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Tuesday / July 16.
  • Bagnoli looking ahead to second year at Columbia

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    Two wins in 10 games is typically considered a failed season for a college football program. But for the Columbia University Lions, the two wins in 2015 represented a rebirth. Why? Over the previous two-plus seasons they had lost 24 straight games before defeating Wagner College on Oct. 10. While they only won one more games this past season, Columbia’s football program may have finally turned the page on a dismal history and it’s all due to one man, Al Bagnoli.

    Last spring, after 23 years manning the helm at the University of Pennsylvania, Bagnoli retired from coaching to take on an administrative role. That lasted just 92 days after Columbia came calling, and Bagnoli jumped at the chance.

    “I always thought this could be something that made sense,” said Bagnoli about life after coaching. “But after 92 days it just was not fulfilling for me. It just did not challenge me in any sense. It was one of those unique scenarios and the stars lined up right and it was an opportunity to work at another world-class institution and another world-class city.”

    Bagnoli’s 23-year career at UPenn was impressive: a 148-80 record, nine Ivy League Championships, six undefeated seasons in conference play and three perfect seasons. And remember that 24-game losing streak by Columbia? Well, the Quakers won 24 straight between 1993 and 1995.

    “The guy knows what he’s doing,” noted Sal Licata, color commentator for Columbia Football on the Ivy League Digital Network. “You see all that he has accomplished and you have no other option but to respect what he has done. So now he comes here and brings legitimacy to this program. If he can turn it around and get them to win the fact that they are the only team that plays in New York, the fact that they were such a doormat and perennial loser would even make the winning even better.”

    Winning hasn’t come easy for Columbia’s football program since its inception in 1870. Aside from the most recent losing streak, the Lions have only had three winning seasons in the last five decades and haven’t won an Ivy League Championship since 1961. The last 10 coaches at Columbia had losing records, and Bagnoli’s predecessor, Pete Mangurian, resigned after accusations of verbal and physical abuse. Bagnoli stepped into a program in disarray.

    “It got so bad, and so toxic with the prior regime that they knew they needed something of great substance to be able to turn it around,” said Licata, who has covered Columbia football games since 2010. “They went out there and did whatever it took to get him.”

    Bagnoli has reiterated he would not have signed on at Columbia without a shift in the mindset of the administration, and athletic director Peter Pilling – who started only a few weeks before Bagnoli – and the administration have done just that. Since Bagnoli’s hiring Columbia’s budgets have been expanded, support staff has been added, facilities improved and built, including an indoor bubble for training set to open next year.

    “We have resources, we have things in place that I don’t think those other 10 coaches [who had losing records] ever had,” said Bagnoli. “Now we were not naïve enough to not think that there would be some bumps and going to be some challenges, but it’s been fun because we’ve been able to rebrand a program virtually from scratch, which short of starting a program, you never get a chance to do. So we’re out of reasons why we shouldn’t be successful. We’re doing the right things. So cumulatively you just try to build one day after the next, after the next, after the next and just try to do those things over a long consistent period of time with the hope that on Saturdays all those things pay off.”

    If this past season is any indication, things are already starting to pay off for the Lions. Aside from breaking the losing streak and winning two out of 10 games, their last four losses were each by fewer than 10 points. Considering the previous season nine out of 10 games were double-digit loses, there is a definite optimism in the air in Morningside Heights. Part of this change is due to three transfers – the Conway twins, defensive back Christian and running back Jackson, who transferred from Duke, and Florida quarterback transfer Skyler Mornhinweg. Mornhinweg, the son of former Jets offensive coordinator Marty, threw for 1,321 yards, six touchdowns and ran for three more last season, is expected to be the starting quarterback for Columbia in 2016.

    “He’s not only is a good player, but he has the mentality, he has the demeanor, he has all those intangibles as you try to change your culture that he brings to the table,” remarked Bagnoli.

    Signed to a five-year deal, Bagnoli goes into year two with a cautious optimism. All the pieces are starting to fall into place at Columbia for the all-time winningest head coach in NCAA football championship subdivision history. He’s working vigorously to renew interest in the program among the student body, the alumni and New York City, all while building a successful football team on the field.

    “It’s been decades of futility, which is a complete disconnect to the excellence of the school and the excellence of the city,” said Bagnoli. “Columbia a great school. New York a great city. We should be able to attract kids that can lead to championships.”

    Whether those championships will happen is anyone’s guess. But Licata thinks a championship is on the horizon,

    “I think in years three, four, five they will be contending for league championship which is hard for me to even say, and be serious about,” Licata said. “I’ve seen them struggle so many times. But I really do believe in him.”

    And Bagnoli is on board too.

    “At some point I feel confident that we will be [Ivy League champions],” Bagnoli said. “Right now our goal is to be a consistent program. Week in and week out be a program that I think other people have to prepare for, a program that I think other people respect. If we continue to do the right things on a consistent basis … there’s no reason why you can’t win a championship at some point. I firmly believe that or I wouldn’t have taken the job.”

    NJackie Spiegel

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.

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