According To Former Lions, A Winning Football Team Can Only Be Good For Columbia
Written by Abby Rubel
Barring brief periods in the sixties and mid-nineties, the Columbia Lions were consistently the doormat of the Ivy League, a team only a mother could love. This season, however, the team has gone 6-1, and no one is more excited for the team than the men who saw the program through some of its darkest times. Staff writer Abby Rubel spoke to four football alumni about the current team’s success and what it means for Columbia.
“Everybody used to want Columbia as their homecoming game because they were assured of a win at homecoming,” said Doug Jackson, CC ’75 and former running back for the Lions. But “it’s not going to be that way any longer.”
In his time as a Lion, Jackson set records in season rushing yards, career rushing yards, and tied the record for season rushing touchdowns. Columbia won only four games, including a spectacular win against Penn in 1975, in which Jackson scored three of Columbia’s four touchdowns to lead the team to a 28-25 victory. He spent time in the NFL with the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys, then turned to coaching.
John Witkowski, CC ’83 and former starting quarterback, remembered, “We were exciting to watch because we threw the ball all over the place.” The problem was that “we didn’t have a lot of depth” so “if anybody got hurt, it was hard to come up with something.”
Witkowski was one of Columbia’s greatest quarterbacks, despite winning only three games in his career. He still holds the top spots in season and career pass completions, passing yardage, and touchdown passes. Like Jackson, Witkowski went on to play professionally, becoming a Detroit Lion after graduation.
Matt Sodl, CC ’88 and defensive tackle, recalled how it felt when students rooted for the continuation of their losing streak. “You don’t want your classmates rooting against you,” he said. “Emotionally, that didn’t sit well with a lot of us.”
Sodl never saw a win in his time at Columbia. But, beginning in his sophomore year as a starting nose tackle, he was an important part of the defense. In his senior year, he was a named a first-team All-Ivy player and managed to rack up 84 tackles and 5.5 sacks on the season.
Peter Leone, CC ’83 and offensive lineman, remembers the student body being apathetic about the team. It was “easy to be overlooked, especially when we weren’t having the success on the field,” he said.
Post-graduation, Leone became heavily involved in Columbia football’s alumni network. In 2017, he received the Athletics Alumni Award in large part for his work as president of the Columbia Football Players Club.
Forty years later, enter Al Bagnoli. Jackson, who was familiar with Bagnoli’s coaching style, knew he would be able to turn the program around. “When I heard that he got the Columbia job, I was elated,” he said.
One of the biggest differences Witkowski sees between the Lions then and now is the team’s attitude. “It’s their commitment to being a dedicated, disciplined team. Before, they didn’t have that discipline,” he said. But at the same time, Bagnoli has made football enjoyable for the team, as Sodl noted. “When it’s time to have fun and play music, while they’re stretching and doing their warm-up drills, they blast music.”
This team is also assured of their ability to win games. “We were excited to play the game, it’s just that when we walked off the field we were never on the winning side. These guys feel confident that they can go out and they can win at a game,” said Witkowski.
According to Leone, this confidence comes not only from Bagnoli and the coaching staff, but also from the support the Lions receive from the administration. “What’s different now, I think, is this team has the realization that they are getting the proper support from the administration and the athletic department and their coaching staff,” he said. “It has resulted in their belief in themselves and a higher level of self-confidence than teams in the past have had. And that’s why you see wins in close games, comebacks, things of that nature.”
Leone credits football alumni involvement with the increased administrative support for the team. “A lot of people spent a lot of time on Columbia football over the years, primarily alumni, and the results we’re getting now is partly a result of that.”
So there you have it: a recipe for success. Take a talented, charismatic coach, give him all the administrative and alumni support he requires, allow some time for him to change attitudes and recruit some new players, and voila! Columbia’s first winning season since 1996.
The old guard is thrilled with the team’s success. “I’m very happy for them, very excited for them,” Witkowski said. “I would say most people from Columbia are, even people who are not going to Columbia are excited about it.”
Sodl said, “I think we’re overall elated with the team’s success this season and with the job Al Bagnoli and his staff are doing.”
“Because I know so much about it, and I’ve lived it, I’m especially thrilled for the players,” said Leone.
But not everyone is so unreservedly delighted with the new Columbia Lions. A recent New York Times article shone a spotlight on alumni who worry that a winning football team is antithetical to the school’s identity, almost as if a losing football team is as big a part of Columbia as Lit Hum. But for the men who have suffered the team’s ups and downs for decades, it seems that they just can’t win.
“They complained about all the losing, and now that they’re winning they’re going to find something else to complain about,” said Jackson.
Witkowski, Sodl, and Leone all dismissed the worries as completely ridiculous. “For alums who choose to say we shouldn’t be successful in athletics because we’d prefer to be known as an academic institution, it doesn’t compute for me,” said Sodl.
“The anxiety over us losing our identity as an academic institution because we’re starting to have success on the football field is absolute nonsense,” said Leone.
Witkowski viewed those worries as an insult to the team. “I can’t say enough great things about what the coaching staff and what those kids are doing. I think it’s absolutely disgusting that these so-called intellects can sit there, put the program down, and feel as though it’s not their school anymore.” He added, “I would think it would be a sense of pride for them.”
But while Jackson, Witkowski, and Leone dismiss the possibility that, at Columbia, anything would take priority over academics, Sodl does see a “football first” mentality in these Lions. He believes that this is not something to shy away from. “We should want to be the best we can be in everything we do—squash, fencing, football, baseball, whatever the sport,” he said. “To say ‘we should practically want to be poor in our success or underachieve in any sport because we are an academic institution,’ it’s completely contrary for it [Columbia] being a world-class institution.”
At the center of the debate over the new success of the team, it seems, is a question of Columbia’s identity. To some, the administration’s new focus on football is part of a larger shift in the school’s culture–a shift that is viewed with trepidation–while former players are simply happy to see their team be successful.
But even though the team is in some ways tied to Columbia’s identity, it also consists of student athletes who would much rather win than lose. Whatever this change may spell for Columbia, we can at least take a page from Witkowski’s book and be excited for the players. “I couldn’t be happier for those guys, for the coaching staff and the players. I think that’s awesome,” he said.
Photo via gocolumbialions.com