Tuesday, September 05, 2006

An Open Letter to Coach Norries Wilson

Dear Coach Wilson:

It would be hard to express how excited most hard-core Columbia football fans are to have you here. Yes, we seem to be in a constant state of rebuilding at CU, but our most recent attempt at retooling was such a failure that it feels much better to be starting again... again.

By now, I hope you're comfortable living in Morningside Heights. It's certainly a long way from your hometown of Markham, Illinois, and also very different from Storrs, Connecticut where you've been working for the last several years. But take it from me, the Columbia neighborhood has improved by leaps and bounds from where it was even ten years ago, (at least for people making good salaries). So enjoy this neighborhood and be happy in the knowledge that you live in Manhattan, but not in the middle of Times Square.

I'm not going to waste your time with a screed about Columbia's many decades of football failure. You've been on campus for about nine months, so you've heard it all already. Of course, the biggest reason not to get into our sad history is that none of it means anything. It's about what happens from now on, not what happened already.

But in the interests of not ignoring the weaknesses we still have and saving you a lot of time, there are some problems that have plagued us for so many years that you should recognize right away:

1) COLUMBIA IS SMALL: Here we are in the biggest city in the country, with a huge student body and it seems so strange to be so little on the football field in so many ways. Compared to the rest of the Ivies, Columbia always has the fewest and smallest players on the roster. That's partly because Columbia has the second fewest undergraduates of any Ivy school, but it can't be the only reason.

And I'm not sure what the other reasons are. Some think it's the administration actively working against football, others say the really big boys don't think they'll fit in at an urban school like Columbia. But whatever the reason, THIS MUST CHANGE. I realize that even if you have 110 players on the roster, it's still going to be about 40 players at the most in any given season that will be able to make an impact. And I don't want to get too hung up on size over skill. But after 18 years of seeing our team look so much smaller than their opponents, week after week, I've really had enough. It's clear we need more players and more players who are BIG. That's where you come in. As a large man yourself who starred as an offensive lineman in the Big 10, you know that size DOES matter at least some of the time. I can't help but be encouraged by the decisions you've already made to beef up the offensive line and make it a top priority. But I'm also hoping your experience and size will help our recruiting efforts in this area. I can't help but think that when some huge high school kid and his parents see you walk in the door, they'll feel instantly comfortable with you and believe you when you talk about how you will make sure "even the linemen" get the proper attention at Columbia.

WHATEVER YOU DO... don't let anyone in the administration, the news media, or on the street, discourage you from seeking out big boys and emphasizing size even at this ultra-liberal, smaller-is-always-better, save-the-planet-by-conservation university we got here. A quick glance at Columbia's enrollment figures shows that the number of students at Columbia College alone has jumped a whopping 12.2% since 1996. The football team deserves its fair share of that 12.2%, and with a current roster of 85 players, that comes out to about ten more players. That's well on the way to my goal of AT LEAST 100 active players on our roster every year. We should never go below that.

2) AVOID THE LETDOWN: Sometimes it comes in the middle of the season, sometimes sooner. But with the exception of just one or two years over the last 35 seasons, the Lions seem to pack it in at some point and give up on the rest of the season. I'm not sure if this is because the team isn't mentally strong enough to shake off tough losses and move on, or if the opposing teams on the rest of the schedule suddenly discover some major Lion weakness that hadn't emerged before. But whatever the reason, the very few strong Columbia teams of the last generation have overcome this and played well down the stretch. The remarkable 8-2 team from 1996 was the best example. Those Lions shook off two straight devastating losses to Princeton and Dartmouth and came back to win the last two games of the season against Cornell and Brown. The "cardiac kids" team of 1971 shook off a tough loss to Cornell and won their last three games of that season against Dartmouth, Penn and Brown.

The times when Columbia has tanked in the last 3-4 weeks of the season since 1970 are too many to mention. But every Columbia coach has to guard against this with all he's got. Even with the relatively short 10-week season, this is a marathon not a sprint. And falling a few lengths behind at the end of the first lap is no reason to quit. This all probably seems very obvious to you, but you need to recognize that Columbia teams have displayed this tendency with alarming regularity over the years.

3) THE CROWDS ARE GOING TO BE SMALL... AT FIRST: I know they're giving out free beer at Baker Field this year and all, but even if the Lions play well in the opening weeks, or throughout the season, don't expect to see crowds of 10,000 people at any game other than homecoming. There is a long history of disappointment when it comes to this team, and New Yorkers tend to see any required traveling to games or similar events as a personal insult. But the crowds will grow slowly, so DON'T BE DISCOURAGED. The winning seasons of 1994 and 1996 saw noticeable increases in attendance, but those gains were lost when the Lions went back to their losing ways in 1997. The good news is the New York media will be on your side if you start winning even just a little bit, (think 5-5 and 6-4 records to start), and there's a lot of media here. The average crowd of 5,000 will probably grow to 7,500 after a year or two of winning or .500 ball. After that, 10,000 could be in reach with a few contending seasons. At this point, almost any Ivy team would be happy with 10,000 in the stands week after week. Since Columbia has more upside potential than any other Ivy, the chances of achieving that here are pretty good.

The important thing is not to get discouraged or complacent. Things change in this league a lot more frequently than they do in a conference like the Big 10. Sure, it seems like Harvard and Penn have been on top forever, but they really haven't. Defending champ Brown was a laughingstock in this league just a little more than a decade ago. Dartmouth was a perennial power that's fallen on hard times. Yale is not that far behind the Big Green in that area. I have to think that the folks in Hanover and New Haven fell behind in part because they thought they could rely on their reputations alone to get and keep the top players. We know that's false now, and so it should follow that Columbia's bad reputation shouldn't be enough to keep us down forever either.

4) RECRUITING IS LIKE LOOKING FOR OIL: To succeed in the crude business, you first have to drill where nobody else is and then you have to make sure you're drilling better than anyone else... because you won't be alone in that spot forever. Columbia's successful teams of the mid-90's were the result of Ray Tellier's brilliant decision to recruit outside the geographic areas endemic to the Ivies for so long. That meant going to California and the golden state produced Lion greats like Marcellus Wiley. But it didn't take long for the other Ivy schools to figure this out too, and that geographical advantage was lost a long time ago. Columbia did get lucky with Finnish native Michael Quarshie a couple of years ago, but he was actually a transfer from St. Peter's and that school deserves the real credit for finding a treasure in such an unusual place.

With the Internet and other tools, recruiting in remote geographic areas is no longer an issue, so you'll need to take an innovative look at recruiting. That may mean looking at more athletes excelling at OTHER SPORTS like swimming, track, wrestling, etc. Since you were once a top wrestler yourself, I'm guessing you're not averse to working with a kid who may need to learn basic football skills for a year or two before being ready to contribute.

But whatever you do, realize that recruiting is going to be a lot harder for you at first because of Columbia's reputation. And I don't think Columbia's going to win the recruiting battles without coming up with some crazy, (but legal), ways to attract good players. Perhaps you came up with some crazy but good ideas while at UConn, where you first had to attract players to a new Division I-A program with NO reputation. But if not, please seek out those who think and even obsess about getting over this hurdle as soon as possible. There are going to be big disappointments in this area. You'll be sure you have some blue-chipper from Idaho in the bag until one of his friends surfs the 'net and tells him Columbia is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of the Ivies. Or you'll get another top-rated kid who's all ready to don the light blue, until he visits the campus and freaks out because the practice field and stadium are really five miles from his would-be dorm. But there will be athletes who can thrive at Columbia; there is no doubt of that.

5) CONSIDER THE REWARDS: I seriously think there are a few hundred thousand Red Sox fans who are still drunk from the 2004 World Series celebrations. Sure the Yankees still have tons more titles, but Boston's first championship in 86 years is definitely sweeter for its fans than anything in the Yankees big trophy case. If you turn this program around, you will forever be known as the man who made Columbia into a winner. That designation will follow you around forever and lead to a lot more opportunities for you in sports, business, or any other field you choose. The spoils for you if Columbia wins an Ivy title will be 100 times what the coach of any of the other seven teams could hope for even if they went 10-0 five years in a row. Just to show you what I mean, why not try googling the news articles about Columbia's win over Princeton in 1988 that ended the then-record 44-game losing streak? The press attention was so intense, you'd think Columbia had just won the Super Bowl, World Series, and the Stanley Cup. I guarantee you, the rewards really will be that good.

That's it for now. Just remember we're all really behind you and know that you have what it takes to make the Lions into a winner. And, if you can, try to have some fun!


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