When asked recently to assess the state of his football program, Columbia University head coach Al Bagnoli laughed.
That’s because football coaches typically don’t like to think “big picture.” They prefer a game-by-game outlook.
However, Bagnoli admits there’s a lot to smile about now within his program. After their fourth-quarter comeback win at Princeton on Saturday, the Lions are off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 1996, the program’s last winning season.
Ivy League schools don’t aspire to be football powerhouses, of course, but Columbia is perhaps best known for losing 44 straight in the 1980s, and 21 in a row from 2012 to 2014. Bagnoli’s predecessor, Pete Mangurian, left in 2015 after players accused he and his staff of being verbally and physically abusive.
“When we came in, we wanted to [make the game] fun for the kids again,” said Bagnoli, who ended a short retirement to take on the challenge at Columbia after winning 148 games and nine conference titles at Penn. “We want them to enjoy practice and the work they do in the weight room and film sessions.”
Now they’re enjoying the games, too. Senior quarterback Anders Hill, who threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns (including the game-winner with 1:12 left in regulation) in a 28-24 win over Princeton on Saturday in New Jersey, is among many who have made significant strides under Bagnoli.
“This senior class really wants to set the bar [for the program] as high as we possibly can,” Hill said.
And the newer Lions should reach it. Bagnoli and his staff have produced top-25 recruiting classes (in the FCS) in each of the past two offseasons. A new indoor practice facility has attracted recruits and given older players more practice time.
Columbia athletic director Peter Pilling, who convinced Bagnoli to unretire soon after coming to the school himself, credits the coach with changing the “culture.” Still, even with a chance to improve to 4-0 on Saturday at Marist, Bagnoli isn’t ready to say “job done.”
“We’re rebuilding a program that has historically been down,” said the coach, who is in the third year of a five-year contract. “We’re making progress, but we still have work to do.”