A Chance to Make History
In sports, the term, "making history," is so often overused that it loses its effect most of the time. But this year's Columbia Lions can stake a legitimate claim to history-making simply by avoiding a losing season. That's because Columbia hasn't had back-to-back non-losing seasons since 1962-63.
Aldo "Buff" Donelli (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)
Those teams were the result of the great work of Head Coach Aldo "Buff Donelli. Donelli had the unenviable job of replacing legendary Lion Head Coach Lou Little in 1957. Donelli had a rough start, going 4-23 in his first three seasons and 3-18 in the Ivy League. 12 of those losses were by shutout, including 6 in 1958 when the Lions were outscored 291-35 on the season. But in 1960, things started to turn around as the Lions went 3-6 overall and 3-4 in the Ivies.
That set up Columbia's great 1961 season, where the Lions tied for the Ivy title, going 6-3 overall and 6-1 Ivy, (they had to settle for a tie with Harvard despite beating the Cantabs head-to-head, 26-14).
After that, Columbia didn't exactly fall off the map right away. The scrappy 1962 squad finished 5-4 and 4-3 in the Ivies despite being outscored 206-124 on the season. And like the 2006 Lions, the 1963 team rallied to win their last two games to clinch a .500 record, (4-4-1, 2-4-1 Ivy), with thrilling 35-28 win over Rutgers in the finale.
Donelli stayed on for four more seasons, but the team never was competitive again under his guidance and they went 8-27-1 from 1964-67. Most long-time Columbia fans say this was the period when the administration's attitudes about athletics went from indifference to outright hostility, but New York City's overall decline in that period couldn't have helped either.
No Columbia coach even came close to producing back-to-back winning seasons until 1994-96. Coach Ray Tellier guided the Lions to a 5-4-1 record in 1994, and had them on track with a 3-2-1 record, (3-0 Ivy), midway through the '95 campaign before QB Mike Cavanaugh broke his leg at Princeton and the rest of the season was lost. Of course, the great '96 team went 8-2.
The team has suffered losing season every year since then until last year's 5-5 effort. And Coach Norries Wilson and his staff will have to do an even better job this coming season to reach 5-5 or 6-4, because Columbia's record is decidedly tougher with one fewer home game and tougher competition all-around, (in particular, last year's weaker Patriot League opponent Georgetown is replaced on the schedule with stronger the stronger Lafayette).
But Coach Wilson already has some history on his side, and a special connection to Donelli. When the Lions won their opener over Fordham last season, Wilson became the first CU coach since Donnelli to win his first game, (Donelli actually lost his next 10 games at Columbia, so Wilson is already ahead in that department). And while I have no idea whether Donelli instilled a big attitude shift in his players during his early seasons, there's little doubt Wilson has.
It's time to make a little history.
And coach Wilson will have some new assistants this season. The athletic department made the announcement today: New Coaches.
Two names that jump out at me is the new wide receivers coach Aaron Smith, who played under Coach Wilson at UConn. And William Irwin, who also played under Coach Wilson for the Huskies. It says something about Wilson as a man and a manager that his former UConn players want to follow him to a very different school like Columbia.
With spring practice less than a week away, it's good the coaching staff is all filled out and ready to go.