Dropping the Ball

Photos by Kiera Wood

Published on April 22, 2015

Updated: April 22 at 11:32 p.m.

It was billed by FiveThirtyEight as “the worst college football game in the worst college football town.” On Nov. 15, Columbia trailed Cornell by three with less than two minutes to go. It was fourth down, and the Lions needed eight yards to keep their hopes alive.

Quarterbacks are taught to throw the ball away when under pressure without an open receiver—except on fourth down, when throwing the ball away is an automatic turnover. That late in the game, throwing the ball away would have sealed a loss. It was the worst option available.

Junior quarterback Trevor McDonagh threw the ball away.

There was no guarantee that Columbia would have won had McDonagh not thrown it away, but fundamental errors like this by players who had been playing football for years—and especially by a quarterback, often considered the on-field extension of the head coach—epitomized Columbia football’s awful track record.

In the sports world, winning programs are often said to have winning cultures. In the college game in particular, a single coach can head a program for years on end. Combined with 100 percent player turnover every four or five years, they have an unparalleled ability to change team culture—for better or for worse. Or, in Columbia’s case, always for worse.

The issue Columbia football has faced for decades now is how to build a “winning culture.” The Lions haven’t had a winning season since 1996. They haven’t had consecutive winning seasons since 1961-2. They haven’t had a coach depart with a winning record since the 1920s. After the 2011 season, during which the team went 1-9, then-Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy fired head coach Norries Wilson.

Murphy decided to go in a drastically different direction, replacing the well-liked Wilson with the stricter Pete Mangurian in mid-December.

The new head coach said in his introductory press conference that the team would need to find a new identity and establish a culture of winning, themes repeated consistently throughout his tenure.

While things started promisingly enough—Columbia improved to 3-7 in Mangurian’s first season at the helm—they quickly went downhill again. The Lions went winless in 2013 and 2014, rarely even coming within two touchdowns. Amid that streak, and amid allegations of verbal and physical abuse from players, Mangurian resigned last December. And now, new head coach Al Bagnoli is again looking to drastically change the team’s culture.

This story follows the past four years of the Columbia football program, from Wilson’s last season, through the tumultuous Mangurian years, and into the beginning of the Bagnoli era.

2011: Norries Wilson’s Last Ride

To many observers, including Spectator’s editorial board, the Wilson dismissal in 2011 was long overdue. Wilson went 17-43 at the helm of the Light Blue football program and only finished better than sixth in the Ivy League once in six seasons. (Wilson, now the running backs coach at Rutgers, could not be reached for comment.)

From the players’ perspective, losing is tough, and Wilson’s last season seemed to mark the lowest point in a while for Columbia football.

“You had to physically, emotionally, mentally motivate yourself, like, ‘Hey, all right, I’m going to get up, I’m going to go, I’m going to be better this week, and then I’m going to win on Saturday,’ and when that doesn’t come to fruition, it’s hard to wake up the next week and do the exact same thing,” former tight end Hamilton Garner, a 2014 Columbia College graduate, says.

The losing streak was especially frustrating since the team seemed to be close to turning a corner. The team wasn’t able to get the plays it needed at key times, dropping four games (including Homecoming) by seven points or fewer.

Across the board, there’s credit and blame to go around. Wilson’s coaching staff commanded respect and preached accountability, but came up short in many respects, including seemingly failing to make the adjustments needed to win games. (Columbia was outscored heavily in third quarters in 2011.) Several players had disappointing seasons, while others were unable to play due to injury.

After nine losses, the team got it together in the season finale against Brown, which had made a serious run at the Ivy crown. The Lions rebounded from a 14-point second-half deficit to win the game in double overtime.

“We were playing for pride at that point,” says Garner, who caught the tying score in the first overtime. “We worked way too hard all year long to get beat. We’re not going to let this be the senior class that goes out like a bunch of punks.”

Despite avoiding a winless season, it was clear that changes were needed. As the saying in sports goes: Since you can’t fire the players, you fire the coach.

Wilson’s dismissal, according to former quarterback Sean Brackett, a 2013 CC graduate, was expected by some but caught others off-guard. They quickly realized, though, that the results did not justify keeping him.

While it was clear that Wilson was out of answers by the time he finished his tenure, he was a players’ coach, first and foremost.

Wilson left to high praise from his players. At the time of Wilson’s firing, center Bob Hauschildt, a 2012 CC graduate, said Wilson “was one of the best men I have ever met in my life.” Jeff Adams, a 2012 CC graduate, left tackle, and now a member of the NFL’s Houston Texans, said, “I would go to the end of the earth to do something for him.” Corner Ross Morand, also a 2012 CC graduate, said Wilson “was probably the most loyal person to his players that I’ve ever seen,” adding that “no matter what the issue was, coming to him, he would have your back.”

But the results simply weren’t there. The 2011 season marked a second straight year in which Columbia fell drastically short of expectations. And, evidently, Murphy felt that a radical change was needed.

Photos by Youjin Jenny Jang

(Photos by Youjin Jenny Jang)

2012: Mangurian Debuts

Mangurian’s hire was immediately praised. He was billed as the coach who’d turned around Cornell football, a man with significant college and NFL coaching experience who combined old-school toughness with new-school social media savviness.

“Coach Mangurian came in, and everyone had high hopes, because he was sort of more structured, in a different way—Coach Wilson also had structure, but Coach Mangurian took structure to another level,” former kicker Dean Perfetti, a 2013 CC graduate, said.

Note: You can read our full interview with Mangurian here.

Speaking out for the first time since his resignation, Mangurian answered our questions for this article in the form of a 10-page written response. He says the first thing he needed to do when he arrived was a top-to-bottom reappraisal of the program.

“I knew it would be hard. I knew we would have to evaluate every facet of the program, which proved to be absolutely true,” he writes. “There was a lack of respect for the program that had permeated many people in the university.”

“Most alarming was the lack of respect the team had for itself,” Mangurian continues. “As a team we had to create a positive identity, how we dressed, how we lived our daily lives, how we interacted, how we practiced and trained, what our locker room and meeting rooms looked like.”

He made several significant changes right away, asking many players to lose weight and instituting early-morning practices. He did away with promises of playing time for upperclassmen.

“Wilson was very adamant about, ‘You guys are freshmen, you guys have to earn your stripes,’” Garner says. “Mangurian was very like, … ‘This is a level playing field. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior—there’s no such thing as seniority here.’”

Mangurian also made smaller changes—for instance, locks on lockers and mandatory study halls for players with low GPAs. All said, Mangurian’s coaching staff set a very different tone.

“Basically, he just wanted to make everyone there tougher,” Brackett says. “If you weren’t ready to make the commitment that was needed, then we didn’t need you on the team.”

Garner says the team worked extra hard over the summer of 2012, and in the fall, the season got off to a good start. Columbia won its opener over Marist, 10-9. Although the team dropped its next five games, it rebounded to take two of its final four, avoiding last place in the Ivy League.

The improved results seemed to show that the Lions were on a good track with their first-year coach.

But there were problems brewing even before Mangurian was officially hired. A group of veteran players (including Brackett and running back Marcorus Garrett, a 2014 CC graduate) was selected to interview coaching candidates. The group only ended up talking to one candidate, Mangurian, whom Murphy had previously hired during her tenure as associate athletics director at Cornell. (Murphy did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Moreover, Mangurian’s push for a culture change was met with a bit of skepticism, at least from Garner and Brackett.

“I remember hearing that message, too. At the time, I was all like, ‘Yes, we need to change the culture,’ but looking back, I’m not sure what aspect of the culture needed to change,” Garner says. “Everybody at Columbia hated losing. There’s not a single person out there that’s like, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to go out there and be competitive today and try to lose. That will make me happy.’”

Brackett says, “I don’t really believe in that [culture change], to be honest with you. Everyone that comes in, they come from winning programs, and it just takes a little something extra to win at the college level.”

“I really don’t believe there’s a culture of losing at Columbia,” he adds. “It just takes the right personnel, the right coach, and the right leadership to get us over the hump.”

Mangurian does acknowledge that some changes—especially those related to playing time allocation—may have rubbed some older players the wrong way. He also claims, however, that many seniors were on board, even though older players are usually the most affected by coaching changes.

“I would say our biggest lesson from 2012 was that everything had to be earned,” he says.

The team’s new weight loss regimen also became a problem. According to Rich Forzani, a 1966 CC graduate and a former football player who is now the chairman of the Committee for Athletic Excellence at Columbia, many parents expressed worry about their sons’ health. At least one player was said to have passed out because he was never given guidelines for losing weight safely. This problem at large was reiterated in an infamous, since-retracted letter calling for Mangurian’s dismissal last fall. And on the field, it meant that Columbia’s undersized offensive line was easily pushed around.

All these changes resulted in a 3-7 record in Mangurian’s first year. While Mangurian says he “really had no expectations other than to be smart, tough and disciplined,” many people involved with the team were still disappointed with the season.

“I think we had a boatload of talent that year. I’m not sure that talent was used in the best way it could have been,” Brackett says. “Everyone could have done a better job.”

“Even though 3-7 was exponentially better, and we were all very excited, we definitely thought that we could’ve been a lot better,” Garner says.

The buzz surrounding Mangurian’s promising start was bolstered by the news that former four-star quarterback Brett Nottingham was transferring in from college football powerhouse Stanford, where he backed up former first-overall pick and current Indianapolis Colts star Andrew Luck. Columbia’s fortunes appeared to be improving on the field.

Off the field, there was a scandal in May, when WKCR compiled a list of offensive tweets from some team members. In this week’s interview, Mangurian reflects on the incident as “a byproduct of a history of lack of accountability, control, and character.”

Although the incident has mostly blown over, it has remained in the campus consciousness and certainly didn’t help the team gain any sympathy for the troubles it had and was about to face.

Photos by Youjin Jenny Jang

(Photos by Youjin Jenny Jang)

2013 and 2014: Oh and Twenty

Mangurian’s win over Cornell on Nov. 10, 2012, was his last with the Lions. Columbia proceeded to post back-to-back winless seasons, which the Lions hadn’t seen since an infamous 44-game skid in the 1980s.

But, according to alumni, the 1980s teams were at least competitive. The 2013 and 2014 Light Blue, meanwhile, were often blown out by staggering margins. In 2013, Columbia lost by 41 (twice), 45, 46, and 56. The 2014 season was just barely better, with “only” two losses by 40-plus points.

Mangurian says that based on experience, he had expected the second season to have been better than the first, especially considering that parts of the program appeared to be improving. But the progress was slow, and Mangurian says the culture change was still not well received by team veterans.

“Training camp told the story, and most of it was a repeat of 2012. Players felt that it was their ‘turn’ and didn’t perform in practice, professing to be able to do it in the game,” he writes. “Our expectations were consistent, ‘you get what you earn.’ As a player you didn’t get to decide which rules you thought were important and which you could ignore.”

It’s difficult to single out a low point from the 2013 and 2014 seasons—there were so many—but one notable one was the simultaneous suspensions of Garrett, a former first-team All-Ivy running back, and kicker Paul Delaney, a 2014 CC graduate and Columbia’s lone first-team all-conference representative in 2013, for a violation of team rules prior to facing Yale in 2013. (Garrett and Delaney did not respond to requests for comment.)

At the time, the suspensions seemed like yet more evidence that there were potentially serious differences between the team and the coaching staff.

Even the oft-discussed culture changes weren’t working out as planned. Former quarterback Kelly Hilinski, a first-year in 2013 who is now playing for Weber State in Ogden, Utah, says that upon arriving at Columbia, he entered a program that was different from what he’d been sold during recruiting.

“They [Mangurian and his staff] pictured it as something that was more upbeat,” Hilinski says. “When I got there, that obviously wasn’t the case.”

“It was in a state of disarray,” he says.

Hilinski adds that while he felt the coaching staff treated him well, he didn’t feel football was taken seriously enough at Columbia—either by the coaches or the University.

“When I went to visit Harvard, it felt like a Division I program. They had everything going the right way, the coaches were all together on what the goals were,” Hilinski says. “At Columbia, our goal was just to win one game.”

“It hurt the most when it’s like we lose every game,” Garner, who graduated before the 2014 season, says. “If I didn’t play at all but we won every game, I’d have been so happy. But playing every down [and] losing every game was the worst feeling ever.”

The dismal (even by Columbia standards) 2013 season led to calls for Mangurian’s dismissalSpectator’s editorial board called for Murphy to be let go as well. In response to the growing furor, University President Lee Bollinger wrote a letter to the editor—his first ever to Spectator—defending Murphy’s track record.

The calls quieted during the offseason, and the status quo remained—Mangurian was still at the head of a losing football team, still entrusted with the difficult task of turning it around. Murphy remained supportive, repeating on several occasions that Mangurian just needed time.

“He was really brought in to change the culture, and he’s worked really hard to do that,” Murphy told Spectator last September. “It doesn’t come overnight. It requires looking at everything and re-evaluating everything.”

“We were starting to feel the positive effects of all the work put in by the players, coaches, and the university community,” Mangurian says about the start of the 2014 season. He cites developments, including consultations with sleep and nutrition specialists, a finalized practice schedule, and, the fact that the first-year, sophomore, and junior classes were his own recruits (with the exceptions of some juniors recruited under Wilson).

“Where were we going in 2014? I feel confident in saying the system was sound, the coaching process was thorough and detailed, the plan was good,” Mangurian says. “These players are talented enough and strong enough to shoulder this responsibility. They can do it; unfortunately, they are surrounded by people who extend them the same excuses that have been used for years.”

The end result was the same as it was in 2013: zero wins and 10 losses.

The highly touted transfer Nottingham, for his part, was healthy but less dominant than his Stanford pedigree might have promised. He was benched after four games.

“At some point, we had stopped developing and preparing sufficiently at that [quarterback] position. … I had tried all manner of techniques to solve the issues, but when you reach the point that you are fighting defiance, it’s time to move on, and we did. No one was bigger than the team,” Mangurian says. “Brett was given the benefit of the doubt in many cases, but when his performance grew unacceptable, we made a change, just as we would with any player.”

Nottingham promptly left the team. (He did not respond to requests for comment.)

On the field, it was hard for the situation to get worse than in 2013. The team remained at rock bottom when it had nowhere to go but up.

Despite it all, the coach never stopped trying to motivate his team. “I told the team every week, ‘You guys are so close, but the last step will be the hardest, and no one can do it for you,’” Mangurian says. “To their credit, most of them kept working, accepted the responsibility and were empowered by the fact that it was up to them, that they could fix it. Others, unfortunately, found it to be too difficult.”

Off the field, things continued to spiral. In late November, Bollinger announced to the Columbia Football Players Club that he would be bringing in former athletic director and football coach Rick Taylor to conduct a review of the Lions football program. Hilinski, who says he stays in touch with some members of the team, says that “talking to them, it just felt like … the coaches had no power anymore.” In late November, the letter surfaced calling for Mangurian’s dismissal.

2014: The Letter

In the letter addressed to University President Lee Bollinger, Board of Trustees chair Jonathan Schiller, a 1969 CC graduate and 1973 Law graduate, and former Board of Trustees Chair Bill Campbell, a 1962 CC graduate and 1964 Teachers College graduate, Mangurian was accused of physical and verbal abuse, particularly during an impassioned post-game speech at Albany, along with pressuring players to play through concussions, creating tension between class years, instituting an unhealthy weight loss regimen, and alienating injured players.

The letter, apparently signed by members of the team, was withdrawn without explanation on Sunday, Nov. 23, the same day it was sent. Players declined to comment on it.

The circumstances surrounding the writing and delivery of the letter are murky—Mangurian says that the same player who recruited others to sign their names onto the letter also retracted it, and that many players who appeared to have signed it either retracted their signatures after it was sent or never gave permission to have their names printed in the first place.

He adds that other players asked him if they should write a letter of support, but he instructed them not to, to avoid creating further rifts within the team.

Mangurian says that he never saw the letter or knew its contents until Spectator obtained a copy from Jake Novak, a 1992 CC graduate and editor of the blog Roar Lions 2015. Mangurian says he first saw the full text of the letter when we emailed it to him this week and asked him to comment for this article.

Many of the letter’s allegations rely on specific interpretations of Mangurian’s actions, citing the tone of a speech or the intentions behind a management decision. Moreover, because practices were closed to the public, most of the claims made in the letter, especially that of physical abuse, are difficult to assess. Mangurian denies the accusations of him shoving players in practice, writing, “At no time was there any inappropriate or abusive behavior by me—on or off the practice field.”

Note: In October 2013, a medical study found that from 2000-2011, 40 percent of Columbia football players who said they were fully recovered from a concussion showed statistically significant impairment in cognitive testing. Among 436 Columbia football players between 2000-2011, 70 were found to have concussions, 28 of whom had statistically significant impairments even after they had reported a full recovery.

One of the most serious accusations leveled in the letter was that Mangurian consistently denied concussion diagnoses. The letter states, “There are several players who will speak to the fact that Mangurian told them to return to practice, that they are faking their concussions, and that they are being soft if they sit out for their concussion injury.”

In his response this week, Mangurian cites the University statement from 2014, which said official protocol was followed.

Garner, for his part, says that while he never had a concussion, he was aware of players who did. “I definitely know of other kids who felt pressured, not forced to play, but definitely felt pressure from the coaching staff—‘Oh, you got hurt, you got a concussion. Are you sure it’s actually a concussion? Are you trying to cheat the [concussion] test?’”

“Because concussions are so hard to diagnose, and we were having a bad season, there was definitely some skepticism among the coaches and players of certain players having concussions,” Garner explains. “None of the coaching staff was malicious. … I definitely think that they were just trying to get the best players on the field back as quickly as possible.”

The letter also blamed Mangurian for creating rifts between the upperclassmen on the team and the younger players.

Mangurian responds that he wanted to give all players a chance to speak openly by holding separate meetings for each class of players. “There was a lot of frustration, and many players would not talk in a team-meeting environment,” he says. “It was an open forum. The purpose was to bring any issues out in the open so we could come together as a team.”

Mangurian also defends his decision to play younger players rather than defer to seniority, as Wilson did. “I had been very clear with the upperclassmen, that, if there were no significant difference between their play and that of the freshmen, the freshmen would play.”

“When evaluating the realistic expectations of the current upperclassmen against the long-term benefits of teaching the future players in the program, I opted for the future,” he writes. “It was the right thing to do.”

Garner, who had played under Wilson, says that he was motivated to do well during practice when Mangurian arrived. “He came in and was like, ‘No one’s spot is safe,’” Garner says. “‘You have to prove that you deserve this spot.’”

Mangurian was also accused in the letter of alienating injured players. While Mangurian acknowledges that he did not include injured players in pregame activities, he says this was normal practice for a football team.

The letter accuses Mangurian of imposing radical weight regimens on his players. “Pete Mangurian made the majority of players lose extreme (25+ lbs) amounts of weight when he arrived, and many players had to take fat burners to achieve their ‘goal weights,’ which are significantly lower than the league averages,” the letter says.

Garner recalls that Mangurian took a different approach to players’ conditioning. “When he first got here, he called us all fat, which is kind of funny—when you think of football players you think of big, bro-ish dudes,” Garner says. “So he called us all fat and made us all lose weight.”

Mangurian says that any recommendations about weight were made in conjunction with training staff, the strength and conditioning coach, and the athletic department nutritionist.

Another major allegation made by the letter accuses Mangurian of delivering a scathing, insulting speech to the team after their brutal 42-7 loss at Albany.

“You are terrible [expletive] people,” Mangurian allegedly said—the expletive had been edited out in the copy sent to Spectator. “The world would be a better place without you.”

When asked about the incident, Mangurian does not confirm or deny that he made those comments.

“My most consistent message and efforts were spent making these young men better people, and in turn making the world a better place,” he writes. “The thrust of the post-game speech after Albany was that the world needed more people who care about and feel an obligation to one another. That is what I believed our team needed.”

At the end, Mangurian says he wants to move past the incident. “That experience with ‘the letter’ has reinforced for me Mark Twain’s quote that ‘a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,’” he writes.

2015: Enter Bagnoli

There’s been a noticeable change in atmosphere on the football field since Bagnoli replaced Mangurian this winter, even though the Lions have yet to play a regulation game under Bagnoli. His emphasis on making practice fun and opening it to the public has led players to say they feel more optimistic about next season.

While the enthusiasm echoes the excitement of when Mangurian became coach in 2012, Bagnoli’s changes so far indicate a radical shift in approach.

“Before it was so much work, work, work. It kind of stripped the life out of you,” senior defensive lineman Toba Akinleye says when asked about previous year’s football practices. “We all started playing this game because we enjoyed it.”

An imposing and reserved figure, Mangurian describes himself as “consistently demanding,” with little tolerance for excuses and actions or people whom he did not feel best represented the team.

Mangurian tried to foster a culture of discipline among his players with his emphasis on performance in practice. While current players are staying quiet about the Mangurian era, it is clear that the team is happier under Bagnoli, at least for now. Winner of nine Ivy titles as the coach of the University of Pennsylvania Quakers, Bagnoli has focused on making football an enjoyable experience for the players.

“They’re [the coaches are] reminding us it’s a game,” senior defensive back Trevor Bell says. “You’re supposed to have fun. It’s not supposed to be like something we’re not looking forward to. This is something we’re supposed to enjoy.”

“Anytime an extracurricular becomes work, it’s probably not a good recipe for success,” Bagnoli says. He has also expanded his staff to include a strength and conditioning coach.

Under Bagnoli, the coaching staff has fostered a closer personal relationship with players. Marshall Markham, a junior offensive lineman, recounts when earlier this year, an assistant coach cooked a dinner for the entire offense, giving players a chance to spend time together off the field. “A huge spread. Barbecued pork, macaroni,” he says. “It was a feast. Tons of dinner rolls. Love that stuff.”

“There’s just an entirely different vibe just being on the field—we’ve got the music going, new system for the way we run practice, and everything,” Cameron Molina, junior running back, says. He adds that the new practice system has improved communication between members of the team and that morale is at an all-time high. “Their coaching style is just a lot different and just allows us to all relax and enjoy playing football,” he says.

Photo by Youjin Jenny Jang

(Photo by Youjin Jenny Jang)

* * *

It is curious, in hindsight, how similarly these three coaches were billed. At the time of his hiring, Murphy called Wilson a “dynamic leader with a full complement of leadership, coaching, management, and communication skills.” Mangurian was described by Murphy as “an outstanding leader” who “had great depth of experience” in a New York Times article on his hiring. Bagnoli, according to new Columbia Athletic Director Peter Pilling, is “someone who is truly a leader of men that understands the value, the missions of the University and what Ivy League is trying to accomplish.” They all had the same goal and even shared some characteristics; they differed vastly in their approaches to that end.

While many players responded positively upon Mangurian’s arrival, the culture shock of Mangurian’s demanding regime, combined with the team’s continued lack of success, snowballed into something more serious. Mangurian failed to make the necessary changes to his leadership style, though he remains adamant that the culture change he tried to implement was necessary on a broader level.

While they took different approaches to addressing the team’s culture , Mangurian, Bagnoli, and several senior administrators, including Pilling and Taylor, all say that the program also needs more support from the administration. Taylor and Pilling both claimed that Columbia’s losing history comes from a lack of money. Pilling in particular says, “Money has been the root of a lot of Columbia’s evils,” while Bagnoli and Mangurian both say University support was a big factor in their decisions to come to Morningside Heights.

It’s still unclear what element is most responsible for Columbia’s continued lack of success. Multiple factors, including difficulties recruiting talent, insufficient administrative support, and subpar facilities, have all come up. Struggling to find the right figure to lead the program long-term is just the most visible symptom of a complex problem.

Mangurian was tasked with turning around a flawed program under difficult circumstances, a program that wasn’t ready for him, nor he for it. He had a vision, but because of his struggles on the field and in the locker room, he was unable to see it through.

“We didn’t fail,” Mangurian says. “We just didn’t get a chance to finish.”

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