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How Columbia football is rising from the ashes

Columbia quarterback Anders Hill, a protected species in a red practice jersey, drops back and spins a pass to Josh Wainwright, a wide receiver in navy blue, on Robert K. Kraft Field. Spirals fly by Spuyten Duyvil; “Satisfaction” blares over the speakers. The temperature dips as completions come; confidence rises. In between routes and a lifting session, Hill re-traces a pair of passes from the previous week’s Ivy League win — 34-31 — over Penn in overtime. First came the 59-yard touchdown strike in the fourth quarter. The coaches had put Wainwright one on one bagnowith a linebacker. Then came the final play. The call was “West Mist Sting.” It had not been used in regulation. It went for a 24-yard touchdown catch as Wainwright beat the free safety on a double move to the inside. Hill placed it over a linebacker’s head.

“I put it a little behind him,” Hill says, “but he did a good job slowing down and sticking it. Credit to him.”

Little slows the Lions. Mark Fabish, the coordinator, minds the pace as play caller for an offense averaging 400 yards and 30 points per game. There are grays in his beard and a rasp in his voice. He notes that he was in the coaches’ booth high above the field during the game. When Wainwright caught the winner and the officials signaled a touchdown, Fabish, a Penn alum and former coach at his alma mater, scanned the field for penalty flags. There were none. A celebration ensued on Homecoming Weekend. Wainwright was first pushed to the ground by Markham Paukune, an overzealous lineman, and then carried atop teammates’ shoulders. There were 13,000 fans in attendance. Students rushed the field for the rising.

“I jumped on the table and started pounding the glass,” Fabish says. “I started screaming and yelling. I picked up my stuff, headed down here, started hugging the kids and telling them that I love them. They’re a special group. Such a neat thing.”

Euphoric roars are no longer rare in Inwood. Two seasons removed from the conclusion of a 24-game losing streak, Columbia, a program best known for its losing lineage, is 6-0 after Saturday’s win at Dartmouth. They still trek 100 blocks by bus to play on a 100-yard field each day, but upperclassmen note a pivot to positive thinking under coach Al Bagnoli. He is the former Penn coach with nine Ivy League championships on his resume, and he recognizes the long climb out of Columbia’s most recent depths. In addition to improving facilities like the Baker Athletics Complex bubble for winter workouts, Bagnoli trained his team on Navy SEAL techniques in regards to toughness. His approach demanded confidence in the face of a 21-7 halftime deficit against Penn. His players plowed ahead, creating four turnovers in the second half and capitalizing with quick strikes. Following the 22-17 win over Dartmouth, the Lions clinched their first winning season since 1996.

Hysteria on the field following Columbia's Oct. 14 OT win over Penn.

Hysteria on the field following Columbia’s Oct. 14 OT win over Penn.

“He wanted to make football fun again,” Hill says. “He wanted us, more or less, to love coming to practice. We have the mindset now where we expect to win.”

They hurry from the field to the weight room at dusk. Wainwright has a Global Urbanism midterm to study for the next day; the coach bus back to campus idles for departure. In the rearview is a recent fire at the back of the bus that carried a few players and coaches from campus to the athletics complex. No one was hurt, and members of the team chalk it up as one more hurdle cleared during the win streak. Hill looks to the sky as a Chinook helicopter claims the airspace overhead.

“There’s a running joke that whenever we see a helicopter, we say, ‘Oh, that’s Harvard,’” he says. “They’re spying on us. People are starting to take notice.”

***

Columbia football has fans excited again.

Columbia football has fans excited again.

“It was kind of like depressing to be a Columbia football player for, I don’t know, most of our history,” says defensive lineman Lord Hyeamang. He is a senior co-captain and tuba player who learned to endure the blues during the 0-10 season as a freshman. “The culture change mentally is the biggest thing. It’s a big stress culture here. Very competitive. You have a midterm coming at you, you’re in the middle of a 10-game losing streak and you’re giving up your body. It’s a lot.”

Futility runs deep in light blue annals. The program’s lone Ivy League title came in 1961. From 1983-88, the Lions lost 44 consecutive games. In 2013, quarterback Brett Nottingham took the reins. He was a transfer from Stanford, where he was once the heir apparent to Andrew Luck. Unable to win the job once Luck left school for the NFL, Nottingham trekked east to Morningside Heights, but broke his wrist in his first game as a Lion at Fordham. Columbia went on without him and was outscored, 402-73. The next season, he returned as a co-captain and started four games. After Nottingham threw three interceptions in the first half of a 61-28 loss to Monmouth, head coach Pete Mangurian informed Nottingham that he would be benched. Nottingham told the coach that he would need time to re-evaluate his position in the program, and Nottingham never returned to the team. For the second straight season, Columbia dropped all 10 contests. Shortly after the season, Mangurian resigned amidst allegations of player abuse. Hill was a freshman.

“Learned a lot that year,” he says. “It was a crazy time.”

Lee C. Bollinger, the university president, took note. He had already commissioned a program review three days prior to Mangurian’s final game. Following the resignation, a coaching search started. Bagnoli had just finished his 23rd season at Penn, and stepped down as coach, as he had announced that he would prior to the season. He was transitioning to the university’s athletics office as a fundraiser and figurehead. Enter Andy Talley, the former Villanova coach. Peter Pilling, an IMG executive who had worked at Villanova, was going for the vacant athletic director’s job at Columbia. Pilling contacted Talley to get a handle on the Ivy League football landscape as it would be part of the dialogue in the job hunt. Talley volunteered Bagnoli as a valuable source of information. Bagnoli and Pilling spoke by phone, and the conversation lasted much longer than Bagnoli had expected. On February 3, 2015, Pilling was hired as AD. Twenty days later, Bagnoli signed on.

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Columbia fans tear down the goal posts in New York, Oct. 8, 1988, after the Lions snapped the longest losing streak in college football with their 16-13 victory over Princeton.

(Ed Bailey/AP)

“Andy was kind of serving both sides,” Bagnoli says.

In between Mangurian’s departure and Bagnoli’s arrival, Rick Taylor, the former football coach and athletic director at Boston University, examined what was wrong with Columbia’s program. Many of his concerns echoed Bagnoli’s wish list, and Bagnoli, knowing the league, was familiar with resources available at Ivy rivals. Bagnoli noted that increased spending on the program by the administration would be necessary for him to come on board. A commitment was made. The budget was increased by about 50%. Coaching salaries rose and university housing afforded staffers the chance to live at the Arbor, an apartment building in Riverdale; recruiting spending spiked, as well. Pilling remembers his first day on the job. He went for a 6 a.m. run up at the complex. Bagnoli had not been hired, and the team was running in a snowstorm. The image stayed with Pilling as he raised funds. The bubble was constructed over the soccer field last year. It took $ 10 million to finish.

“It can’t be same old, same old,” Bagnoli says. “Because if the formula doesn’t change, I’m not any brighter than Pete Mangurian or Norries Wilson or Ray Tellier.”

Bagnoli benefitted from that better budget, and he invested in mental strength, as well. He assigned players a self-help book — “The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success and Happiness” by Jeff Olson — and introduced them to The Program, a team building and leadership course. Still, wins proved difficult to come by. In his first season, the Lions stopped the losing streak by winning Bagnoli’s fourth game, vs. Wagner. Only one more win came, though, at Yale. Last season, Columbia won three games. Recruits like Wainwright, a 5-foot-11 Texan who wears No. 13 and fashions his hair in a Mohawk ode to Odell Beckham Jr., now populate the roster, bolstering the skill positions with speed and agility. He led the Lions with 42 receptions and 515 receiving yards last year. In five games, he has caught 35 passes for 538 yards this season. Three receivers have each hauled in a pass that went for more than 60 yards. All three have recorded 100-yard games. Hill spreads the wealth as Bagnoli and Pilling track the return on investment. The passing yards pile up; so does the dough. On Giving Day this week, athletics raised more than $ 3.1 million. It is a 27% increase from last year’s Giving Day mark.

“There’s no real reason to look at the past,” Anders Hill says of Columbia football's history. “We want to be defined by the product we put on the field over the last year.”

“There’s no real reason to look at the past,” Anders Hill says of Columbia football’s history. “We want to be defined by the product we put on the field over the last year.”

(GREGG VIGLIOTTI/For New York Daily News)

“The ultimate goal is to establish a very consistent program,” Bagnoli says. “Every program in this league has a little bit of fluctuation. We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder and go back to where we were in the past.”

Columbia’s emergence comes at a time of transition for the league. In light of concerns over player safety and brain trauma, Ivy football coaches decided to eliminate all full-contact hitting from practices during the regular season. That went into effect last season and continues this year. Hyeamang, a Pre-Med student majoring in psychology, applauds the pro-active move to mitigate football’s toll.

“We thud up, so instead of taking a guy to the ground, we wrap up,” he says. “It’s good for my body. It’s for sure good. I would not go back.”

***

Columbia's standout wide receiver Josh Wainwright makes a catch.

Columbia’s standout wide receiver Josh Wainwright makes a catch.

Hill hails from Boulder, Colo. During the school year, he is a political science major with a concentration in business management and a 3.8 GPA. In the offseason, he is a chairlift philosopher with an unlimited season pass booked for Breckenridge and Keystone Ski Resorts. He recalls first coming to Columbia, seeking a change in environment and experience. As a senior, he had led Fairview High to a 12-1 record, a 12-game winning streak, a conference title and a runner-up finish in the state championship game. A two-star prospect and Colorado Quarterback of the Year, he had second thoughts initially as he negotiated the urban terrain and No. 1 train.

“It was like, ‘Oh, God, I’m in New York now, why did I leave Colorado?’” he says. “I’ve grown to like it. It’s actually a nice balance.”

He is a Columbia co-captain and vested veteran now. Over the summer, he interned with Jefferies, arriving at the office on Madison and 53rd St. by 6:15 a.m. each day to work in fixed income sales and trading. He hopped the train back up to the field in the afternoon to throw routes with his receivers. Chemistry came and translated into a conscious effort to execute explosive plays. In Week 3, the Lions needed one. In preparing for Princeton, defensive backs coach Andrae Murphy addressed the team. Prior to joining Bagnoli’s staff, Murphy had served in the United States Army as a combat infantry fire team leader from 2011-15. He took the measure of the Lions and spoke about challenging missions his platoon performed. The key phrase was “Charlie Mike,” which meant, “Continue Mission,” in Army lingo. Back and forth the Lions and Tigers went until 1:22 remained in the contest. Princeton led, 24-21, and sent a jailbreak blitz after Hill on third and 11. A pass rusher got within a step of Hill, who threw to Ronald Smith II. The ball traveled four yards in the air. Smith II caught it, split the defense and sprinted up the middle for a 63-yard score. One Tiger touched him. Columbia beat the defending Ivy champions.

“There’s no real reason to look at the past,” Hill says. “We want to be defined by the product we put on the field over the last year.”

Five games remain in his career entering Saturday. Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, Cornell and Brown, on Senior Day at home, all await. He holds a job offer, and is weighing his post-football future. He figures there will be time to consider the path forward following the completion of the Ivy season when he is home for Thanksgiving.

“Just continue mission until then,” he says. “Always moving forward.”

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