A note to our readers:
You may have noticed that Bwog has not covered Columbia Football in almost two years. Older readers will remember why. We have not seen a reason to reconsider our stance since that time. However, the new coaching regime of Al Bagnoli seems to be seeking to right some of the wrongs of the Columbia football program.
Good intentions are in no way a guarantee, but they do represent a promise. Bwog, like we suspect many of you, is interested in whether or not Al Bagnoli can fulfill his promise, namely to restore the reputation of Columbia Football on and off the field. As a result, while Bwog will not be resuming full coverage of the football team, we will be offering the occasional article on its continuing evolution, beginning with our interview below between senior correspondent Max Rettig and Coach Bagnoli. We look forward to seeing what the Columbia Lions are capable of.
From the Bwog Editorial Board
This February, after the resignation of then-coach Pete Mangurian following a second consecutive winless season, Athletics hired football’s savior. He had just retired from more than two decades of coaching the UPenn football squad, compiling a 148-80 record. Now, Lions head coach Al Bagnoli is looking to create a positive culture around football that hasn’t existed at Columbia for years.
Max Rettig: How has the team looked since you came on and started running practices?
Al Bagnoli: I think we’re making progress. The team, the players, they’re buying in with what I’m trying to do. So, I’d say, so far, so good. It’s certainly not a finished product, but I like the effort, attentiveness and demeanor the guys have right now.
MR: What about Columbia specifically brought you here? You were at Penn for the past couple decades.
AB: I always wanted to try administration, I thought the timing was right because the gentleman who was athletic director, Steve Bilsky, and myself had worked together for 21 years… So I transitioned into an administrative role and I found after three months it was not really challenging, exciting, etc., so when this opportunity came, I thought it was a good opportunity to work at another great school, to work in another world-class city, and I thought it would be an exciting challenge, so here I am. And I definitely found that administration’s not for me. We confirmed that.
MR: Can you talk about the QB situation a little bit? There’s been speculation that Anders Hill was potentially the starting quarterback, but there’s also Trevor McDonagh, and now Skyler Mornhinweg transferred from Florida, and he has NFL blood. Can you address that?
AB: I think it’s been a very spirited competition. We’re not totally ready to announce how we’re gonna handle this, but that’s been a very good position for us in terms of their progress, their understanding of the offense, it should be a position of strength for us. Anders has taken the necessary steps from his freshman to his sophomore year. Trevor has bought into everything, he’s a seasoned guy that has some snaps under his belt … Skyler has, obviously, some football acumen with his dad and NFL and everything else.
MR: Can you talk about the new uniforms? What inspired that change? Was it just part of the rebranding?
AB: We already had the blue uniforms, so it seemed sort of redundant to get another set of blue uniforms. So we wanted to try to expand the accessories and the capabilities we would have to wear multiple uniforms, so that seems to be the trend these days. We’re hopefully going to get to a point where we have four or five different jerseys and three or four different pants. I think it’ll give us a really good opportunity to mix and match uniforms.
MR: Can you describe how the open practices on the Butler fields are going to work? Those fields are usually closed to students most of the year – there are red flags and green flags, and the green flags are up, like, the first week and then never again.
AB: Well, it’s a walkthrough, it’s not practice practice [emphasis mine]. We’re not going to have people there in uniform and helmets, knocking people down and over the hedges. It’s just kind of a walkthrough, but it’ll be a nice scenario for our kids. They won’t have to travel up here [Baker Complex] for the Friday walkthrough. I think it’ll be great with the student body walking around, and hopefully it’s a nice Friday afternoon, and they’ll get an idea of some of the kids involved in the program who may be classmates and they don’t even know it. So I think it’s a win-win.
MR: What have you heard of the team’s questionable conduct, with the tweets and all, there’s been some controversy around the football team. How will you handle team image and student/fan reaction?
AB: One of today’s world problems is everyone has social media access. So we have a forum where people can express their views and it’s our job to just put out a better product and make it a positive as opposed to a negative.
MR: Yeah, there’s definitely stuff with fans expressing views. But in this case, it was a player on the football team who sent out some bad tweets; is there a system in place to handle situations that might arise?
AB: On the first day together, we spend a lot of time in conjunction with Darlene’s office [Athletic Communications Director] and social media … there’s a whole booklet that we give ’em, in our team meetings, our guidelines and policies about how we want to handle social media. … It’s just education, that whatever they said is not only a reflection of them but a reflection of family, their teammates, their coaches, their institution.
MR: What are your biggest goals for the season?
AB: On the team, we obviously want kids to enjoy the experience more than what they’ve enjoyed it, so that’s the first one. And hopefully along the way we win some games and we become much more positive in our approach from everything we do. And then hopefully that manifests itself with the student body and everything else. I think that 100-block trek is very overrated — the realities are that for students to get to the Yale Bowl, they have a 25-30 minute trip… It’s no different here than it is any place else.
MR: A lot of improvements have been made to the infrastructure, to Baker, and to Campbell Sports Center. How do you think those factor into the rebranding process?
AB: Well, it’s all a recruiting game. So, again, our job is to try to sell Columbia University the best we can and so obviously, when you have some of the physical structures we now have, that makes our job a little bit easier. So whether it’s Campbell or you’re telling people about how beautiful the new field we put in is, there’s a very definitive look that people put, a premium, on bettering the experience of our student athletes. So it should help with recruiting a bit more.
MR: There’s been a lot of talk among student media covering football about the annual Fordham game always being the first game of the season. Given Columbia’s lack of performance the past few years, and even if Columbia was great, Fordham is still clearly superior. Can you comment on that game?
AB: Well, it makes a lot of sense because you have two schools five miles apart from each other. … The league has an issue, it’s not just a Columbia issue, but part of the problem is it’s always week one for Columbia and it’s always week three for the opponent. … When the schedule was put together 10 years ago, no one could project that Fordham would go scholarship ahead of everybody and so now you’re seeing the effects of their fifth or sixth year of scholarships. So the question would be, what are your alternatives now, and I think that’s an administrative issue that we have to look at.
MR: If you had one really big, important message for the Columbia student body as a whole, what would that be?
AB: Our kids are very much a microcosm of the student body. I think it’s really good, whether you’re an athlete or not an athlete, to support whatever activities are going on. So certainly you’d like the support of the student body to represent all the work our student-athletes have done regardless of the sport; I’d like to think that our student-athletes are very supportive of all the productions and other things, and I think it’s just a collaboration of the same people bleeding the blue and trying to get the best experience they can at an unbelievable school.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
Coach Bagnoli and his troops via Columbia University Athletics/Mike McLaughlin