WITHIN THE FAMILY
Whither Columbia Athletics?
By Alex Sachare '71
Ray Tellier is fired after 14 seasons as Columbia’s football
coach, 12 of them losing seasons. The men’s basketball team
loses its first six games and appears headed for a long season in
a rebuilding year — if one can use that term when coming off
last season’s 11–17 disappointment.
Sure, Columbia athletics has its high points. The women’s
cross country team had its best season ever, winning the Heptagonals
and the Northeast Regionals and finishing 11th in the nationals.
Men’s soccer won 10 games and should have gotten an NCAA berth,
and Oscar Chow ’03 had a great fall tennis season, giving
much hope for the spring. And there’s always fencing, thank
But the marquee sports, football and men’s basketball, are
at a crossroads. As this is written, a committee has begun the process
of selecting the new football coach, and basketball has just posted
its first win of the season, over Army, to stand at a shaky 1–6.
Where are these sports headed?
Lee C. Bollinger’s inauguration ceremony, NYC Mayor Michael
Bloomberg drew the biggest laugh of the day by noting how Bollinger
was moving from one football powerhouse to another. When you think
about it, however, Bollinger’s Saturday experiences at Michigan
and its 107,501-seat stadium are likely to influence the direction
of Columbia’s football program.
Bollinger has said he views athletics, both intercollegiate and
intramural, as a vital part of the college experience. And he is
a competitive man, hardly one to accept losing with a shrug and
to settle for mediocrity, or less. The choice of the next coach
presents an opportunity to take a major step toward turning the
football program around.
Columbia’s next coach should be both dynamic and diligent.
He should inspire players to have faith in the program and inspire
fans, especially students and alumni, to show up on Saturdays at
Baker Field. He also should be detail-oriented; Columbia should
never be unprepared for something an opponent tries, or need to
call a timeout because of indecision from the bench. We expect this
type of preparation, as well as the ability to inspire students,
from our faculty. We should expect the same from our coaches.
The ideal coach should be familiar with the realities of Ivy League
football and Columbia football, having worked either here or at
another Ivy as an assistant coach. It’s important that he
fully understands the challenge ahead, and the issues he will need
to confront. He also should have college head coaching experience,
ideally having turned around a program at a small school that also
has high academic standards. And he must be able to recruit. This
is vital for success.
The new head coach must attract talented scholar-athletes to his
program in significant numbers, and keep them there. This should
not be an impossible dream. Columbia is a hot school, with more
than 15,000 applicants, already self-selected, vying for 1,000 places
in each class. There is no more stimulating environment than New
York City, and young people willing to step up and tackle both the
school and the city are the type the football program needs.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that Baker Field is five miles from
Morningside Heights, and that travel time can eat into players’
busy schedules. To his credit, Bollinger already has spoken about
trying to find (or create) practice space closer to campus for the
football team and others. This would help, and is something already
done at some other Ivies.
As for men’s basketball, it again comes back to recruiting.
I find it stunning that in this hoops mecca, Columbia cannot attract
at least a couple of blue-chip prospects each year, players capable
of playing at the highest level and of meeting the school’s
admission standards. That’s all you need — two or three
quality players each year. If head coach Armond Hill can’t
recruit them, he must get an assistant or two who can, or else his
program is doomed to mediocrity. And Columbia never should settle