Al Bagnoli came to Columbia in February 2015 vowing to “make football fun again” and create “a cultural change.” After three seasons, the veteran coach is well on his way.
Mike McLaughlin / Columbia Athletics
The Lions, just 3–7 overall and 2–5 in the Ivy League a year ago, enjoyed their best season in more than two decades by compiling an 8–2 record and a 5–2 mark in Ivy play, matching the record of the 1996 team and earning Ivy Coach of the Year honors for Bagnoli. Columbia tied with Dartmouth for second place in the league, one game behind Yale, after posting only its fifth winning record since the league was formed in 1956.
The joyous throng of players, students, alumni and fans who frolicked on the field following Columbia’s dramatic 34–31 overtime win over Penn at Homecoming on October 14 is evidence that there’s fun to be found on autumn Saturdays at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium. As for reversing the culture of losing that had vexed so many of Bagnoli’s predecessors, team co-captain and defensive back Landon Baty ’18 says, “For so long, [football] has been a blemish on Columbia University. But now, it’s something to take pride in.”
Columbia football has undergone an epic transformation in the four years Baty and his classmates have been on Morningside Heights. The Lions were 0–10 in Baty’s freshman year, part of a losing streak that lasted 22 games, and were outscored by a whopping 389–103.
Enter Bagnoli, with a commitment for a fundamental change in the program from President Lee C. Bollinger and the University’s Board of Trustees. The budget was increased and more convenient housing was made available for the football staff. A year-round practice facility was created by erecting a bubble over the soccer field, complementing the training and learning facilities at The Campbell Sports Center. Steps also were taken to integrate the football program with the Morningside community; several Friday walk-throughs were held on South Field and free bus service was provided from campus not only to home games but also to several road contests.
Despite all that, no one expected the Lions to start the 2017 season by reeling off six consecutive victories. The highlight was the Homecoming game against Penn before a crowd of 13,081, the largest for a Lions home game since 2003. Columbia trailed 21–7 in the fourth quarter, then scored three touchdowns to take the lead, only to have Penn come back and score with 1:21 to play, forcing overtime. Columbia’s defense held Penn to a field goal, then Anders Hill ’18 completed a pass to Josh Wainwright ’20 for a 24-yard touchdown — and the win.
There were several other dramatic finishes. Hosting Wagner in the season opener, Columbia blocked a late field goal attempt and drove 54 yards to set up Oren Milstein ’20’s 29-yard field goal as time expired for a 17–14 win. Against Princeton, Ronald Smith II ’20 caught a short pass from Hill and raced 63 yards for a touchdown with 1:12 to play for a 28–24 victory. At Dartmouth, Columbia built a 15-point lead and then held off a late Dartmouth comeback, with Mike Hinton ’19 coming up with a sack on the final play of the game to secure a 22–17 win.
Columbia’s seven-game winning streak, including a win at Brown in the final game of 2016, was its longest since 1935. But it came to an end with a 23–6 loss at Yale, and the following week the Lions dropped a 21–14 heartbreaker to Harvard in a game in which Columbia drove deep into Crimson territory six times, but failed to turn the opportunities into points. The Lions bounced back with an 18–8 win over Cornell and completed their successful season with a 24–6 triumph over Brown. Afterward, Bagnoli singled out the team’s 31 seniors for special praise: “The seniors have been awesome. This is a fitting way for them to leave the field, with eight victories under their belt, playing meaningful games and coming up big when they had to. I’m very proud of them.”
“We came a long, long way,” said defensive back Cameron Roane ’18. “The reason I came here was to turn this program around, change the culture, and we definitely did that. You always want to leave the program in good hands so the young guys can pick up where we left off. I hope we taught them well and they can continue moving forward.”
Wainwright set a school record for receiving yards in a season with 1,001, topping the previous mark held by Don Lewis ’84 (1,000 in 1982). Hill set a school record for season completion percentage (63.4 percent), completing 206 of 325 passes for 2,407 yards and 16 touchdowns, and punter Parker Thome ’18 led the Ivy League with a 42.9-yard average and placed 23 inside the 20-yard line.
A school-record 12 players received All-Ivy honors. Wainwright, Roane, Thome and defensive lineman Lord Hyeamang ’18 were named to the first team; Baty, Hill and offensive lineman Bewley Wales ’18 were chosen to the second team; and honorable mention went to Smith, offensive lineman Markham Paukune ’18, defensive lineman Dominic Perkovic ’18, linebacker Michael Murphy ’20 and kick returner Will Allen ’21.
As for Bagnoli, he said after the Brown game that he would savor the season for 24 hours and then get back to recruiting and planning for 2018. “The trick — and hard part — once you’ve established a good program is to keep it,” he said. “That to me is going to be our true barometer.”
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