Bizarre, strange, ludicrous, ridiculous, infuriating, bemusing, exasperating. Now let me grab the thesaurus and find more words that describe the losses I’ve seen suffered by the Columbia University football team since I moved to Inwood eight years ago, down the street from the school’s football stadium.
Each year I try to attend three or four games a year and during my time in the neighborhood I’ve seen precious few victories. I have no connection to the school but pull for their sports teams. I like having an FCS football program a three-minute walk away, nestled in a part of the island that even many New Yorkers don’t realize is part of Manhattan. Having watched the Lions for nearly a decade, I have no idea how longtime fans have survived the past six decades. It’s not just that the Lions lose. It’s how they lose. There have been plenty of blowouts, numerous games where it’s basically over a few minutes in to the second quarter or early in the second half. But more often it’s much more frustrating.
A few weeks ago a game-tying touchdown pass on Columbia’s final possession was negated because the quarterback was over the line of scrimmage when he threw it. On October 13 a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead became a 24-20 defeat at Penn when the Lions were stopped on the 2-yard-line as time expired. In past seasons there was the game when Columbia held on the final fourth-down of the game, only to have a dubious defensive pass interference call keep the drive alive, which, inevitably, ended with the opposition marching in for the winning score. And last year at homecoming, trailing Penn by 3 in the final moments but with the ball at the Penn 3-yard-line, the Lions had two straight false starts and then an inexplicable delay of game. Columbia managed to kick the tying field goal but then squib kicked the kickoff and allowed Penn to cruise in for the winning TD in the closing seconds.
These are the types of games that happen to a program with Columbia’s history. And it’s a history many are familiar with, even if they don’t realize Columbia plays in northern Manhattan and have never seen a Lions game. Columbia made national headlines in the 1980s when it lost a record 44 straight games. Things weren’t much better before that streak and they only improved a bit in the years following it.
Consider: The Lions won one game each season between 1979-83. They didn’t win any games between 1984-87. Columbia went 5-4-1 in 1994 and then 8-2 in 1996. But that was the final winning season — there was a 5-5 mark in 2006 — and in 2011 Columbia lost its first nine games before winning the finale in Norries Wilson’s final year as head coach.
This season kicked off on a different note. The Lions have a new leader on the sideline, a former Ivy League head coach and longtime NFL assistant named Pete Mangurian. In his first game at Columbia, the Lions held on to defeat Marist 10-9. Four straight defeats followed before Saturday’s homecoming battle against Dartmouth.
Columbia draws pretty good crowds for its homecoming games, alumni brought back by memories of previous homecoming defeats. More than 11,000 watched Saturday’s game. Everyone in attendance pulling for the guys in baby-blue have seen games just like the one they saw Saturday, whether they graduated four or 40 years ago. After taking a 10-7 lead at halftime, Columbia found itself trailing Dartmouth 14-10 late in the game. Finally, with 2:46 left, the Lions took the lead on a nice rushing touchdown, only to watch the kicker miss the extra point. As the refs signaled no-good on the kick, half the people in attendance probably thought Columbia was going to lose. Instead of a field goal only tying the game, now Dartmouth could win it with one. The miss ultimately didn’t matter, as Dartmouth marched 91 yards for a TD with 1:09 left. Columbia got the ball on the 50 to start the potential game-winning drive but did nothing and lost 21-16. And so it goes.
Columbia honored its 2012 Hall of Fame inductees at halftime, including the 1933 football team, which won the Rose Bowl. That Rose Bowl, the one that was always on New Year’s Day. Columbia defeated Stanford, which had chosen the Lions as its opponent. Yes, Columbia was once a power, and so were the Minnesota Gophers. Among the other inductees? New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who once played on the Columbia football team. Columbia honored Kraft for what he did once he left the school, as he stopped playing after suffering an injury as a sophomore.
Kraft has his name on the field he stood on Saturday afternoon. Everything has a name attached to it at Columbia, provided you’re used to writing checks that include seven digits. The Lions play on Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at the Baker Athletics Complex. Head coach Pete Manugrian is the Patricia and Shepard Alexander head coach of football and the top Columbia player in the homecoming game is named the John Toner player of the game.
Another named complex played a bigger role Saturday, as Columbia dedicated the Campbell Sports Center, which sits at 281th Street and Broadway. According to the football program for Saturday’s game, the center “is Columbia’s first full-time year-round athletics building at Baker. …Featuring coaches offices, conference rooms, a multimedia theatre-style classroom and a student athlete strength and conditioning center.” The center is a huge upgrade from the previous facilities at the complex, which did not scream Division I athletics.
The new center shows the school’s dedication to athletics and there’s no doubt a devoted base follows the Lions, no matter how masochistic their fandom seems to others. A guy named Jake Novak runs a Columbia blog and it’s the go-to place for Lions fans looking to praise their team or, more likely, vent about another long Saturday afternoon. I exchanged emails with Novak last year when the Lions started their search for a new coach, as I held out hope that a rumor I started in my head about St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso leaving St. Paul for Manhattan and Columbia might actually come true. I actually do think Caruso would be a great coach at Columbia and I’m not just saying that because I worry about the Tommies dominating the MIAC for the next two decades. He’s turned programs around several times, has assistant coach experience at the FCS and is by all accounts an extraordinary recruiter. Alas, Caruso stayed and, as of now, Columbia’s fortunes haven’t changed either.
Columbia has two home games left this season. Maybe something new will happen. But chances are it’ll be the same type of result I’ve seen for eight years, and the same thing Columbia fans have seen for 50. In his wrapup after the Dartmouth game, Novak wrote, “Sadly, the culture of losing is still alive and well at Baker Field. Coach Mangurian will have to learn the lessons that every new coach here has to learn: there IS something different about our program. I’m not sure what it is, but the usual rules don’t apply.”
And that’s Columbia football. At least for now — but maybe forever.