy League championships. The talk around Philadelphia was that Bagnoli was restless working a desk job in Penn’s athletics department and might be itching to get back to the sidelines if the right opportunity arose.

“I thought that was very interesting,” says Pilling. “He and I started a dialogue, and when I was appointed athletics director, I got on a train to Philadelphia and we met to continue the conversation.” Pilling was appointed on February 3, 2015; Bagnoli came aboard three weeks later.

The impact was instantaneous, more so than Columbia’s 2–8 win-loss record in 2015 might indicate. A Columbia football team that looked hopelessly overmatched the year before was competitive in 9 of 10 games in 2015, breaking a 24-game losing streak with a 26–3 win over Wagner and an 18-game Ivy losing streak with a 17–7 vic tory at Yale. Most tellingly, the Lions improved dramatically in just about every measurable category, as noted by Jake Novak GS’92 in Roar Lions 2016, his blog about Colum bia football (culions.blogspot.com). For example, the Lions rushed for 1,402 yards after gaining just 556 on the ground the previous season, and they allowed only 198 points after giving up 389 the year before.

“I believe that as an athletic director you need to be part of the campus community. That’s important to me.”

Rich Forzani ’66, an active alum nus who advocated for reform in the athletics department and the football program in particular, was impressed by Pilling’s bold move. “Even before he was awarded the position, he began a dialogue with one of the most successful Ivy coaches in history, who was not then coaching,” Forzani says. “This resulted in what many of us believe to be the most brilliant coaching hire in CU football history, Al Bagnoli. That is his great tactical accomplishment, and by itself dwarfs all that has happened in the past 50 years in football. Moreover, it highlights an imaginative and aggressive way of dealing with the long-range challenge — that of delivering winning teams.”

As Bagnoli heads into his second season, Pilling couldn’t be happier with his signature hire. “Coach Bagnoli provides amazing leadership for our football program,” he says. “Everyone is so appreciative of his understanding of what it takes to be successful as a football coach in the Ivy League. He is incredibly motivated; he’s very competitive and very organized. He really understands the whole process. And he makes the game fun for the players.”

Bagnoli wasn’t Pilling’s only high-profile hire in his first year on the job. When Kyle Smith left to return to the West Coast after leading men’s basketball to a 25-win season and the CollegeInsider. com tournament title, the first postseason crown in school history, Pilling quickly tabbed Jim Engles, a former Columbia assistant coach who had compiled an impressive record as head coach at NJIT, as his successor. And he reached into the ranks of young alumni to select Megan Griffith ’07, a three-year captain who played pro ball in Europe and was part of five Ivy title-winning teams as an assistant coach at Princeton, to become head women’s basketball coach.

Pilling recognizes that while football and basketball may be the marquee sports that garner headlines, the performance of those teams — and indeed all of Columbia’s varsity teams — will be only one measure of his success. Although Columbia has hundreds of student-athletes who compete in 31 intercollegiate sports before tens of thousands of spectators, a large part of the University’s students, faculty and administrators, perhaps even a majority, pay scant attention to intercollegiate athletics competition.

Pilling would like to change that, and one of his goals is to better integrate Athletics into the Columbia culture. “I believe that as an athletic director you need to be part of the campus community. That’s important to me,” Pilling says. He adds that in interviewing for the AD job, “One of the things that really struck me is that there is excellence around the campus, and the Athletics Department should contribute to that continued excellence.”

Toward that end, Pilling says that despite the importance of the improved facilities at the Baker Athletics Complex in Inwood, it is vital for Athletics to have a significant presence on Morningside Heights, where undergraduates reside and take virtually all their classes. Referring to the Dodge Physical Fitness Center that includes Levien Gym, Pilling says, “It’s great [that it’s] within walking distance for the entire student body. That makes it extremely convenient to go to a game.”

Athletics facilities in general improved significantly under Pilling’s predecessor, M. Dianne Murphy, particularly at the Baker Athletics Complex. Murphy oversaw the renovation of many of the playing fields as well as the baseball and soccer stadiums and led the fundraising and construction of The Campbell Sports Center, which provides those who compete and practice at Baker with conference rooms, a strength-and-conditioning center, a student-athlete lounge and study center, and coaches’ offices. “We have some amazing facilities,” Pilling enthuses. “Coach Bagnoli says the Campbell Center is as good as any facility in the Ivy League.”

In July, Columbia began construction of an indoor structure at the Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium to provide winter practice space for varsity field teams. When completed, the “Bubble at Baker” will be a 650,000-cubic-ft. air-supported dome enclosing a new FieldTurf playing surface and will be inflated from December to mid-March to provide practice space for the football, men’s and women’s soccer, baseball, softball, field hockey and lacrosse teams.

Now, Pilling is turning his attention to Morningside Heights and the Dodge Physical Fitness Center, which underwent its last major renovation in 1996 and serves not only as an intercollegiate athletics and club/intramural sports facility but also as the recreational gym for members of the Columbia community who want a place to work out. He conducted a survey of students, faculty, administrators and other gym members last spring to gauge usage of Dodge and get a broad cross-section of opinion regarding the facility and what needed to be improved. “We’ve replaced a lot of fitness equipment,” he says, “but I really wanted to see what needs to take place. This is an important facility for the entire community.”

Two men standing outside and pointing at something out of view

Pilling with head football coach Al Bagnoli, his first hire and one of several new coaches he has brought on board in his first year.

Jonathan Lattif

Pilling's progress in his brief tenure has not gone unnoticed. “Peter has brought a new level of enthusiasm and optimism to the program,” says Mike Brown ’80, who played football and baseball at Columbia. “His interaction with alumni has been stellar and I can see his staff is rejuvenated. The hiring of Al Bagnoli was a real coup and I am impressed with Jim Engles. Facilities, especially the new bubble, are a major achievement.”

Forzani adds, “Peter gets it. He recognized the need to convert the Athletics Department into a proactive and alumni-friendly organization. Peter is extremely responsive and open to commentary and questions. By doing this, he has positioned himself and his people as allies and ombudsmen for alumni. The positive things he has done for football in particular and the department in general will help all sports.”

Ken Howitt ’76, a longtime season ticket-holder for basketball who added football season tickets this season, says that while he has not had direct contact with Pilling, he has noticed changes. “There seems to be a conscious effort to involve the Columbia community as one entity, where students, student-athletes, alumni and staff are not separate, but rather one unit with a common goal. I have always enjoyed attending events and games, and in many ways, that experience is improving both on the field and also before and after events.”

Some of that may be attributable to Pilling’s experience in marketing, which is paying dividends in many ways, according to one of his peers.

Bob Scalise, the longtime AD at Harvard, says, “I have found Peter to be a terrific colleague and an excellent addition to our Ivy League Athletic Directors group. He is helping us in many areas, but particularly with Ivy messaging, digital network strategy, sponsorships and broadcast rights. Ivy schools pursue a unique model in college athletics; our success is measured in many ways, not just by wins and losses. Peter embraces the higher level goal of pursuing competitive excellence while also remaining true to the educational mission of Columbia College, the Ivy League and college athletics in general.”

But wins and losses remains the most common yardstick by which success in sports is measured at every level, including the Ivy League, and Pilling knows that. “We can be successful academically and athletically at the highest levels,” he says. “We relish the opportunity to compete for Ivy League championships. I want to continue to grow and enhance support for all our programs.

“It’s important that our student-athletes and coaches have the resources to be successful,” adds Pilling, who when asked how he defines success, replies, “Obviously, winning Ivy League championships, but also developing the skills in our student-athletes so they can be winners in life.”

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