Roar, Lion, Roar

They Called Him “Mr. Little”

What is the job of a football coach? Lou Little, the winningest coach in Columbia football history, shared his thoughts on that subject just months after leading the Lions to their most famous victory, a 7–0 win over Stanford in the 1934 Rose Bowl.

“The teaching of the fundamentals of the game is only a small part of the duties,” he wrote in Lou Little’s Football, co-authored with Arthur Sampson of the Boston Herald. “Only those who possess the understanding of a father, the patience of an artist, the diplomacy of a politician, the exactness of an accountant and the leadership of a master of industry become successful.” Later in the same chapter he added one more qualification, as true today as it was in the 1930s: “A football coach must be a psychologist along with everything else.”

Born Luigi Piccolo in Boston in 1893, but better known by the anglicized version of his name, Little, who died 40 years ago this spring, remains foremost among Columbia football coaches. Though Little posted losing records in his later seasons, his landmark wins and distinctive style on and off the sidelines combined to concretize his legacy. A two-time All-American lineman at Penn who played four seasons professionally, he coached for six years at Georgetown before coming to Columbia in 1930, where he would lead the football program for 27 seasons. His teams won 149 games, lost 128 and tied 12; his 110 victories at Columbia are 68 more than the school’s second-winningest coach, Ray Tellier.

Writing on White House stationery upon Little’s retirement in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower described him as “a national symbol of fair play and good sportsmanship” and praised his “long career dedicated to the youth of America.” And Pro and College Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman ’39 once said of Little, “I never met anyone in my life who had such a tremendous effect on me.”

An example of his players’ dedication was offered by Gene Rossides ’49, LAW’52 in an interview in January: “In my third year, I shifted to quarterback in the wing T and was just learning the position. So Coach Little reached out to Sid Luckman and asked him to come help me at spring practice. At the time Sid was coaching the Notre Dame quarterbacks, but when Coach called, he dropped everything. Talk about my good fortune — I had Sid Luckman for three hours a day for a month, teaching me everything about playing quarterback!”

A dapper dresser who was known for his impeccable suits, fancy fedoras, pince-nez glasses and extensive array of shoes, Little maintained a close relationship with Columbia’s academic leaders, including longtime Dean of Students Nicholas M. McKnight CC 1921. He made sure none of his players were cutting classes, arranged for tutors for any who fell behind in their studies and helped them secure employment following graduation.

A disciplinarian who insisted on being called “Mr. Little” by his players until graduation, after which they were permitted to call him “Coach,” Little cared deeply about those who played for him. Rossides, a four-time letter-winner who went on to a prominent legal career in Washington, D.C., recalled the time he was summoned to the coach’s office during the week prior to the first game of his freshman year.

“He asked me whether my mother would be coming to see me play — he knew my dad had passed away. I said no, she had to work at Schrafft’s restaurant on Saturdays, and sometimes she had to do a split shift where she would work lunch at one restaurant and dinner at another. The next thing I know, my mother had every Saturday off and she had the choice of which Schrafft’s she wanted to work in — no more split shifts! That’s how much he cared about each and every one of his players.”

Howard Hansen ’52, a varsity center for three years and captain of the 1951 team, described Little as a builder of men. “He taught us more than the game; he taught self-discipline and sportsmanship,” says Hansen. “Boys who came to him went away as men.”

Little was president of the American Football Coaches Association in 1939 and was a longtime chair of its Rules Committee, helping to shape the way the game is played. He was the 1953 recipient of AFCA’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Award, presented annually to the “individual, group or institution whose services have been outstanding in the advancement of the best interests of football.” Little was inducted to the College Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1960 and the Columbia University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.

Little’s Lions posted a 5–4 record in his first season at Columbia, then lost just one game in each of the next four seasons. The highlight of that era was the victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, which at the time was the only college football bowl game. It pitted the best team in the Pacific Coast Conference against an opponent of their choice, and since many of the syndicated sports columnists in New York had been touting Columbia, the Lions got the nod after completing their 1933 regular season with a 16–0 win over Syracuse.

Following a four-day cross-country train trek, the Lions arrived to very un-California-like weather. It rained in Pasadena for a full week, and the New Year’s Day game was played only after the fire department pumped 18 inches of water off the field. Not surprisingly, it was a sloppy affair, and heavily favored Stanford committed eight fumbles. Columbia needed just one play to win it, and that play was KF-79 — a misdirection play in the second quarter in which All-American quarterback Cliff Montgomery ’34 faked a handoff to Ed Brominski ’35 going right, then gave the ball to Al Barabas ’36 in the opposite direction; he ran untouched into the end zone from 17 yards out.

“For hours Montgomery and Barabas had practiced hiding the ball,” Little wrote months later in his book. “There is no doubt that they frequently believed, during the season, that such tedious drilling was a waste of time. But the situation finally developed when this play was worth its weight in gold.”

If the Rose Bowl was Victory Number 1 of Little’s tenure, the win over Army in 1947 was Number 1A. A crowd of 35,000 filled the old wooden stadium at Baker Field on October 25, as the Lions hosted an Army team that was riding a 32-game unbeaten streak and had not allowed a single point all season. Columbia trailed 20–7 at halftime, but Rossides and Bill Swiacki ’49 connected on a 28-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, Lou Kusserow ’49 scored on a 2-yard run in the fourth quarter and Ventan Yablonski TC’48 kicked both extra points. The 21–20 upset ended with pandemonium as Columbia fans poured onto the field and pulled down the goalposts.

Little coached at Columbia for nine more seasons before leaving in 1956, when he reached the then-retirement age of 65. He moved to Delray Beach, Fla., and returned to campus only once, in 1977, when a scholarship was named in his honor. He died on May 28, 1979, at 85.