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,” 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 for season and career rushing yards and tied the record for season rushing touchdowns. Yet Columbia won only four games, one of which was 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 later spent time in the NFL with the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys before turning 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 the Lions’ record-setting 44-game 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 with 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.
Three decades 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,” Jackson said.
One of the biggest differences Witkowski sees between the Lions of the 1980s and those of today is the team’s attitude. “It’s their commitment to being a dedicated, disciplined team. Before, they didn’t have that discipline.”
Bagnoli has also 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.”
Today’s Lions are also convinced 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 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 result we’re getting now is partly a result of that.”
So there you have it: a recipe for success. Take a talented and 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 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 though a losing football team is as big a part of Columbia as Lit Hum.
“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 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 considered the worries 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 ever take priority over academics, Sodl does see a “football first” mentality in these Lions, and he believes it isn’t 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 team’s recent success is, it seems, 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 away from academic rigor—a shift they view with trepidation. The former players, on the other hand, are simply happy to see their team be successful.
Whether or not success in football permanently changes Columbia’s identity, the student athletes who play on the team would certainly rather win than lose. While we all wait to find out what will happen, Witkowski encourages students to share his excitement 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