Friday, April 27, 2007

Interview With OL Ralph DeBernardo

Ralph, (#73), Protects Craig Hormann Against Fordham (CREDIT: DeBernardo Family)

Playing on the offensive line at Columbia the last two seasons has been a little like being on riot control duty... with no gear or reinforcements. The Lions began the 2005 season with just one player who had any game experience on the line, forcing Columbia to start sophomores and even some freshmen at almost every front line position.

The results were predictable. Columbia gained less than 50 yards on the ground per game, and gave up 33 sacks in the 10-game season. The problems on the offensive line were the key factors in a 2-8, (0-7 Ivy), season.

But one of those freshmen who got some starts was Ralph DeBernardo. And as a sophomore in 2006, he emerged as a rising star on a line that showed marked improvement. Columbia gained about 68 yards a game on the ground last season, and only allowed 16 sacks, (and if you subtract the five sacks allowed in the Harvard game, the o-line allowed barely more than one sack per game).

But none of the Lions is satisfied with those numbers, least of all DeBernardo. And since I still think the continuing improvement of the offensive line is the biggest key to success in 2007, I wanted to talk to him about his thoughts.

Ralph was gracious enough to agree and thus become the first current player on the Lion roster to be interviewed on Roar Lions Roar!

Jake: Let's find out a little about your background first. My New
Jersey geography is bad. Where the heck is Washington Township?

Ralph DeBernardo: Washington Township is in Bergen County, about 15 miles west of Manhattan, I attended Westwood Regional High School.

J: What was your high school experience like, both in an out of
the classroom?

RD: I would have to say that high school was a great experience for
me. Westwood is a small public high school, and I did very well there. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA. As for football, it was also an awesome experience, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything else. Westwood is a perennial playoff team, and we were state champs my senior year. So losing isn’t exactly something I’m accustomed to.

J: Walk us through the highlights of your college recruiting process. What other schools came after you, and why did you choose Columbia?

RD: The recruiting process started for me my junior year, however I
wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, or really what all my options were. My high school coach, Joe Gambardella, did a great job keeping my recruiting in check.

Columbia started lightly recruiting me my junior year, however I was not that big for a linemen at the time, (around 240 pounds), and needed to have a good senior year. With a lot of hard work, I managed to have a great senior year, playing center and defensive end, earning all-state honors as a center. I was recruited by a handful of Ivy and Patriot League schools as well as New Hampshire, Duke, Villanova, and Vanderbilt. My final three choices came down to Vanderbilt, Columbia, and UPenn. I was recruited by former o-line coach/offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky. Although my decision came down to the wire, I was 100% certain I wanted to play for the Lions.

It was a hard decision at first to pass up the opportunity to play in the SEC, but I really loved CU. In the end, my decision came down to the people here at Columbia. By "people," I mean the whole team which I met on my recruiting trip as well as other guys that were committing to CU the same year as I was. You really can’t go wrong with the education anywhere in the Ivy League, however I felt CU was the best fit for me because I really was convinced that I was going to be part of something special in turning the program around, a goal that is well on track as you know. So for any current recruits, I would say that if you are choosing between two schools of the same caliber, you really need to imagine yourself with the people who you are going to be around for 90% of your college career; your fellow players and coaches.

J: How surprised were you to see yourself starting a few games as a freshman in 2005?

RD: I wouldn’t say that I was surprised, but I was fortunate enough that the coaching staff back then saw I was working hard in practice and had earned the starting role. Looking back now, I realize I definitely wasn’t physically ready to be a starter, especially on the o-line. But going against guys who were in the league 3, 4, some even 5 years gave me an invaluable experience for my future playing career. I was made aware rather quickly of the speed and strength of the game in the Ivy League, something that helped me a lot this year as a sophomore on the o-line.

J: What are some of the biggest differences you've noticed between Bob Shoop's coaching staff and style and that of Norries Wilson?

RD: The biggest difference is definitely the attitude and discipline
that all the coaches instill into the players. With Coach Wilson’s staff, expectations are much higher, and losing is no longer an option. We go into every game knowing that we can, and expect to win.

J: You have a new offensive line coach in Cheston Blackshear; has it been hard adjusting to his style?

RD: Not at all, although Coach Sweet was an extremely good coach, (hence his move to the CFL), Coach Blackshear is right up there with him. They collaborated a lot with each other during this past season on o-line techniques, so that has made the transition a very easy one. We use all the same terminology and line calls as we did with Coach Sweet, making little confusion. Coach Blackshear’s playing experience as a starter on the national champion Gator’s team brings a lot to the table because he has first hand knowledge of every single technique that he teaches, and they are all proven and game tested.

J: We heard that Coach Wilson started to focus personally on the offensive line as last season went on. Did this serve as a motivational tool only, or did he bring some new techniques to the table?

RD: Coach Wilson did spend time with us at certain points last year,
but he does the same with all positions. Although he lets his coaches do their jobs, he is a very hands-on coach, and certainly has the knowledge necessary for helping out the o-line. There is so much that goes into coaching the o-line, that sometimes a different perspective can help someone better understand a certain scheme or technique. When Coach Wilson speaks you listen, and it definitely was a motivational tool when he entered into our drills and practices, even if he didn’t say a word.

J: What were your impressions of spring practice, are things coming together?

RD: I thought spring practice went very well, especially since there
were no major injuries. Everyone on the offense has a better understanding of Coach Marino’s system, and look for offensive production to improve greatly this year, with a number of playmakers in the skill positions and a stronger o-line. The spring is a great time for the team to improve, especially for the offense because every time we line up in practice we are going against the best defense in the Ivy League.

J: The offensive line has been to Hell and back since 2005. With more experienced players going into this season, do you expect to see some more improvements, particularly in the run blocking?

RD: Yes, absolutely. While we lost some very good linemen to
graduation, the o-line as a whole will be much stronger this year. We have 3 returning starters, and more than enough talent and size fighting for spots on the line. The running game should be much improved from last year with the o-line working more closely together this year, and also being bigger and stronger from our improved lifting program won’t hurt either.

Protecting the QB's Blind Side vs. Dartmouth (CREDIT: DeBernardo Family)

J: The running yardage per game was up slightly in 2006, but the number of sacks allowed was down noticeably, (16 in '06 from 33 in '05). Was pass blocking more of a priority for you guys last year?

RD: As you know, we were a very pass heavy offense in 2006 (and in
2005 for that matter). Coach Sweet worked with us endlessly, improving not only our pass blocking techniques, but schemes as well, something we are continuing with Coach Blackshear. With us passing so much, it was simply not an option to let up any sacks at all, and we now take it personally to protect our quarterback, whoever is behind center.

DeBernardo, During that Tough Day in Cambridge (CREDIT: DeBernardo Family)

J: What opposing defense gave you the most trouble last year?

RD: The best defense we faced last year was definitely Harvard’s.
Their d-line was outstanding with a lot of strong, fast players. We had a few rough breaks against them, and too many turnovers to win any game, especially against a team with that much talent. But we all know that we can move the ball and score on anyone, so our improved confidence will without a doubt help us this coming season.

J: Is there a leader among the offensive linemen, a unit captain so to speak?

RD: After the winter and spring seasons I would have to say that the
unit looks to me as their leader. However, we have a lot of experience with our upperclassmen, who are also good leaders. Mike Partain will be a 3rd year starter as one of two seniors, and Mike Brune is also coming off a sophomore season in which he started all 10 games at guard. Gene Kaskiw and Nate Walcker are also rising juniors who are looked up to by the younger linemen. The o-line has become a very tight-nit group, something I feel is necessary for any team to be successful. During the off-season the o-line lifts together and gets extra workouts in, doing everything as a unit.

J: Looking back at last season, what were the best and worst moments for you personally?

RD: The best single moment I would have to say was definitely the dramatic win at Brown. It was a huge step for our team, to go into Providence and beat the defending Ivy Champs, sealing our .500 season. Ending the year on a two game winning streak was just what we needed heading into the off-season. The worst would have to be the loss at Penn. The entire team fought to the end in that game, and if a few plays go our way we are in the winner’s circle for that one.

J: What have been your best experiences off the field at Columbia?

RD: My best experiences off the field, I would have to say, are just
being in New York City. It’s an amazing place, and although I grew up so close, I never really ventured into the city much before I came to school here.

Ralph and Mom Pat After the Spring Game (CREDIT: DeBernardo Family)

J: A good number of players, (and their parents), have told me that the fall semester actually produces better academic results for them because the football season forces them to be more disciplined with their time. Is that true for you as well? And what do you think that says about the strict restrictions on spring practice that are there for supposed "academic reasons?"

RD: Well, I would credit the better grades to two main reasons: (1)
The fact that we take fewer classes in the fall, usually 4 compared to 5 in the spring, and (2) yes, the strict in-season schedule forces you to get your work
done, and not procrastinate. During the season I was asleep every night by 11 (relatively early compared to the regular college student), so I had to get all my work done as soon as I got back from dinner. You are also in a different mindset during the season; you are trained everyday to do things right now, on time, so I think that carries over into school work.

J: Do you live in the dorms or in a fraternity?

RD: I live in the East Campus Dorm.

Ralph in his Financial District-Appropriate Attire (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)

J: What are your plans post-Columbia?

RD: Once I graduate I am hoping to get into the financial world. I am unsure exactly what form of banking I would like to do, and am currently searching around for the field that interests me most within the financial realm.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Captains' Table

Smith, Hormann, and Quinn (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)

The news has just been released that Craig Hormann, JoJo Smith and JUNIOR Drew Quinn have been named captains of Columbia football for the 2007 season.

As a senior QB with two years as a starter under his belt already, it would have been a bit of an embarrassment had Hormann NOT been named a captain.

The other two choices are inpsirational for a lot of reasons. JoJo Smith is one of just two returning seniors on the defense, and no one would argue that he isn't the hardest working Lion. At 5"6 and 156 pounds, you expect him to be quick on the field, but last year he also showed his abilities as a hard hitter in the defensive backfield. With a guy like Smith making plays and hits, you'd hope the bigger players would be inspired to work harder.

Drew Quinn had a tremendous 2006 season and he and Phil Mitchell are the leading returning juniors on the defense. He was the second-leading tackler on the team with 82, and his late interception in the Cornell game sealed a huge win for the Lions. Quinn reminds me a lot of Chris Carey '04, who also was named a captain as a junior. And I think it's important to have an underclassman captain on team filled with so many sophomores and incoming freshmen.

Run With Me...

The captains news release says Hormann is expected to be ready for the start of the 2007 season, and he certainly looked pain-free at the spring game. But what if the worst happens and starting QB Craig Hormann can't play much or at all this coming season?

Columbia will not be without options in that case... and gloom would not be warranted.

Let's take a walk down the Lions memory lane to find out why:

Two of the most exciting Columbia teams of my lifetime were the 1971 and 1994 Lions. There were few similarities between the teams, but both squads featured quarterbacks who could pass and run. And both teams finished with winning records in heart-stopping fashion.

The 1971 squad was led by Stuyvesant High School grad Don Jackson, a 3-year starter who was a junior that season. Jackson's running and passing stats don't jump out as being very impressive now, but anyone who saw him play from 1970-72 will tell you how exciting he was.

And anyone who watched that 1971 season from wire-to-wire will tell you just how much they've had to spend on heart medication ever since. The Lions went 6-3 that year with only two games decided by more than 3 points! They also finished second in the Ivies behind the Ed Marinaro-powered Cornell Big Red, who barely beat Columbia 24-21 in a barn burner game up in Ithaca. Most people remember that game as the contest where Marinaro broke the all-time collegiate rushing record and later passed the 4,000-yard mark for his career. But it was a back-and-forth game that wasn't decided until the final moments. It was seen by the biggest crowd at Schoelkopf Field in 20 years... and I would assume the biggest since.

Here's a snippet from Time Magazine's coverage of the game:

Significant Gain. For sheer grind-it-out glory, though, the Year of the Runner belongs to Cornell's Ed Marinaro. Though he ran for more than 200 yds. in three of the season's first five games, the brawny (6 ft. 21 in., 214 Ibs.) tailback made his most significant gain against Columbia in the Big Red's sixth game. It was a routine 3-yd. plunge in the first quarter, but it bettered by 2 yds. the career rushing record of 3,867 yds. set by 1969 Heisman Trophy Winner Steve Owens at Oklahoma. Two quarters and 132 yds. later, the Big Red's machine became the first ball carrier in major-college history to top 4,000 yds. Then, with the score tied 21-21 and the ball on Cornell's 32-yd. line, Marinaro chewed out 44 more yds. on nine straight runs to set up a field-goal attempt by Place Kicker John Killian. Killian's 37-yd. boot gave unbeaten Cornell a 24-21 victory and capped a remarkable 272-yd. performance by Marinaro.

Columbia bounced back from the Cornell loss with a stunning 31-29 win over Dartmouth at Baker Field. The team's other big star, Paul Kaliades, kicked a 34-yard field goal to win it with 54 seconds left. It ended Dartmouth's 15-game winning streak and ended up costing the "Indians", (as they were called then), the outright Ivy title. The Lions won their final two games of the season over Penn and Brown, 17-3 and 24-6 respectively. Columbia wouldn't enjoy another winning season for 23 years.

That winning team was the 5-4-1 1994 Lions led by QB Mike Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh could run and pass, but he was best as a runner. Then-Head Coach Ray Tellier used a shuttle system that season; with Cavanaugh taking most of the snaps and Jamie Schwalbe coming in for the passing downs. The Lions clinched their winning season in week 9 with a thrilling 38-33 win over Cornell. Cavanaugh was the sole quarterback in 1995, and was leading the team to a potential Ivy title before he broke his leg in week 7 at Princeton and Columbia lost the rest of their games that year.

The point is, two of the three winning Columbia teams since 1970 have featured running quarterbacks. And while I'd like to see M.A. Olawale hone his passing skills, I would hope that if he is forced to start the coaches will allow him to do what he does best and simply run most of the time.

Speed Kills... So Why Not Use It?

I have always been baffled by the fact that you rarely see a pure scrambling quarterback in the Ivies anymore. The standard explanation is usually something along the lines of: "there's too many risks of injury," etc. Scrambling QB's DO take a lot of punishment, ask Mike Cavanaugh and Michael Vick. But I don't think the risks outweigh the rewards. Scrambling quarterbacks have a unique opportunity to do damage in the Ivies, where slower defenders can rarely do much to stop them. Mike Fritz proved that at Dartmouth last year, and I'm convinced the Big Green would have won more games last season if 1) they had another credible runner or 2) the coaching staff had planned well in advance to use Fritz as a scrambler and designed the offense around him.

I hate to say it, but I think a lot of Ivy coach don't use the scrambling QB strategy because most of them want to go on to the NFL. They want to boost their resumes by using pro-like passing sets, even though a more rudimentary system could work better. There are enough former Ivy assistants in the NFL today to make me suspect that proving you can draw up and coach complex passing schemes might be just as important as winning to some of these guys. And I could even understand that if you were coaching at a place like Penn or Harvard that habitually wins the Ivy title. But for everyone else, I have a little news flash: nothing will make the pros take bigger notice than winning. And at a place like Columbia, a few consecutive winning records should make the entire coaching staff a very hot item.

I am convinced a running QB set at Columbia or any Ivy would be very successful, maddeningly so for the opposing defenses. One of these days, I'd like to see us give it a try.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Back to Basics

JoJo Smith grabbed the first INT of the day (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)

Blue Team 30 White Team 28


Today's spring football game, played under sunny skies and increasingly warmer temperatures, had a little something for everybody. But mostly it was a clear sign that Columbia's 62 returning sophomores, juniors, and seniors need to spend plenty of time in the offseason concentrating on the basics.

The contest was played more like an actual game than I expected. Quarterback sacks were allowed, and running time was only used in the second half. The biggest changes were no blitzes or kickoffs, and punt returns were fair catches only. Head Coach Norries Wilson was patroling in the middle of the field the entire game.

Another thing that looked familiar was that for the most part, the defense dominated. There were three defensive touchdowns, and neither quarterback came close to throwing for 200 yards.

With some exceptions, the blue team was made up of Columbia's first team offense and second team defense, while the white team was the first team defense and second team offense. But in the first half, it was the white team offense that looked sharper with two sustained drives for touchdowns to go with two defensive scores and a 28-14 lead at the break.

At times, rising sophomore QB Jason Pyles looked very sharp at QB for the white team. He had a big weapon in tight end Troy Evangelist, who emerged as one of the biggest stars of the game. On the first scoring drive of the game, Pyles found Evangelist for a pair of 14-yard gains, the second one for a TD.

With the score 21-14 white team, Evangelist did it again with a 23-yard catch and run on a 3rd and 12 to set up another score before the half.

Another nice development for the white team was the play of Ray Rangel, who looked good running and catching the ball out of the backfield. He brought an injury-free quickness to his game this afternoon that we didn't get enough of a chance to see in 2006.

M.A. Forces It

While he ran the ball extremely well, M.A. Olawale's first chance to really show what he could do as a passer was a disappointment. His first pick was actually not a forced pass but a floater in the endzone that JoJo Smith grabbed to end what had been a decent blue drive. His next two interceptions were balls Olawale never should have thrown, and they both resulted in white TD's, the first on a 32-yard INT return by Andy Shalbrack, and the second a 23-yard pickoff return by Mack Loughery for the score.

The Turning Point

With the white team leading 28-14 early in the second half, Pyles found Evangelist for a big 26-yard pass to get out of a hole at their own three yard line. But a personal foul penalty negated most of the gain and the white team offense never seemed to get it going again. Three plays later, the white team snapped the ball over Pyles head out of the end zone for a safety to make it 28-16.

The blue offense finally got into the groove two possessions later when Austin Knowlin busted a reverse down the west sideline for 28 yards and first and goal at the four. Two plays later Jordan Davis scored and the PAT made it 28-23 with about 30 minutes of running time left.

The two teams traded a couple of punts before Olawale went to his bread and butter running abilities to win the game for the blue team. Starting at his own 48, Olawale ran the ball four times on the drive, getting the final four yards for the winning TD. The 52-yard march did feature a nice 14-pass to Jordan Davis and an 11-yard toss to Jamal Russell, but Olawale clearly felt more comfortable running the football.

Overall Impressions

You have to be careful not to put too much positive or negative stock in the spring game. The players are coming off just a couple of weeks of practice after a five-month layoff and the game is not for keeps.

Craig Hormann looked like he was getting around pretty well during the day. He used crutches some of the time, but not the whole time. I'm beginning to believe that he will be ready to play by the start of the season.

Justin Masorti was not in spring practice, but I was told he will be back in the fall.

That said, it's clear the Lions need to work on the basics. Both teams were penalized too much, and comitted costly turnovers. M.A. Olawale needs to be allowed to run most of the time and work more on his passing and decision making in practice.

But one offense, I was mostly impressed with the play of Evangelist, Jordan Davis and Ray Rangel. Austin Knowlin only caught one ball, but he was the victim of a number of errant passes thrown by Olawale. He did have a big presence on the field with that big run on the reverse and the crowd he drew on almost every play.

Defensively, a number of last season's backups looked good. Conor Joyce was in on a number of plays, along with Eli Waltz, Corey Cameron, Lou Miller, and Drew Abeyta.

Pyles threw the ball pretty well, and should be at least considered as a backup after today.

Bayo Aregbe played well, with four solo tackles.

Ryan Mettee did not play.

David Brekke looked good in his new role at linebacker, making a key interception for the blue team and a few other nice tackles. He also seemed pretty happy with his performance when I eavesdropped a conversation he had with his dad after the game.

Jon Rocholl missed a tough 49-yarder that had the distance but was wide left. He was a monster punting the ball though with 3-out-5 kicks inside the 20 and great hang time on every boot. He looked ready to play.

Some of the rules were manipulated by Wilson to get a better look at certain game situations. He took a "coach's mulligan" a couple of times in the final few minutes by stopping the running clock. Those moves just served as a reminder that this was still practice and everyone is ultimately on the same team.

Both offensive lines looked pretty tired by the end of the game. Without any real backups, and the weather getting warmer, it was a struggle. Overall, the conditioning situation still seems good.


Two different sources are now telling me the incoming freshman class boasts a whopping 37 players! That would put the roster at 99 players, which should make it a lot easier to keep 90+ players on the squad for the entire season.

147 days until opening day!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ready for Some Football

My Whereabouts Tomorrow (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)

Sure, it's only a practice game, but after more than a five-month layoff I am really ready to take in some Columbia football at tomorrow's spring game. And after tomorrow, it's basically another five-month wait until the season begins. So we all better take in as much as I can.

The weather should be just wonderful... at least for the folks in the stands. The forecast is calling for sunny skies and 72 degrees. So the players might get a little hot out on the field. But the folks who suffered through last year's "spring" game in those cold conditions, this will be fine.

I am not 100% clear on the rules for the game as of yet, but it looks like rising sophomore M.A. Olawale will start at QB for one side with his fellow rising sophomore Jason Pyles under center for the other.

If Pyles' name rings a bell, it should. He got into all 10 games as a freshman last season on special teams. He even made a great play to recover a muffed fumble before it went out of bounds in the Princeton game. My gut feeling is the coaches are impressed with Pyles for his athleticism and his commitment, and that may be the real reason why he's getting this look at QB. With a couple of good quarterbacking prospects on their way to CU, I'm not sure Pyles is a legitimate candidate for much play under center next season. But I could be wrong, and in his case I would be happy to be wrong. There's nothing better than a player who hustles like Jason Pyles.

My more-detailed preview of spring practice and the spring game is here, but here are the top 5 things I'll be looking for:

5. Kick Returners

The game may not run full-contact punts and kickoffs, but hopefully there will be something to let us know if there are any legitimate candidates to fill this very serious gap in the Columbia attack.

4. Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Austin Knowlin did a great job of attracting a crowd of defenders as last season went on, but if Columbia doesn't develop another legitimate receiving threat, the Lions won't be able to take much advantage of that. I was impressed with rising sophomore Taylor Joseph's play as a freshman last year, and I think he has a very good shot at starting in 2007. But I will also be looking very closely at Tim Paulin, who needs to regain the coaches' confidence as he enters his senior year.

At tight end, rising senior Jamal Russell needs to show the same stuff he exhibited in the last two games of the season. Rising junior Troy Evangelist needs to show what he can do as a receiver, something we haven't seen at all in his first two seasons.

3. Defensive Replacements

Columbia had a lot of underclassmen stars on the defense last year, but five senior starters are graduating, and they must be replaced with the best players out there. I'd like to see some inspired play from rising sophs Matt Bashaw, Lou Miller, and Drew Abeyta, and rising juniors Cory Cameron, Conor Joyce, Eli Waltz, and Clark Koury.

2. Is M.A. Olawale Ready?

Olawale needs to show he'll be ready to lead this team as a sophomore this year in case Craig Hormann isn't healed in time to play. We know he can run, but he needs to throw the ball with more authority than the few times he got a chance to pass in 2006.

1. Running Game Improvement

This is the top priority for Columbia football, because no matter who is playing QB, he's going to need a better running game behind him than the Lions showed last season. Actually, 2006 was a big improvement over 2005 in the running department as the Lions went from 464 yards rushing in '05 to 678 yards on the ground in '06. But I don't think Columbia will win five games again with less than 800 yards rushing as a team.

This all means that we'll be looking for the offensive line to get more of a push up front, and we'll also be on the look out for either some improvement from starter Jordan Davis or something special from backups Ray Rangel and Grant Jefferson.

It's hard to make it clear just how important improving the running game is. I don't think anyone was really satisfied with Columbia's offensive attack, but because the Lion defense was so strong, the true weaknesses were not always evident in 2006.

Consider this: Columbia scored just 150 points last season; 15 points a game. BUT the Lion defense scored six defensive touchdowns, which accounted for 41 of those points, (one PAT after a defensive TD was missed). That brings the total down to 109 points.

BUT the Lions offense scored an additional 22 points on TD's and field goals on drives where the Columbia defense forced turnovers that set them up inside the opponent's red zone. So essentially, 63 of the offense's already meager 150 total points really belonged to the defense. And that means CU's offense didn't even eke out an average of nine points a game on its own.

Columbia's passing game was relatively strong. It averaged about 210 yards a game, threw just six interceptions, and posted a solid 56.5% completion percentage. With that passing attack, even an average-to-mediocre running game would have been enough to net the Lions 2-3 more wins last year. Just imagine what a strong running game could bring.

But I think the real reason to go out to the spring game tomorrow will be to have some fun. I think the players and coaches enjoy their time out there a lot more than a real game with all the pressures involved. And now that winter is finally over here in NYC, (it wasn't very cold, but just wouldn't end), it'll just be nice to get outside!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Smart Kid

Columbia Spectator Columnist Anand Krishnamurthy strikes just the right chord on "campus activists" who are either being manipulated by angry adults off campus, or are just too self-important, ("I got into Columbia, I MUST be smart and important"), to see how stupid they look:

Ivy League Odds and Ends

The key quote comes on the last page:

"I'm keeping short because this almost speaks for itself. Organizations that make students feel uncomfortable on campus contribute toward this school's image problem, which in turn keeps Columbia from bringing in talent. Such groups, for example, have contributed to the destruction of Columbia's athletic programs since their upheaval of the Morningside Park gym. Over the course of four years on this campus, it has become comical to see embarrassing protest after embarrassing protest by small subsections of campus that do not represent the majority of students. To see so-called "activists" who come from some of the most privileged backgrounds in America commenting on issues that they can't even identify with is oh-so typical of the pretentiousness that unfortunately rears its ugly head at this University. Here's to hoping that, going forward, Columbia can produce a more intelligent, sensible community of activists who actually go on to improve society and become the world leaders of tomorrow, rather than the laughing stocks of daily conversation. Here's a hint: pick issues where you can actually effect change, such as student loan policy, as opposed to ranting and raving about massive failures on the part of the federal government and international community, where, sorry, your voice does not matter. Welcome to reality-quite the change from your cocoon of self-importance."

On another note: I wonder who is the Spectator columnist of "yesteryear" he's paying homage to in the first line of the column. Well, I know it ain't Max Frankel.

VA Tech Killings: A Note on Language

I realize the Virginia Tech killings mostly have nothing to do with Columbia, and this is supposed to be a site about football. But I have some thoughts to pass on regarding what happened yesterday:

1) Something like this probably wouldn't happen at Columbia because of its excellent security and the fact that ARMED NYPD officers are always visible in the area. I'm what you could call a moderate on things like gun control, but I think we can all agree that a better-trained and armed police force can nip these things in the bud.

2) My mentor and good friend, screenwriter Robert Avrech
points out that calling these shootings a "tragedy" is a disgrace. When people die accidentally due to a hurricane or a tsunami, it's a tragedy. When they die at the hands of a calculating mass murderer, it's an ATROCITY. Thankfully, when I brought this up to my colleagues at CNN they agreed to make the change networkwide.

3) Americans need to be more vigilant. Too often, this is written off to "living in fear." Hey, I'm a parent and I live in fear for my daughter all the time; it goes with the job. But it doesn't cripple me, and it doesn't ruin my relationship with her. It's called surviving in a world that's always been violent, even if we're just talking about the weather! People should always have some kind plan on how to defend themselves if the worst happens.

Okay, sermon over. We're back to football only after today.

Raising the Bar

Lion Players Celebrate the Win over Fordham, 2006 (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)

How tough will it be for the Columbia Lions to repeat their success of 2006 and even improve upon it? Pretty damn hard, thanks to a much tougher schedule.

Columbia played six home games last year; in 2007 they'll go back to the normal slate of five games at Wien Stadium. But home may not feel so much like home when perennial Ivy powerhouses Penn, Yale, and Harvard come calling. The other two home games are against the very beatable Marist and the erratic Brown Bears, who could be resurgent next season.

The road schedule is rough too. The season opener at Fordham is certainly winnable, but the next two road games at Princeton and a nighttime affair at Lafayette will be a challenge. Dartmouth and Cornell round out the road schedule. Columbia has played pretty well at Dartmouth since 1998, but they still don't have a win at Memorial Field since 2001. Cornell was twice the team at home than they were on the road last season, which doesn't bode well.

Familiarity Breeds Comfort

They way Columbia's 3-5-3 defense confused opponents last season was a beautiful thing to behold. But some of that confusion is bound to be gone in 2007 as the other coaches and players get more used to it. And don't be surprised if some other Ivy schools start to experiment with the 3-5-3 themselves this season. I know the formation would make a lot of sense for at least half the league right now.

Nothing Motivates Like Fear

Don't listen to the bravado from the loud-mouthed supporters of Penn, etc. The fact is, the way Columbia played against most of the Ivy teams last season put the fear of God into a lot of opposing coaching staffs. For the Lions to recover from a 2005 season when they were destroyed by every Ivy club, (except Dartmouth), to playing competitively into the 4th quarter against every team was more than impressive... it was scary. You can bet the other Ivy schools will be working extra hard to prepare for Columbia this season.

Can We Replace Our Losses?

The young Lion underclassmen were all over the field last season, but don't forget most of the most solid play on defense came seniors Adam Brekke, Darren Schmidt, and Tad Crawford. They're gone now, and replacing them and their fellow seniors, Todd Abrams and Justin Nunez won't be easy. The big concern is up the middle, where Abrams at NT, Brekke at MLB, and Crawford at FS are all departing.

What it All Means

To post another 5-5 record in 2007, the Lions will have to be a better team than the squad that went .500 last season. There's little doubt of that. And to go 6-4 or better, the team will have to get much better, faster, and stronger. Saturday's spring game will give us some idea of how much they've accomplished so far and how much more work they all have to do over the summer.

The Good News is...

You didn't think I was going to let this be a downer post did you?

Columbia still has a lot going for it in 2007 and beyond. Here are some of the main highlights:

1) Coaching staff

New coaching staffs have invigorated Columbia in the past, but this group stands apart. The Lions last four non-losing seasons, (1996, 1994, 1971, and 1962), were all helmed by coaching staffs who had been around for several seasons before reaching that plateau. Norries Wilson and defensive coordinator Lou Ferrari were just too good on and off the field last season to be a flash in the pan. I also put a lot of stock in the fact that players like Bayo Aregbe, who left the team after the 2005, was so encouraged by Wilson and his staff that he's rejoining the squad this season.

The jury is still out on some of the supporting cast, like offensive coordinator Vinny Marino and some of the newcomers replacing the three assistants who moved on, (and up), to other jobs this offseason. But Columbia would have to completely implode in 2007 for these guys to lose their winners' glow. (Of course, that's exactly what happened to Bob Shoop and his staff in 2004 after the encouraging 2003 season. But could bad lightning strike twice?)

2) Young Lions be Free Tonight

Columbia had no less than six freshmen who were impact players in 2006. Wide receiver and Ivy Rookie of the Year Austin Knowlin got most of the attention, but I thought spur linebacker Andy Shalbrack could have easily won that award too if defensive players ever got an equal shot at postseason awards. Hot on Knowlin's and Shalbrack's heels was linebacker Justin Masorti, the man I think has the best shot at replacing Brekke when it comes to plugging up the middle of the Lion D. Knowlin, Shalbrack and Masorti are all potential All-Ivy players, while frosh like LB Lou Miller, DT Matt Bashaw, and WR Taylor Joseph rounded out the super class of 2010.

The super sophs were defensive lineman Phillip Mitchell, linebacker Drew Quinn, and kicker/punter Jon Rocholl. But I was also impressed by the yeoman work done by Jordan Davis at tailback and Mike Brune and Ralph DeBenardo on the offensive line.

These are a lot of underclass boldface names for any team at any level. If half of them raise their games in 2007, Columbia will probably get better enough to go 6-4.

John Witkowski, 1982 (CREDIT:

Call for Memories

Columbia's strong defense in 2006, coupled with a mostly challenged offense reminded me of the days when it was just the opposite. John Witkowski's Columbia teams of 1982 and 1983 had more offensive firepower than any CU team before, but the defense usually couldn't hold opponents very much at all.

How unbalanced were those teams? Well, check out the Columbia Athletic Department's
description of Witkowski's two greatest games in a Lion uniform and get an idea.

But if there are any players or fans from that era who remember these games or any others, I'd love to hear your comments below.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Get Out Your Hankies

Lou Little on the cover of Newsweek, just a few weeks before the legendary win over Army

I just came across this story about legendary Columbia Head Coach Lou Little yesterday. It definitely sounds a little apocryphal, (I think there was a similar story depicted in "Knute Rockne All-American"), but it could be true. And as the son of a clergyman, I know a good sermon-starter when I see one.

And if this story doesn't make you tear up just a little, you're probably made of stone.

Author: Michael A. Aun, FIC, LUTCF, CSP, CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

One of the most remarkable sports stories I enjoy telling from the platform is about a football coach by the name of Lou Little, who coached at Georgetown University before going on to become famous at Columbia University.

Coach Little had a big, strapping tackle on his team who was more like a teddy bear than a defensive tackle. In four years at Georgetown, the kid never missed a practice. In four years, he had nearly a 4.0 grade point ratio. And yet, in those four years, the kid never started, and the only time he ever got into the game was when Georgetown was 40 points ahead or 40 points behind.

Yet, Coach Little kept him on the team. He was a moral sparkplug, but he simply lacked the killer instinct that it takes to make it as a big time college tackle.

Four days before the last game of the young man’s career, Coach Little received a telegram informing him that the young man’s only living relative, his father, had died suddenly. It was Coach Lou Little who was asked to pass on the bad news to the boy.

“Son, I’m sorry to tell you that your dad died yesterday,” said the Coach. “You’re not a starter on our team and you won’t be starting on Saturday. Why not go home and take care of matters with your dad? We’ll see if we can win this one for you.”

On the day of the big game, Coach Little was a little bit surprised to look up and see the young man standing there in the locker room. He had a look of an eagle in his eye. This was not the same tackle he had coached the previous four years.
The boy pleaded with him: “Coach, you’ve got to play me today. I’ve never asked you for a favor, but I need to get in the game today. Just one play.”

“Son, you’re not a starter. This game is for the championship,” he explained.
“Just one play Coach,” he begged. “One play is all I want. If I screw up, take me right out.”

The coach thought about it for a moment. What harm could it do to put him in on the kickoff?

Georgetown won the toss and elected to defer to the second half, allowing the coach to put the kid on the field right away. The kick sailed two yards deep into the end zone. The receiver elected to run it out but only made it to the five yard line. Boom! The big strapping tackle greeted the kick receiver and dropped him in his tracks.

True to his word, the kid got up and ran off the field. Coach Little had kept his end of the bargain; now he would keep his. All he wanted was one play. As he ran off the field, Coach Little signaled for him to stay on the field.

On the first play from scrimmage, the opposing quarterback called an audible and handed the ball off to his big bruising fullback who dove off tackle on a trap play, aimed right at this young man. He fought off the block, tossing the pulling guard to the ground. Boom! He greeted the 240 pound fullback and dropped him in his tracks. He hit him so hard that the kid was hauled off the field.

That afternoon saw that young man make 15 unassisted tackles. He made 12 assisted tackles. He caused one fumble and recovered another. The clincher was the pass that he intercepted and returned for Georgetown’s winning touchdown. By any standards, that was a terrific year and he did it all in one afternoon.

When it was all over and done with and all the celebration had ended in the locker room, the only two remaining were Coach Little and the young man, standing there awkwardly looking at one another.

The coach said, “Son, I owe you an apology. I thought I was a pretty fair judge of character. Never have I seen you perform the way you performed today. Have I judged you so poorly?”

“Coach, you knew my dad died,” the boy said. “You knew my dad was blind.”

“Yes, I’ve seen you leading him around the campus when he used to visit you,” said his coach.

“Today was the first time my daddy ever saw me play.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Coach for All Seasons

I don't know how I missed this little blog piece by New York Daily News sportswriter Flip Bondy. Back on March 20th, he wrote about a recent meeting he had with Head Coach Norries Wilson.

Now this story might seem like it's not much, but I guarantee you it is. I have no idea how much previous Columbia head coaches have done to get the local media interested in the team, but I have a strong feeling Wilson is already light years ahead of most of his predecessors. And this is exactly what we need. We already saw the effect Wilson had on his players on the field last season. And now he's working as a PR advocate for the team as well! I wonder if people realize just what a gem we have in this guy. Every week, I get more and more convinced that Columbia somehow lucked out in getting him. I only hope we can hold on to Wilson long enough before some Big 10 or Pac 10 school comes to grab him.

Now, it's true that winning seasons will be the best draw for the media, but as the Mets in the early 80's proved, the marketing infrastructure MUST be there first if anyone is going to notice.

In Bondy and his cohorts' defense, you can understand how Columbia's regular diet of losing records could be less than interesting fodder for your average reporter. Plus, when I worked in local news in NYC in the late 90's, my colleagues often complained to me about how difficult previous Columbia athletic department officials made it for them to get media credentials and other access. But the new regime is apparently much more accommodating. So it looks like both of those excuses are fading away.

Take it from me, even in the "city that never sleeps," Saturday's can be a challenge for a local news producer. Sometimes I would be downright hurting for stories to fill the half hour. The idea of sending a general assignment reporter to a well-attended Columbia game to get some color from the crowd, etc., is one of the better "time-killer" options most weekend producers get. This is especially true once the baseball season is over and Saturday's in local New York sports get pretty quiet.

And while last season's 5-5 team deserved more attention, the media coverage of the Lions during the strong period of 1994-96 was good, at least locally. And there were a lot of national stories on the team when it started 6-0 in 1996. At the Princeton game in particular that year, I remember lots of local reporters covering the game, (unfortunately, that game turned out to be the Lions' first loss of the season, but it sure was beautiful day).

So thank you Coach Wilson for your efforts. And rest assured, if you keep building it... they will come.

"The Freshman" & the "Old Alum" Talk Spring Practice!

My two favorite Columbia fans are back to discuss the ins and outs of the football offseason. Take it away boys...

The Freshman: Hey, I noticed all the football players heading out on buses this weekend at the crack of dawn when I'm just getting back from hanging out with my buddies at Tom's. What gives?

The Old Alum: It's called spring practice kid... but first let me congratulate you on finally getting into staying out late. Looks like you finally figured out that your suitemates in Carmen were pulling your leg when they told you about the 8PM curfew for freshmen. Too bad it's another three years before you can drink... legally.

The Freshman: Yeah, I love the nightlife baby. But seriously, why are the football players going to practice so early?

The Old Alum: Well, I hear the indignation in your voice baby. I was never much for anything before 3PM myself, but actually this is the only time these boys have to practice before class. You remember class don't you, or are you skipping those these days?

The Freshman: Well, let's just say I'm registered for 5 classes all in lecture halls with at least 50 students.

The Old Alum: 'nuff said kid.

The Freshman: Wait a minute... why all the fuss about practicing now? Aren't the football guys always practicing?

The Old Alum: Far from it, kid. The Ivy League sports authorities are stricter than traffic cops on the New Jersey Turnpike on Memorial Day Weekend, (I'll teach you how to avoid a breathalyzer sometime later), and they regulate practice time strictly. After the football season is over, the players only get this two-week period in April to practice and then it's another 4 months off until training camp in August. You see, it would be a shame if Ivy League athletes were spending too much time practicing and staying fit, while guys like you can skip class, smoke God knows what, and eat more Koronet pizza than I thought humanly possible whenever you want.

The Freshman: How can a college football team keep any kind of continuity with such a haphazard practice schedule?

The Old Alum: Welcome to the world of an Ivy League football coach. Believe me, it's a rougher job than being my AA sponsor. But seriously, these guys can't have real practices, but they can work out in the gym, and work on a few moves the coaches want them to perfect on their own.

The Freshman: Sounds like my 2-credit "independent study" project I'm taking this semester. I plan to bust out a term paper the night before the end of finals.

The Old Alum: Yeah, well that might work in your poetry class kid but the coaches can tell who's been working and who hasn't when summer training camp starts. The dedicated players just stand out. When I was a student taking summer classes, I remember Bob Kent '92, practicing his 3-point stance over and over on South Lawn in the extreme heat. I wasn't surprised when he put up some nice stats the following fall.

The Freshman: Wow, these guys really are dedicated. I wonder if the kids bashing the athletes in the student paper know how hard they work while taking the same classes as the rest of us?

The Old Alum: Trust me, they don't. And they don't want to know either. It's the kind of attitude that will serve them well in the pathetic future that faces them in the real world.

The Freshman: Let's get back to the team. Our QB Craig Hormann tore his ACL this winter. We're dead right?

The Old Alum: Hey, I once did a three-week gig at the Copa with chest pains and a kidney stone the size of Nebraska. Never underestimate the power of a determined athlete. Hormann is healing well and has a good shot at being ready in time for training camp. But if not, remember this Columbia team was all about defense last season. They did the heavy lifting before and they'll do it again if they have to. Besides, the running game is bound to improve and that will take a lot of pressure off Hormann or whoever's under center.

The Freshman: That reminds me, I hear we're bringing a ton of Division IA-caliber players in the fall's freshmen class. We're going all the way baby!

The Old Alum: Man, you blow hot and cold pretty quick kid. Sure we're excited about the recruiting class, but everyone sounds pretty great coming out of high school. Even you got a few pokes on your Facebook page, remember? We'll find out in training camp which freshmen are worth getting really excited about. The good news is: the newcomers know they'll get every chance with this coaching staff. They didn't hesitate putting in freshmen last season and it sure paid off.

The Freshman: I can't believe there are still more than 5 months to go until the season starts. I might even have a girlfriend by then.

The Old Alum: Stranger things have happened.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Seeking Happier Returns

Prosper Nwokocha, Columbia's last kick return threat (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)

25 yards. That's a nice chunk of football real estate to make on one play, unless there's 3 seconds left and you're already down by more than a touchdown. It's also not so impressive if a 25-yard gain represents the longest kick return your team produced in an entire season.

That was the reality for the 2006 Columbia Lions, who averaged just 14 yards per kickoff return and 5.8 yards per punt return. For an offense that struggled mightily in 2006, the weak kick return game offered little help in the way of field position. It's another one of the things that must change in 2007 for the Lions to move up in the Ivy League standings.

On the other side of the ball, the Lions allowed a hefty 22.9 yards per kickoff return with a much more manageable eight yards given up per punt return. The kick coverage stats may have been overlooked by a lot of fans because Columbia didn't allow any kick returns for a TD and none of the big opposing returns ever seemed to really hurt the Lions. But that's more of a testament to the Columbia defense than anything else.

A good example of that was the Cornell game, when freshman returner Bryan Walters had one strong punt return after another; the last one a 27-yarder that gave Cornell the ball at the Columbia 32 with 1:38 left and the Lions ahead by just 21-14. But Drew Quinn picked off Big Red QB Nathan Ford two plays later and the game was over.

To be fair, the Lions made do with what they had last season. The good news was Columbia didn't fumble away even one kickoff or punt in 2006 and that was probably the coaches' main goal for the return team. Just holding on to the ball started becoming the focus midway through the 2004 season when the coaches replaced the speedy Brandon Bowser with the more sure-handed Tad Crawford to handle the punt returns. Bowser was a great wide receiver, especially on the deep routes, but he just wasn't fielding the kicks cleanly with any regularity. The trade-off for Crawford's surehandedness was he never seemed to come even close to breaking one. Crawford averaged just 5.7 yards per punt with a long of 15 yards. Tad also handled more kickoffs than anyone else on the team last year, breaking off that 25-yard season-high return against Yale that turned out to be the meaningless last play of 21-3 loss. Freshman Josh A. Williams did a nice job for a rookie, fielding 8 kickoffs, but only for a 14.2 yard average.

I expect Columbia's offense to struggle at least somewhat again this coming season, and field position will be key. The target will be to average 10 yards per punt return and and 20 yards per kickoff return. But more important than averages, will be the need to have someone who can at least put the fear of God into the opposing coverage teams with someone who can break one at least once in a while.

Among the returning veterans other than Williams, senior cornerback JoJo Smith may be the fastest guy on the team and he was expected to return some kicks last season. But that never happened, and I tend to think Smith will stay off the special teams again this coming season as he has become too important to the defensive backfield.

QB M.A. Olawale was exciting and fast the few times he touched the ball last season, but with starting QB Craig Hormann either just recovering in time to start the season or still recovering on the bench, Olawale is probably too valuable to risk as a returner.

Another option could be senior Tim Paulin, who lost more and more playing time at wide receiver last season and may be hungry to make a contribution on special teams. But one of Paulin's problems last season was holding on to the ball as he had a costly fumble against Georgetown and some tough drops in other games. He may not be worth that kind of a gamble.

Some of the backup running backs like Ray Rangel and Grant Jefferson might get a shot as returners too.

But the best hope may come from the projected recruiting class where football and track star Zack Kourouma is posting 4.4 speed in his senior season. And there are some other potential speedsters in Nico Guitierez, Calvin Otis, and Augie Williams just to name a few. Of course freshman returners, especially punt returners, can make for stomach-churning afternoons on the football field.

Adding to the mystery is the fact that most football teams don't practice full-contact kick returns as much as they'd like. Those of you watching the televised spring game at Oklahoma this Saturday probably noticed that all the punts were fair-caught by rule to avoid injury. I guess having 22 guys running full speed at each other in a scrimmage is never very appetizing for the folks on the training and conditioning staff.

Good Times Past

Columbia's return game has had its stars in recent years. Prosper Nwokocha had a kickoff return for a TD in the season-opening win over Fordham in 2005 and remained a feared weapon for the rest of the season. Travis Chmelka provided a lot of excitement in 2003 with a number of big punt returns. And in 2000 and 2001, star running back Johnathan Reese returned kickoffs with great success.

But for the most part, the last 25 years of Lions history has been mostly about hoping to avoid the worst when it comes to returning kicks. The good news is with the great kicking and punting Columbia is getting from Jon Rocholl, even a slightly better return game would make the Lions special teams one of the best in the Ivies. The door is wide open for someone to take that spot and run with it.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Times Announced

It looks like the game times have been set for Columbia's home games at Wien Stadium this fall, (see below), while the road games are still officially "TBA." Yes, I am bummed that the home opener against Marist will be at 12:30 instead of a night game to avoid the Yom Kippur conflict... but what can you do?

Sat, Sep 15 Fordham at Bronx, N.Y. TBA
Sat, Sep 22 MARIST Lawrence A. Wien Stadium 12:30 p.m.
Sat, Sep 29 Princeton * at Princeton, N.J. TBA
Sat, Oct 06 Lafayette at Easton, Pa. TBA
Sat, Oct 13 PENN * Lawrence A. Wien Stadium 1:30 p.m.
Sat, Oct 20 Dartmouth * at Hanover, N.H. TBA
Sat, Oct 27 YALE * Lawrence A. Wien Stadium 12:30 p.m.
Sat, Nov 03 HARVARD * Lawrence A. Wien Stadium 12:30 p.m.
Sat, Nov 10 Cornell * at Ithaca, N.Y. TBA
Sat, Nov 17 BROWN * Lawrence A. Wien Stadium 12:30 p.m.

I like the idea of continuing to start four of the five home games at 12:30, while allowing the homecoming crowd a little extra time with the 1:30 start versus Penn.

David Brekke (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)

Brekke's Shift

Most high school QB's usually don't last very long at that position in college. And rising sophomore David Brekke joins that group, as he is now listed as an outside linebacker on the Columbia roster.

This wouldn't be worth too much of a mention if it weren't for the fact that Brekke is willing to make the switch to linebacker, where his brother Adam was such a standout player for four years at CU. David Brekke can't do much to avoid being compared to his older brother anyway, but by deciding to join the same linebacking corps, he will invite even more comparisons. To be clear, Adam was a middle linebacker and the OLB position at Columbia has become much more like a safety slot, but I think this takes guts. I just hope the younger Brekke's friends and family, and all the Columbia fans, give him the chance to be his own player while recognizing how tough it is to live up to an older sibling's reputation. But David has already won my added respect for taking on the challenge. (And if he turns out to be 75% of the player his brother was, the Lions will be the big winners).

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Death of a Legend

Eddie Robinson (1919-2007)

Most football fans outside of the South don't know enough about what the late Eddie Robinson meant to the college game over the years. Even people who only briefly met him felt his presence pretty closely for many years. One of those people was Columbia Head Coach Norries Wilson, who talked about his memories of Robinson with the Hartford Courant.

The Courant went on to compare Wilson to Robinson, something that probably humbles the Lion coach quite a bit:

"Robinson's accomplishments on and off the field are not lost on Wilson, who knocked down one barrier after another last year in his first season at Columbia. He became the first black head coach in the Ivy League and the first Columbia coach to win his debut since 1957. The Lions finished 5-5, the first time the program has been at .500 or better since 1996."

Maybe Norries Wilson can become the "Eddie Robinson of the Ivies" and encourage more black players to come to play not just at Columbia, but at all of the eight schools.

Passing the Torch

Austin Knowlin scores his first collegiate TD vs. Fordham, 2006 (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)

The previous post's "Let's Make Some New History" theme isn't something that should only be applied to Columbia's won-lost record. There are a number of individual Lion records that have stayed records for a long time... too long in my opinion. And the benchmarks that I'd really like to see eclipsed sometime soon are the receiving records.

As much as I'd like to see Jordan Davis rush for 1,500 yards next season, I don't see that as very likely. It's much more likely that the Lions will rely on the pass more than the run again this coming season. And with Ivy League Rookie of the Year Austin Knowlin returning to the lineup, the sooner some of these receiving records go by the wayside, the better.

All the game, season, and career wide receiving marks at Columbia are, or should be, vulnerable. In particular, the career mark for catches held by Don Lewis is a paltry 176 that rising sophomore Austin Knowlin should take a serious crack at breaking over the next three years. In fact, with 44 grabs in his freshman season last year, Knowlin is right on target to match that total of 176 by the end of his senior year. This is not to take anything away from Lewis, who made his mark in just three seasons as one of John Witkowski's primary targets. His single-season record for catches is a much more impressive 84, set in 1982.

Lewis also holds the single-season Columbia mark for yards receiving at an even 1,000. Knowlin could break that record too in any one of his remaining three years at CU.

A tougher nut to crack will be Bill Wazevich's record for 214 yards receiving in a game. That record has stood for 40 years, despite two very close calls in the 1980's when Terry Brown put in a 207-yard day against Cornell in 1988 and Bill Reggio logged 203 yards receiving in 1983 against Bucknell. (Wazevich was Columbia great Marty Domres top target, and a great guy by all accounts. He died in 2002 at the way too early age of 54).

Another rough one is Bert Bondi's record for most catches in a single game, which stands at 14. Bondi made that mark in a thrilling win over Cornell in the magical 1996 season.

But overall, Knowlin has a shot to break at least one or two of these records, and if he does it will mean more to the team's overall success than the impressive, but less effective marks set by guys like Reggio and Lewis.

Monday, April 02, 2007

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.

New Coaches

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.