Friday, July 31, 2009

Day 51: Andrew Kennedy '11

Andrew Kennedy has a lot of experience for a rising junior (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Even in this age of no freshman football, the fact that Andrew Kennedy has appeared in all 20 varsity games of his first two years at Columbia is pretty remarkable for a tight end.

Kennedy came to the Lions in 2007 from Staples High School in Connecticut where he was mostly known as a fierce defensive lineman.

A number of injuries to then-senior tight end Jamal Russell '08 in '07, gave the freshman Kennedy some rare playing time at his position. He finished the season with nine catches for 72 yards.

Kennedy got off to a fast pace last season with four catches for 43 yards and a TD, (Columbia's first TD of the '08 season), against Fordham, but finished below that four-catch-per-game pace with 23 receptions for 183 yards and that one touchdown.

But what the stats don't tell you is anything about the several acrobatic catches Kennedy has made so far in his collegiate career. I have never seen a tight end grab balls out of the air like Lynn Swan, but Kennedy has done that a number of times already.

I don't know how much you can value the preseason All Ivy picks in the football magazines, but Kennedy should be proud that he made Phil Steele's All Ivy Second Team this year.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Day 52: Mario Loya '92

Older brother Javier points out little bro Mario (CREDIT: Columbia College Today)

Mario Loya had the unhappy job of having to replace the great Matt Less '90 at tight end, but he managed to carve out a nice space for himself in Columbia history.

Loya wasn't exactly lonely when he arrived on campus in 1988. His older brother Javier Loya '91, who has gone on to become a part owner of the Houston Texans, was already on campus and on the varsity football team.

Two other older brothers were also college football stars, including Raul Loya who starred for Rice and then later played for the Houston Oilers.

The Loya boys all came from El Paso where they starred at W.H. Burgess High School. Mario was star at tight end and defensive end, but getting most of his All City and All District awards for his defensive play.

Mario was a big part of the 1988 freshman team that went 4-2, winning its last four games against Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and Cornell. Loya was mostly impressive as a blocker, but he had a big day with a TD reception against the Big Red in the 14-9 win that served as the '88 season finale.

As a varsity starter, Loya enjoyed just three wins in 30 games, but he made a great impression on the opposing coaches in his senior season of 1991, earning Honorable Mention All Ivy honors.

Today, Mario is at Westport Asset Management in Connecticut.

Day 53: Mark Milam

Milam made history at Hofstra's Shuart Stadium

Mark Milam '86 came to Columbia in 1982 from what was then a high school powerhouse program, Point Loma High School in San Diego.

Milam had football in his blood, as his dad was a tailback for Cal-Berkeley in the late 1930's to early 1940's.

At 6-foot-3 and a little over 200 pounds, Milam did well as a blocking tight end, but only caught 7 passes for 58 yards. Then Head Coach Bob Naso put him into the varsity lineup early in the '83 season with the hope that he would improve his receiving abilities.

For the next three seasons, Milam would do just that. His one year with John Witkowski '84 at the helm was quite productive, even though he had to play back-up to Dan Upperco '85 much of that year.

In a classic 31-31 tie against Bucknell at Hofstra's Shuart Stadium, Milam made Columbia history with a 93-yard TD reception from Witkowski that still is the longest reception in Lion history and tied for 6th all time in the Ivy League. The was especially amazing because it was tipped twice before it landed in Milam's hands.

Upperco and Milam remained a handful for opposing defenders in the '84 season, as Milam had 26 catches for 230 yards as a junior, (Upperco had 38 for 489, giving Columbia 64 catches and more than 700 yards from the TE position).

When Milam got the tight end spot for himself in 1985, his weight was up to 235 pounds and he made the most of it. He finished with 35 catches for 323 yards to lead the team. Milam also grabbed 2nd Team All Ivy honors despite playing for an 0-10 that was probably the weakest Columbia squad during the losing streak years.

1982-85 may have been especially lean years for Columbia football, but thanks to Upperco and Milam, they were years of plenty at tight end.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Day 54: Mike Telep

Mike Telep strikes a pose today

I'm a little late with this, but week one opponent Fordham has five players on Phil Steele's college football preview's All-Patriot League preseason team.

Four of them are on the second team, but the sole first-teamer should be no surprise to Lion fans: Xavier Martin. The rising junior has been the #1 reason for Columbia's losses to the Rams the last two seasons. Stopping him or as they say, containing him, will be a key to victory in The Bronx this September.

Another interesting note is that second-teamer Jordan Bledsoe is moving from the offensive line to the defensive line this season. A number of key seniors on D-Line graduated last May and I had been wondering if Head Coach Tom Masella had a plan to replace them. Apparently, he needed to borrow from the offense.

Fordham opens its 2009 season just 40 days from now at the University of Rhode Island on September 5th.

Mike Telep '75

When Mike Telep came to Columbia in 1971 from the Cleveland suburb of Parma, Ohio he was already a great size for that time at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds.

His timing wasn't great. He was just a year too young to be a part of that great '71 varsity team, and his three years at that level were tough in the win-loss category.

But like so many great Columbia players of the past, Telep performed so well that the opposing coaches couldn't ignore him. He made Honorable Mention All Ivy as a sophomore in '72 and 1st Team All Ivy as a junior in '73.

Under new Head Coach Bill Campbell Telep's role diminished somewhat and the 1-8 Lions didn't place even one offensive player on the 1st or 2nd All-Ivy team.

Even though his '73 stats were better, Telep's best year was that '72 season when Columbia came into the year favored by many to win the Ivy League. He teamed with wide receiver Jesse Parks to give QB Don Jackson some great steady targets.

Today, Telep is back in Ohio where he is active in local government and hosts a regular Bible study class.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Day 55: Fletch Lived!

Wade Fletcher with the Giants

You could really make the argument that Columbia has never had a more dominant tight end than Wade Fletcher '05 in 2003. At 6-foot-7 and 242 pounds, Fletcher was a massive target who terrorized defenders and stood even taller in the clutch.

Fletcher was a transfer student from Northern Colorado Junior College, and thus had to sit out the entire 2002 season by rule.

In '03 he was more than ready to go as he and QB Jeff Otis '05 got into a good rhythm immediately in the week one close loss to Fordham. In that game, Fletcher had 6 catches for 104 yards and a TD.

The following week he just 5 grabs for 73 yards, but that included a 31 yard TD reception where he sneaked away from the entire Bucknell defense in the 19-16 Lion win.

Then came week 3 against Princeton and what would become one of the most memorable moments in Columbia football history. With the score tied at 27 and just a few seconds left, Otis heaved a Hail Mary pass into a crowd in the end zone and Fletcher came down with it for a 49 yard TD. Fletch had another super game in the 16-13 win over Harvard later in the season as he had 9 receptions for 107 yards.

Fletcher finished the year with 59 catches for 874 yards and 9 touchdowns. He still had to settle for 2nd Team All Ivy honors.

Then came the preseason injury that ruined much of the 2004 season for Fletcher and kept Columbia from who knows how many more wins in that disappointing season. He still had 52 catches for 575 yards, but only two TD's.

After Columbia, Fletcher got a shot to make the New York Giants and he did latch on to the practice squad for a time, but he didn't get on the field in a regular season game.

Ever since he graduated in 2005, Columbia has been looking for a truly "go-to" tight end. He casts a big shadow even now.

Day 56: Bert Bondi

Bert Bondi came to us from De La Salle Collegiate outside Detroit

Tight end Bert Bondi '99 wasn't as much of a key part of the 1996 8-2 Lions team as Brian Bassett was for the 1994 squad... but he was damn close. And he also owns a nice piece of the Columbia record book.

Bondi came to Columbia in 1995 from Sterling Heights, Michigan and De La Salle High School where he was a standout defensive player. Head Coach Ray Tellier first envisioned Bondi fitting in at outside linebacker, but when he broke into the varsity starting lineup in '96, he was moved to tight end.

Bondi make a great impression right away, catching 48 passes for 483 yards and three touchdowns. He scored a key touchdown in the opening win over Harvard and kept it going from there.

His biggest game was the week 9 win over Cornell where he caught a team record 14 passes, (that's still the record), two of them for touchdowns.

Bondi's '96 numbers were somehow not good enough for any All Ivy honors, but that changed his junior year when he caught 39 passes for 516 yards and three TD's. For 1997, he was 1st Team All Ivy.

1998 saw Bondi splitting his time at tight end with some of the younger guys coming up through the program, but he still tied for the receiving lead on the team with 30 catches for 315 yards and he grabbed Honorable Mention All Ivy accolades.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Day 57: The Spirit of '94

Columbia will be back on YES

I've written a lot on this blog over the years about how the 1994 Columbia season was the result of fantastic play by QB's Mike Cavanaugh '96 and Jamie Schwalbe '95, and defensive standouts Marcellus Wiley '97 and Rory Wilfork '97.

But 1994 could not have happened without a player I and too many others don't mention enough: Tight End Brian Bassett '95.

Bassett came to Columbia in 1991 from Acton, Mass. where he attended Acton-Boxboro Regional High before doing a postgrad year at New Hampton Prep. During his high school career at both schools, he played QB and never caught a pass in his life before then Head Coach Ray Tellier switched the growing Bassett to tight end.

As a sophomore, he showed he could make the transition with 9 catches for 128 yards in his backup role.

In 1993, Bassett did double duty as starting tight end and punter and did a solid job in both roles, leading the team with 34 receptions for 398 yards and two TD's. He averaged 33.2 yards per punt.

By 1994, it was clear Bassett needed to focus on his tight end job, and week after week he posted the big numbers that proved he was on his game.

It started with his first 100-yard game in the 39-32 heartbreaker loss to Harvard at Wien Stadium in week one. It reached a personal high point three weeks later when he had 158 receiving yards in a 24-13 win over Fordham in The Bronx. He had another 100-yard game with 104 receiving yards against Yale two weeks later in a 30-9 Lion win at the Bowl.

Bassett finished the '94 season with 62 grabs for 793 yards and three touchdowns. He was 1st Team All Ivy and an Honorable Mention All-American.

Bassett was also an academic All-American in multiple years for the Lions.

Columbia on YES

The YES Network has now announced that it will broadcast the October 31st Yale at Columbia game. It's been awhile since the Lions were on YES at home, (I think 2005 was the last time), so this is nice.

Rough News

And there is some sad news to report today about former Columbia football and baseball hero Ed Backus. I will refrain from any further editorial comment, but I am disheartened by these developments.

Day 58: Less was More

Matt Less Today

Matt Less '90 came to Columbia in 1987 from Arizona, after his family moved from Iowa just before his senior season in high school. The Less family's itinerance may have been the reason why the other Ivy schools missed him, because by the time Matt was done he had done a number on the Lion record book.

Less came along slowly at tight end, but finally started marking people notice his junior year when he became the favorite target for most of the many Columbia quarterbacks that season. He scored the first TD in the famous streak-ending win over Princeton in '88 on a nice reception in the second quarter. He finished that historic day with 7 catches for 70 yards.

But it was his senior year when Less ripped up so many standing Columbia records. First, he caught a Lion record 13 passes in a 24-21 loss to Penn in week 4. Then he went on to snag 61 catches for 707 yards and 6 TD's. That was good enough for 1st Team All Ivy honors despite playing for a 1-9 team.

Today, Less is one of many of his teammates who are or were high school head football coaches. Matt guided the Lake Forest Academy, (in a tony suburb of Chicago), squad for 12 years until stepping down last year. He still heads up the school's math department, proving scholarship and athletics still mix after an Ivy sports career.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Day 59: The Head Hog

The Head Hog

George Starke '71 came to Columbia in 1967 fully expecting to be through with football withing a couple years and concentrating on his studies and big-time career plans after that.

It didn't turn out that way.

A heavily recruited lineman, Starke got offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Illinois, Syracuse and Virginia before deciding that Columbia was the best place for him because he expected to quit sports anyway.

Two years later, he was the Lions biggest lineman at 245 pounds, doubling as the starting center on the nationally-ranked basketball team, and lobbying hard for the tight end job that he finally convinced Head Coach Frank Navarro to give him for the 1969 season.

Starke's senior season was his best, creating great running lanes outside the numbers and grabbing 11 passes for 185 yards. He just missed out on the spectacular 1971 season, but many Columbia insiders say he was one of the players who helped pave the way.

He was drafted by the Redskins in the 11th round, released and then finally made it back to the team for the '72 season.

He was still starting for the offensive line in 1982 when the Skins won their first Super Bowl title and he became the leader of the famous "Hogs."

I interviewed George during halftime of the Towson game last year and he lived up to his reputation as a great conversationalist. He also spent most of the interview rubbing his obviously oft-operated on leg, which was clearly aching in the damp weather that evening.

Today Starke runs the Excel Institute, which he founded. It's a school with a training program that provides $20,000 in annual scholarships for vocational training in the field of automotive technology for at-risk youth and adults. It's not a hand out, but a place where people learn a trade. What a concept!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Day 60: Upperco's Upper Hand

Dan Upperco Today

There are a few pieces of news I've neglected to mention over the past few days of keen interest to Lion fans.

Army and Notre Dame have agreed to resume their rivalry with games at the new Yankee Stadium.

I think this is a great development for college football in New York City. The question is: will this be a good development for Fordham and perhaps by extension, Columbia?

There was talk when Fordham announced the shift to athletic scholarships for football that the ultimate goal was to get some home games at Yankee Stadium and reap the potential big-time revenues from games with Army, Navy, and perhaps Notre Dame, (although that game would almost definitely have to be in South Bend, I can't imagine the Irish agreeing to travel for Fordham).

The Army-Notre Dame deal may or may not hurt Fordham's chances.

On one hand, it may crowd out the Rams if Army grabs whatever dates are available on the Yankee Stadium schedule, and if they force up the price Fordham would have to pay to use the field.

On the other hand, the folks in charge of the Stadium may find that football works well at the venue and try to keep the field in use as much as possible in hopes of paying back the considerable number of bondholders who financed the very expensive facility. Fordham might be the beneficiary of some free beta testing here.

IF Fordham does end up clinching some home dates at Yankee Stadium in the future, and IF the Columbia-Fordham rivalry continues for the coming years, I know I would be thrilled to see the Lions and Rams hook up at the big stadium in the Bronx. Even if a scholarship-strengthened Fordham becomes a University of New Hampshire-type powerhouse, I think it may be worth it to play them if we get a Yankee Stadium date.

That's just my opinion... and a lot of wishful thinking.

I know I have written a lot about Old Dominion's launching of a football program already, but check out this page and click on the link that shows an animated video of what they expect gameday to be like on a typical Saturday in Norfolk. These guys have the right idea. Sorry to be so interested in ODU, but this is my childhood we're talking about here. AND, you gotta love a school starting football in these economic times. Gutsy, and smart. Season tickets are already sold out.

And yes, I would love to see Columbia start playing ODU sometime in the future. That would be a lot of fun.

100 Players in 100 Days, the Tight Ends

Dan Upperco '85 came to Columbia in 1981 from Orlando's Boone High school where he was an all-state player. His brothers were football stars too, one of them played at U. of Miami, another at Tulane and a third one at the University of the South.

Upperco had the very good fortune of being at Columbia when John Witkowski '84 was the QB. In his sophomore year of 1982 Upperco platooned at tight end with James Powell '83, but he still made Honorable Mention All Ivy with 26 catches, 377 yards and an incredible 6 touchdowns catches. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he was huge for a tight end at that time.

In '83, Upperco made 1st Team All Ivy and put up more monster numbers, but it was his senior year -- after Witkowski had graduated, that may have been Dan's most impressive achievement.

Working with new QB Henry Santos '86, Upperco still managed to lead the team in receiving with 38 catches for 489 yards. He once again made 1st Team All Ivy.

Upperco got a chance to crack the L.A. Raiders roster, (yes, they were in Los Angeles then), but never really made it as a regular player.

Today, Upperco is vice president of NFL Players Association Retired Players organization.

If all goes well, I hope to interview him during halftime of one of this coming season's games.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Day 61: RB from the OC

Ray Rangel takes the carry (COURTESY: Columbia Athletics)

Ray Rangel '10

The enormous improvement in Columbia's running attack last year, not just compared to 2007 but compared to the many seasons beforehand, was truly a group effort.

The great running stats for QB's Millie Olawale and Shane Kelly, may leave people forgetting how much rising senior Ray Rangel helped the team and has improved since his freshman year.

Looking at Rangel's stats doesn't really tell much of the story, but he did improve to 329 yards rushing last season and posted a 3.6 yards per carry average, up slightly from 2007.

Ray stood out in a few goaline situations, where he found a way to squeeze through the little holes and get scores. He scored the first TD's in both of Columbia's two wins against Dartmouth and 2008. Also against Dartmouth, he put together a great run after a short dump-off pass to ice the game late in the fourth quarter.

All this from a 5-9 , 180 pound guy whose first love was playing hockey not far from the Duck Pond in Anaheim.

Ray came to Columbia in 2006 after his Servite High School team won a tough conference championship his senior season.

I don't know who, if anyone, will be the featured back in the Columbia offense this season. It could be a more spread-out team effort again this season. But Rangel has already contributed a lot to the team in his three seasons and I would not be surprised to see him back in the mix in 2009.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Day 62: The Reese Express

Reese had a cup of NFL coffee with the Jets

Johnathan Reese '02

Every once in a awhile, I wonder: did Johnathan Reese really play at Columbia? Did we really have a back that big, that fast, and that good on this team?

Of course the answer is "yes," but anyone who remembers seeing Reese play knows what I mean.

The St. Louis native came to Columbia thanks to his connections with his older cousin Kirby Mack '02, (he took a medical year), and some good recruiting by Head Coach Ray Tellier.

Reese made an immediate impact in his first game, rushing for 72 yards in limited duty in the Lions 24-0 shutout over Harvard in '98 season opener. From that point on, the Columbia coaches struggled to find the best ways to use Reese as much as possible.

That wasn't always easy with veteran runner Norman Hayes '99 getting most of the carries, but by 1999 Reese was getting a fair amount of touches as a rusher and receiver.

Still, Columbia's opponents knew Reese was coming and they stacked the line against him so much in his sophomore year that ended up with just 607 yards and 6 TD's that '99 season.

Then came the magical 2000 season, perhaps the most impressive individual year any Lion ball carrier has ever had.

Reese served notice around the league with a 180-yard performance against Fordham in a 43-26 win over the Rams at Wien Stadium.

Three weeks later against Lafayette at home, Reese's 201 yards paced the Lions in a 47-22 win.

And two weeks after that Reese had the ultimate game, a 236-yard performance against Dartmouth where he not only broke the single game Columbia rushing record, he came within just a few yards of the all-time career record which he broke the following week at Yale.

Reese finished 2000 with 1,330 yards, a 5.0-yards-per-carry average and 19 touchdowns.

Reese had a bullseye on his back again in the 2001 season, and he finished with just 967 yards and 8 TD's, but one of those scores was a 33-yarder on 4th and 4 in the fourth quarter to beat Cornell 35-28 in Ithaca... easily one of the most exciting moments in Lion history.

Reese currently holds many Columbia records, including that career rushing figure of 3,321 yards which is more than 1,300 yards greater than Lou Kusserow's total at #2.

After Columbia, Reese had some chances to break in with some NFL teams. His best chance came with the Jets, but nothing much ever seriously materialized.

But Reese's years at Columbia were real and they will never be forgotten.

Day 63: Solo Survivor

Coach Mac brought Solo to CU... but couldn't find many more like him

Solomon Johnson '92

Greg Abbruzzese's running mate for four seasons at Columbia was the speedy Solomon Johnson, who began wowing the crowds at Wien Stadium as a Lion Cub freshman in 1987.

Johnson, or "Solo" as they called him, came to Columbia from East Orange, New Jersey where he grew up the son of a football coach and starred at Montclair Kimberley Academy in football, lacrosse, basketball and the school's jazz band.

As a frosh he led the '87 Lion Cubs to their first ever 6-0 season, rushing for 836 yards in those six games and scoring an amazing 16 touchdowns. His best game as a first-year was a 38-carry, 198-yard, 3-TD performance against Dartmouth.

As a sophomore on the varsity, Johnson had to split time with Abbruzzese in the backfield and they both had giant bullseye's on their backs for opposing defenses. In a close week 3 loss at Penn, Johnson was knocked out cold by the Penn defense as he was about to score the tying TD in the fourth quarter.

But he bounced right back the next week, helping the Lions end their 44-game losing streak with the stirring Homecoming win over Princeton.

Later in the year against Lehigh, Solo ripped off 179 yards in a loss.

Johnson finished 1988 with 707 yards rushing, which was good enough for 5th all time at Columbia at that time.

Then came the fateful 1989 season, where just a few weeks after Abbruzzese was lost for the year with a preseason injury, Johnson also had a season-ending injury.

He returned in 1990, but then Head Coach Ray Tellier was emphasizing passing by that time and he never dominated the offensive scheme again at CU.

Solo was more healed for his 5th year senior campaign of 1991, and he ended up leading the team with 522 yards rushing and a 5.0 yards-per-carry average on the year. That season he also became the 3rd Columbia rusher to gain over 200 yards in one game, a 221-yard performance against Lehigh that was good for second all time in Columbia history at that point, (now third).

When I interviewed the man who recruited him, former Head Coach Larry MacElreavy, he told me if he had a few more Solomon Johnsons, Columbia would have won the championship every year.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Day 64: Dr. W. & a Speedy Prospect

Bisi Ezekoye is reporting that impressive Maryland high school prospect Ndubisi “Bisi” Ezekoye has been offered a spot on next year's Columbia football team. But don't get too excited. Ezekoye reportedly has tons of other offers already from Army, Connecticut, Virginia, Vanderbilt, Duke, Harvard and Cornell... and there may be more.

His coach at his high school in Silver Spring, MD, (yet another town where I used to live), says he thinks Ezekoye could be president one day. He's that good a student and an athlete.

Folks don't like when I set odds on this site, but I would say Ezekoye is a long shot recruit for just about every school that isn't a BCS program.

I hope I'm wrong.

Russ Warren, 2nd from left joins Al Butts, Robert Kraft and Bill Campbell at the Ivy Football Association dinner (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Russ Warren '62

There are a few great Columbia players of the past that I routinely kick myself for not writing about enough on this blog.

It's usually because I don't have all the time I'd like or the news of the day just crowds them out.

Russ Warren, a major cog in the 1961 Ivy championship team is one of those players. And if you think he was impressive on the football field, just wait.

First the football. Warren came to Columbia from North Hatfield, Massachusetts where he starred at Northhampton High. By the time he was a senior at CU he was big for a running back at that time at 6-1 and 195 pounds.

In '61, he, Tom O'Connor '63, and Tom Haggerty '62 made up an all-Massachusetts native running back corps. Going into the final Ivy league game of that year, the three combined for more than 1,200 yards and more than 5 yards per carry.

Columbia demolished Penn in that game 37-6, thanks in part to a Warren TD, and clinched a tie for the Ivy title.

Warren and Haggerty ended up on the All Ivy first team, along with their excellent blockers Tony Day '63 and Bob Asack '62.

Warren was also a great punter, and he held some Ivy and Columbia punting records for several years.

Warren was drafted in the 25th round of the AFL draft by the New York Titans, but he was finished with football.

That's because after college, Warren became a real star as one of the nation's leading orthopedic surgeons. In addition to become the N.Y. Giants team physician, Warren became the surgeon-in-chief at the prestigious Hospital for Special Surgery.

Warren was inducted into the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame on October 2, 2008.

Day 65: Optimal Option

Welcome to Camp Cavanaugh!

Just a reminder that Ivy League Media Day is this August 11th, (26 days away), and it will be a teleconference instead of a face-to-face event at the Yale Golf Club.

Over the past two years, there has been a live online broadcast of the event, but I'm not sure that will happen this year.

The big news we all like to see on media day is the release of the preseason Ivy poll by the members of the media. I will try to get and post that list as soon as it's released.

Mike Cavanaugh '96

Technically, Mike Cavanaugh was a quarterback, and while he was never a subpar passer, it was his prowess as a runner that made him so memorable at Columbia. His efforts in 1994 were the single biggest factor in delivering the Lions their first winning season in 23 years.

Cavanaugh was a star QB at Bishop Foley High School in Troy, Michigan, but then Head Coach Ray Tellier wanted to put the 6-foot 195-pounder at wide receiver. In his sophomore season, an injury to Chad Andrzejewksi '94 thrust Cavanaugh into the emergency starter role and he paid some benefits immediately with two TD's in a win over Cornell at Ithaca. Mike also returned punts that season!

In '94 he and passing QB Jamie Schwalbe '95 shuttled at QB, and most weeks it really worked.

It started working big time in week 2 against Lehigh. Cavanaugh finished with 110 yards on just 9 carries, including TD runs of 50 and 27 yards. The game ended in a 28-28 tie when Lehigh blocked what would have been the winning PAT.

The following week Cavanaugh was even more spectacular, rushing for 188 yards on 12 carries with TD runs of 33 and 24 yards.

Columbia won again the following week at Fordham on the strength of a key 24-yard TD run by Cavanaugh.

By then, the Ivy League was sitting up and taking notice, and Cavanaugh's chances to run started to get squeezed. But he still made the most of his attempts and finished 1994 with 622 yards on 108 carries for a 5.8 yards per carry average and 6 TD's.

Because he was not a pure QB or running back, Cavanaugh didn't even make honorable mention All Ivy, still one of the most stinging omissions for Columbia fans to accept even after all this time.

Cavanaugh moved effortlessly into the single QB system in 1995 after Schwalbe graduated. He had the Columbia offense humming with a 22-points per game average and plenty of passing to compliment his running. The highlight of 1995 came against Penn, as Cavanaugh scored a long running TD to spark a 24-14 win. Two weeks later against Yale in a heavy rain storm, he calmly squeezed 21 points out of his Lion mates in a 21-7 win.

Then came the horrific leg break against Princeton and Columbia's march to a potential Ivy title came to an abrupt end.

Because he missed the last 3 1/2 games, Cavanaugh was relegated to the Honorable Mention All Ivy team, another real snub that still hurts.

Mike is currently spending some time this summer coaching at a free youth summer football camp run by his father and many of his other relatives who all played collegiate football, (including his brother John '01, who played at Columbia).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Day 66: What They Think of Us & Mike Goldman

The Sporting News has come out with it's preseason predictions for the 2009 Ivy Season. Here's how they see it:

1. Harvard
2. Penn
3. Yale
4. Brown
5. Princeton
6. Columbia
7. Cornell
8. Dartmouth

Phil Steele's preseason magazine has it like this:

1. Harvard
2. Penn
3. Princeton
4. Columbia
5. Brown
6. Yale
7. Cornell
8. Dartmouth

And as Bruce Wood of the Big Green Alert Blog points out, Steele is bullish on a large number of returning Lion players, putting a total of 8 of them on his first or second All-League teams, behind only the 9 total players he acknowledges from Harvard and Penn.

The 8 Columbians recognized are actually 7, because Austin Knowlin made it as wide receiver and a punt returner. The others are:

Lou Miller-Defense 1st Team

Alex Gross-Defense 1st Team

Andrew Kennedy-Offense 2nd Team

Owen Fraser-Defense 2nd Team

Andy Shalbrack-Defense 2nd Team

Adam Mehrer-Defense 2nd Team

You can see the full release here from

What's my take on these lists?

Let's just say I not only like Phil Steele's final standing prediction more than the Sporting News. BUT I also don't think Harvard is winning the title this year.

As far as the Columbia players getting recognized, you would have to say that Adam Mehrer and Andrew Kennedy stand out as surprises, but nice ones at that.

Mehrer didn't get much publicity for his outstanding season at safety last year and an impressive freshman campaign in 2007. He really deserves to be on that list.

Kennedy hasn't had much of a chance to shine as a pass receiver, simply because that's not how the Lion offense has been structured during his first two seasons. I'm not sure that will change, but his effort has been good and he's provided some spectacular catches in both of his seasons. I'm thinking the folks making that list are betting on Kennedy's potential.

Mike Goldman '84

The John Witkowski years at Columbia were all about passing, right? Well, almost.

In Witkowski's senior year, fellow classmate Mike Goldman had one of the best years for a running back in Columbia history.

Goldman came to Columbia from Evergreen, Colorado but he grew up as a child in nearby Long Island and his dad was a Columbia grad.

Coming off a junior year in 1982 when he carried the ball just 38 times, Goldman was thrust into the number one spot and was used like a John Riggins-style single back for much of 1983.

The Lions were forced to play all their games at neutral sites or on the road that year as Wien Stadium was being built. But it was in one of those tougher road trips that Goldman really stood out.

Against Yale at the Bowl in week 5, Goldman carried the ball 30 times for 120 yards. That helped put the Lions over the top in a 21-18 win. Columbia wouldn't win another ball game for 5 years.

Mike finished the '83 season with 726 yards rushing and a 4.2 yards per carry average. At the time, that was good enough for 3rd all-time for a single season at Columbia.

Day 67: MVP Jackson & a Quickie Scouting Report

Doug Jackson entered the Bristol Hall of Fame in 2006

A lot of us are trying to find out what we can about week 2 first-time opponent Central Connecticut State.

But it doesn't take long to figure out that the Blue Devils are all about running the football.

CCSU ran the ball about 50 times a game last year compared to just about 18 pass attempts per game.

The big ball carrier is rising senior James Mallory, who had 1,520 yards rushing last year, 15 TD's and a 5.3 yards per carry average.

Despite the ball control offense, the Blue Devil defense was not entirely dominant. CCSU gave up about 210 yards passing per game and 19 TD passes in 2008.

It's impossible to truly gauge just how good Central Connecticut is compared to Columbia's Ivy opponents. But it seems like the Blue Devils will be a tougher challenge than teams like Iona or Marist were for the Lions in recent years.

Doug Jackson '76

I have Connecticut on my mind today, so I thought I'd focus on one of Columbia's best ever Connecticut products, Doug Jackson out of Bristol.

Columbia's first-ever Bushnell Cup, (Ivy Player of the Year), winner didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but he really had a breakout season as a senior in 1975. Before that super year, Jackson hadn't been one of the team rushing leaders.

Jackson powered for 914 yards on 174 carries for a 5.3 yards per carry average. He also scored 10 TD's.

His two best games were against Harvard where he had 179 yards in a close loss to the Crimson, and then later in the season when he had 194 yards in a win over Penn. That performance helped the Lions avoid the cellar and clinched the MVP award for Jackson, who also ended up with spots on the All Ivy, All-East, All-ECAC and All-American teams.

Jackson got a chance in the NFL as a back-up/practice squad player for four years with the Cowboys and Giants.

After his playing days, Jackson coached as an assistant at Penn and then back at Columbia before going back to the high school coaching ranks.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Day 69 and 68: Full Backfield

Harper and Oluwole looked liked Mack trucks to most defenders

I was unable to keep up yesterday with the 100 Players in 100 Days pace, mostly because it was just too nice a day not to get outside.

So, you get two players today for the price of one.

Both were big backs who played big roles in surprisingly good seasons for the Lions.

First off, we look at John Harper '96 who came from Cleveland's Garfield Heights High School just in time to play the final year of freshman football in the Ivy League. He caught everyone's eye as a Lion Cub, with some long TD runs against Brown and Penn.

John only had 11 carries as a sophomore, but averaged a hefty 4.7 yards per carry and had a 38-yard run vs. Dartmouth.

As a junior, Harper became the featured fullback in the Lions shuttle offense that alternated passing QB Jamie Schwalbe '95 and running QB Mike Cavanaugh '96.

Somehow Harper didn't get lost in that shuffle and he ran for 417 yards on just 104 carries and score 3 TD's. Combined with the 622 yards Cavanaugh racked up that season, the two made for a formidable backfield.

In 1995 the 6-foot 2-inch Harper bulked up to 240 pounds and kicked it up a notch, running for 526 yards and 11 TD's and landing a spot on the All Ivy Second Team. A highlight for him that season had to be scoring the winning TD with 19 seconds left at Harvard to defeat the Crimson, 28-24. Harper was also a key cog in the 24-14 win over Penn which remains the last time the Lions defeated the Quakers at Wien Stadium.

Harper became so popular that they even made a "Harper Trucking Co." banner on the old electronic message board at Wien and showed it everytime he ran the ball.

Ayo Oluwole '05

One of the most pleasant surprises Columbia has ever had at the running back position came after an unexpected disaster.

Columbia's 2002 leading rusher Rashad Biggers suffered a bad injury in a preseason scrimmage, pushing Ayo Oluwole, a man who had actually quit the team a year before, into emergency starting duty.

Ayo started out nicely with a 61 yard, 4 yards per carry, one TD performance against Fordham in the opener. Then he exploded for 110 yards on 21 carries with another TD in the week 2 win at home against Bucknell.

Ayo played well almost every week in 2003, but his two standout games other than Bucknell were a 166-yard performance in a tough loss to Lafayette and a 138-yard day in a great win over Cornell.

He finished the season with 903 yards rushing, still 4th all-time in Columbia history, and 5 TD's. He was also named to the All Ivy Second Team.

In 2004, Oluwole had to share time with the returning Biggers, and he wasn't able to get back into a rhythm. He finished his senior season with just 304 yards rushing and 2 TD's.

But the exciting 2003 season was due in large part to Ayo's fantastic job coming off the bench and making an impact.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Day 70: "Abba"

A day or two after I first stepped on the Columbia campus as a freshman in 1988, I learned about how the fortunes of the Lion football team were being tightly tied to a speedy runner named Solomon Johnson '92. and a gutty runner with great cutting ability named Greg Abbruzzese '92

I'll write up some memories about "Solo" Johnson on another day, but we'll begin a look at 10 memorable running backs in Lion lore with a reprint below of my recent interview with Greg.


The Abbruzzese clan today

Greg Abbruzzese '92 burst into the mindset of most Columbia fans one October day in 1988, when his standout running darn near brought the Lions a victory at Penn in an nationally televised game on ESPN.

But he and fellow tailback Solomon Johnson '92, had already made a huge impact as freshman on the 1987 frosh team that went 6-0 and brought so much hope at the same time the varsity was still mired in its record losing streak.

Sadly, injuries and some different offensive philosophies kept Abbruzzese and Johnson from shattering the Columbia record books. But for one shining varsity year, 1988, they made some real history.

A week after that close loss to Penn, the tandem made the most history of all as they led Columbia to a stunning 16-13 win over Princeton on Homecoming to end the 44-game losing skid.

Abbruzzese had 182 yards on 37 carries and Johnson scored the winning touchdown in the game that sent the student body into a frenzy.

The following season, both Abbruzzese and Johnson, (known as "Abba" and "Solo"), went down with injuries and things were never quite the same. But both stayed with the program, taking medical red shirt years, and continued to contribute through the 1991 season.

Greg is still a very strong supporter of Columbia athletics and a frequent correspondent of mine over the last few years. He graciously agreed to do the following interview for Roar Lions Roar!

Jake: Describe your high school football career and how you decided to come to Columbia.

Greg: I matriculated to Columbia from Phillips Exeter Academy. I was being recruited by West Point, Boston College and several other Ivies to play football and baseball. After meeting with Coach McElreavy, who was up at Exeter recruiting a few teammates, I played a few VHS tapes, (dating myself), for the coach and then he offered me a slot - providing that I commit on the spot. Naturally, I did ...

J: Obviously, the big story when you decided to come to Columbia was the fact that the Lions were in the midst of that long losing streak. Were you 100% aware of that when you signed on, or was it a secondary thought?

G: Yes, I was aware of the streak, however, that was completely a secondary thought. My education was a priority and football was a distant second.

J: Your freshman team went 6-0, describe what it was like playing for that squad while the varsity was 0-10.

G: I came from a very successful high school program, so our success with the freshman team was seamless. We were looking to bring the momentum from our freshman class to the varsity level during our sophomore year (at the time Freshman could not play on the varsity). Unfortunately, there were a few roadblocks, most notably, Harvard, Penn, Leigh and Lafayette. The "streak" never really affected me, or several other players. The streak was more media hype than something that was actually discussed among my teammates on a daily basis.

J: What was the feeling going into the 1988 season with the streak standing at 41 straight losses at that point?

G: Every year we were looking to improve, yet we had this albatross around our necks. During every interview, it was more of a story than the game at hand.

J: When did you know that you and Solomon Johnson were going to be the featured offensive weapons despite the fact you were both sophomores? Did you have a good healthy competition relationship with "Solo?"

G: Solo and I were (and still are) really good friends. We roomed together on the road and we roomed on campus together as well. We both brought different skill sets to the backfield. At camp (Blair Academy), we were fortunate enough to put together a few good scrimmages and things took off from there. Solomon and I were never jealous of the other's success.

J: The first two games of the '88 season were blowout losses, but then the team, and you in particular, had a breakout near win at Penn on national TV. What are your memories of that game?

G: Well, it was a nationally televised game, so everyone was really excited that their family and hometown could watch them play on TV. I was fortunate enough to have some successes in that game and we kept it close for most of the game. We were starting to be more cohesive as a unit, which built up a lot of momentum toward Princeton.

J: Obviously, the following week was the big streak-ending loss against Princeton. Describe your memories not only from that game but the week of practice leading up to it.

G: It was a Homecoming weekend, so naturally everyone on campus, and the team, was excited. The BIG event leading up to the game was the campus Lip Sync contest at "The Plex" (campus night spot), the Friday night before the game.

(*Editor's note: "The Plex" is no longer, as it was located in the basement of Ferris Booth Hall. While I made many, many mistakes at the also now-defunct West End bar, the only dumb thing I ever did at "The Plex" was enter a 70's dancing contest)

Solomon, Hector Carter, Floyd Ewing, and I performed "Candy Girl" by New Edition and won (my future wife, Laurel, with her Alpha Cho Omega team were runners-up, I must note). The majority of the team was at the event,(breaking curfew), awaiting the results. It was a great way to start the weekend. Princeton, on the other hand, had the Garrett brothers and they were picked to win the Ivies that year. We all wanted to perform well in front of the home crowd and we knew that being so close at Penn, we might have a chance.

J: After the game, you appeared on ABC-TV with Coach Mac, what was that like and what do you remember about the partying on campus the night of the win?

G: After winning the game, we were one of the big (sports) news feeds of the day/week. I was really happy for my teammates and all of the hard work we put in to achieve this goal. There were guys in the locker room crying tears of joy because they almost went all three years without a win. That evening was something that I will never forget... goal posts on Broadway, shutting down a few streets, people were happy for the players, the coaches and the University.

J: The team seemed to sleepwalk through a lot of the remainder of the '88 season, but there were some close games, especially the game at Dartmouth in week 8. Why do you think the team seemed to let down a bit after the Princeton win?

G: The Yale game, (away), was the next game after Princeton. We knew there would potentially be a letdown, but they came at us pretty hard. We just made too many mistakes that they capitalized on immediately after kickoff. The balance of the season was simply losing some key players to injuries, quarterback issues and some bad luck. Fortunately, we beat Brown, with Chris Della Pietra at the helm for the last game of the year and the seniors went out with a win!

J: You finished up the year on a big high note with a great blowout win over Brown where you ran all over the Bears. What do you remember from that game?

G: Yes, the line did a fantastic job and we really came together as a unit. I was fortunate to gain few yards, but was penalized for an end zone dance. I wasn’t sure if the penalty was for excessive celebration, or lack of rhythm? That, by far, was our best executed game as a team.

J: What was the team's psyche and what do you remember best about the events that led to Coach Mac's ouster at the end of the year?

G: You see, there were players that were loyal to Coach Mac, who were recruited by him; and then there were players who were recruited by Coach Garrett, who did not share the same fondness toward him. There were a lot of rumors and behind the scenes things going on that I was not privy to. The transition was difficult for everyone involved.

J: How optimistic were you about the 1989 season during the preceding spring and summer and how devastating was the injury that kept you out of the lineup that season?

G: I worked really hard in the off season to prepare for the new coach. The team had a new direction and we were all excited about the prospects going into that season. Unfortunately, I tore my ACL in pre-season and I decided to take a red shirt year. The injury put a great deal of things in perspective and I was really looking forward to the following year.

J: When you returned to the field in 1990, what was the biggest difference you noticed in the team and what was the biggest difference in the coaching styles of Coach Tellier and Coach Mac?

G: I was still around the program a great deal, so there was not much of a difference with regard to team chemistry or anything like that. The coaching philosophies of Coach Mac and Coach Tellier were, however, vastly different. Coach Mac ran the ball more, whereas Coach Tellier wanted to throw more. Consequently, we didn't necessarily see eye to eye on a few things. I'll leave it at that.

J: The 1991 season seemed to be marked by close loss after close loss, did you guys feel like there were an inordinate amount of bad breaks coming your way?

G: Yes, there was a great deal of bad luck, however, we were making progress by keeping the games close. To me, we were heading in the right direction and that was what was most important.

J: Like Bob Kent, you ended up marrying a CU cheerleader who, like Bob's wife Clare, became an accomplished career woman in her own right. Can you tell us about how you met Laurel?

G: I met Laurel Freshman year of school. She was a cheerleader and I was on the Freshman team. Laurel and I had a lot in common, she went to St. Paul's School and I attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Laurel loved Columbia so much that she earned her Doctorate there and is teaching in the PT program at the Med School campus on 168th street.

J: What did you do right after graduation and how has your career path gone?

G: Upon graduation, I moved to Atlanta with some friends from home. I knew that I always wanted to stay close to athletics and I eventually landed a job at Reebok, in their field marketing department. After a few years in Atlanta, I began working for New Balance in a similar capacity the New York metropolitan area, while going to grad school at NYU. Upon completion of my Masters Degree in Management I became a National Account Manager for New Balance. I left New Balance shortly after earning my degree and then I joined Converse as a Senior Director of National Account Sales, where I am now.

J: Tell us about your family today.

G: Laurel and I have three lovely children and live in Teaneck, NJ. My eldest daughter, Ms. Lydia, is 10 years old. She has a rare genetic condition called “cri du chat”. Basically, her condition is similar to that of a severe Downs Syndrome child. She goes to a Special Needs School, The Felician School for Exceptional Children in Lodi, NJ, and is thriving there. Ms. Emily is 7 years old and is taking up dance like her mother,(they performed in a local production of the Nutcracker a few months ago). Ms. Chloe is 4 years old and enjoys soccer and dance as well, (she was a mouse in the same production of the Nutcracker).

J: Do you get to a fair amount of football games at Columbia nowadays? And what's your impression of the program overall?

G: I manage to get to 1-2 Columbia games a year. It becomes difficult to manage with all of the kid’s different schedules. Nevertheless, no matter where I am, I try and hear the games on the radio or on the net with you and Jerry Recco.

A lot of other fooball alums and I would like to see more progress. If you look at Harvard’s second team, for example, they would probably be ranked 3rd or 4th in the Ivies. It all comes down to getting even more athletes. We have some pieces of the puzzle, but depth is an issue at some key positions. I'd also like to see us get more transfers in the skill positions. NYC is a GREAT recruiting tool, combined with the best education in the country, we should be in contention for the Ivy title.

Day 71: Alex Gross

Alex Gross stalks his prey (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

A nice piece of recognition for Austin Knowlin today as he has been named to the Sports Network FCS All-America First Team as a punt returner.

The full story and roster is on the TSN site here.

Gross Gains

The last linebacker I'll spotlight on our 100 players in 100 days countdown is current standout Alex Gross '11.

The Kettering, Ohio product made a huge splash in his freshman year of 2007, getting into the starting lineup, leading the team in tackles, and finishing the season as Ivy League Rookie of the Year.

The thing is... there were so many players making emergency starts during the great injury riddled campaign of 2007, that I didn't really notice just how good Gross really was until very late in the season.

By week 10 against Brown I did realize he was a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year, but I really almost missed the boat. Incidentally, Gross clinched the award with a 15-tackle performance that day.

Sophomore jinx? Not so much.

Gross led the team and the entire Ivy League in tackles last year with 101 and ended up on the All Ivy First Team at linebacker.

He had his best game in Columbia's best game of the year. In the 17-7 win over Cornell in week 9, Gross had 15 tackles, an interception, a sack, and a pass breakup.

But stats really don't tell the whole story. When Gross is on the field, it seems like opposing ball carriers never have a chance to get around that left end of the Columbia defense. He's also a very disruptive force in the short passing game week after week.

With the graduation of Drew Quinn, I suspect Gross will become the de facto leader of the linebacking corps and I think they're in good hands.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Day 72: Chris Riga

Riga started for 3 head coaches - Naso, Garrett, and MacElreavy

I've written a lot about Matt Sodl '88 on this blog over the years, making a point to admire his fortitude after going 0-30 as a varsity player despite excellent play week in and week out.

But a man who went through the same kind of test with similar overall results despite stellar play was Chris Riga '87.

The Westfield, MA native came to Columbia in 1983 and after an impressive freshman campaign at linebacker and offensive guard, he caught the eye of Head Coach Bob Naso before the 1984 season and was starting a few games by the end of that year.

In 1985 under new Head Coach Jim Garrett, Riga had a standout junior year. He collected 105 tackles and recovered four fumbles. But the Lions stumbled through a rough year, going 0-10 and coming close to victory in just one game, (a 13-10 loss to Bucknell).

When Larry MacElreavy took over as yet another head coach in 1986, he could see that Riga was the team leader and he was indeed elected captain of the squad.

'86 turned out to be another 0-10 season, but Riga made Honorable Mention All Ivy and proved he could stay focused and motivated throughout all the setbacks.

After Columbia, Riga became a decorated officer in the U.S. Army.

His contributions to his country and Alma Mater are very appreciated.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Day 73: Chris Carey

Chris Carey in 2001

Just a little bit of news again today before we continue with the countdown:

1) The real recruiting highlight of the year is just two days away. Columbia's football camp for high school students is at Wien Stadium this Friday and Saturday. A big number of our incoming freshmen the last few years have participated in these camps started when Coach Wilson came to Columbia. This is where we find and truly test our future stars.

2) Two big questions on two other Ivy teams are still unanswered. Harvard to LSU and then back to Harvard QB Andrew Hatch is still not on the roster for the Crimson. With 73 days until kickoff, one has wonder when the cutoff date would be for someone who has already been back on campus for months.

The other big transfer, Stanford's Fred Craig, is still expected to join the Penn Quakers, but his name is also not yet on Penn's roster. I will keep checking.

3) One thing I neglected to mention about Dartmouth yesterday is that the Big Green are also pushing back the start times for most of their home games to 1:30pm. This might allow me to stay home on the Friday night before the game and then maybe hit the road at about 6:30am on gameday. It's another night at home, which is nice... but it also means returning home at about 10:00 or 10:30 Saturday night. I'll have to weigh this one as will some of the CU fans who plan to make the trip in week 6.

Captain Carey

It seems like linebackers have become a font for underclassmen captains at Columbia in recent years. First Rory Wilfork in 1995, then Drew Quinn in 2007, and in between them we had middle linebacker Chris Carey '04 who was elected captain for both 2002 and then 2003.

Carey was a shoo-in for the job after recording 102 tackles in his sophomore year, third-highest in the League for 2001. 80 of those stops came when he posted double figures in six consecutive games against Lafayette, Penn, Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, and Cornell.

Carey came to Columbia from New Jersey's Pingry School and he had a lot of Ivy football pedigree from day one.

Carey’s grandfather Bill attended Columbia and commuted from Connecticut for classes. His uncle Max was a star cornerback and kick returner for the Lions who set several records as a returner in the mid to late 1960's.

Carey’s father, Chris Sr., wrestled for Princeton in the 1970’s.

Carey was a big part of the exciting 2003 season for the Lions, but only for half of it. A concussion kept him out of the lineup for the second half of the season. But before that, he was a big contributor in the heart-stopping 33-27 Hail Mary win over Princeton at Princeton Stadium which had to be a mixed emotional night for the family.

Something tells me that game is Carey's #1 college football memory.

But I could be wrong.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Day 74: John Alex

No golf for me this year

A couple of quick updates from Bruce Wood over at the Big Green Alert:

"1) Long a fixture of early August, the Ivy League preseason football media day is now a thing of the past. At least for this year.

Instead of the annual lunch-and-golf gathering at Yale Golf Club, the Ivy League will conduct a teleconference early next month."

This actually works well for me, as I will not have to take a day off from work to travel to the event. Hopefully, the teleconference will yield some interesting news in addition to the announcement of the preseason media predictions for he final standings.

"2)The Big Green have added an opponent for the 2010 and 2011 seasons
with Sacred Heart University. Dartmouth will host the Pioneers for the 2010 season before playing the following season in Fairfield, Conn. Sacred Heart replaces the University of New Hampshire on the schedule."

An interesting, but probably sad development for a lot of football fans in New Hampshire who loved seeing the annual in-state rivalry. But facts are facts, and UNH is moving closer to becoming a BCS program and this contest hasn't been competitive for a long time.

Bruce Wood reported a few weeks back that Columbia may replace Dartmouth on UNH's schedule, but I have not heard any confirmation of that and I think everyone around the league is considering that a long shot.

Linebacker of the Day

The best things come to those who wait.

And John Alex '89 learned that lesson well during his years at Columbia.

The highly skilled linebacker came to Columbia in 1985 from Overland Park, Kansas at a time when the Lion program was at the bottom and seemed like it could sink no further.

But it did.

Three years later, Alex was beginning his senior season with the real possibility of going through his entire varsity career without a win.

He had to know it could happen, his linebacking mentor Matt Sodl '88 had just graduated suffering that very fate.

Alex made his best efforts, especially in his junior year, to stop the slide. He had 12 tackles in the near upset against Brown late in the season before the refs blew a fumble call that sealed the win for the Bears.

But after grabbing a spot on the Honorable Mention All Ivy team in 1987, John Alex took the leadership role as captain of a team entering the season with a 41-game losing streak.

The Lions stumbled through the first two games in '88, before sorely testing eventual co-champion Penn at Franklin Field.

Then came the big win against Princeton on Homecoming and the wild celebration that ensued. Even though he was not a super star contributor in that particular game, everyone knew Alex was a big reason for the win.

Columbia got one more win that season, and the fact that it was the final game of John Alex's career made it all the sweeter.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Day 75: Manhattan Transfer

Coach Galen Snyder

First off today, make sure you check out the Web site and see the "splash page" that hawks football season tickets.

The page features a good shot of QB Millie Olawale, Roar-EE, and some students in full light blue body paint. (By the way, I never did the full body paint thing... but you gotta respect the kids who do, as long as they are indeed below the age of 30 and 250 or so pounds).

Today's memorable linebacker I'd like to recognize is Galen Snyder '91, who came to Columbia as a transfer from Duke University. During the first two seasons of Head Coach Ray Tellier's tenure, Snyder was the anchor of the defense and showed the signs of being a good motivator and future coach.

The Lions won only two games in Snyder's two varsity seasons of 1989 and 1990, but Snyder had so many standout games that he was named to the All Ivy second team in '89 and the first team in 1990.

Unbelievable tackle totals were Snyder's calling card.

In a 27-12 loss to Bucknell at Wien Stadium in 1989, Snyder was a part of an incredible 35 tackles. No, that's not a misprint, it was 35 tackles in one game!

In a close loss at Penn in 1990, Snyder had 18 tackles.

Snyder was elected team captain before that 1990 season and he has continued that legacy as a team leader. Snyder currently is the head football coach at his alma mater of Pennsbury High School outside of Philadelphia.

None of Coach Snyder's recent grads are playing ball in the Ivies, but there must be no hard feelings at Bucknell over his efforts in the 1989 game because of his players is now with the Bison.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Day 76: Matt Sodl

The author and Matt Sodl, April 2008

Matt Sodl '88 played his heart out during his four years at Columbia, and despite going 0-10 in his senior season, he was named to the All Ivy First Team in 1987.

Once again, there's not much valuable that I could add now to an interview I did of today's subject, so here it is reprinted below:

Matt Sodl, (#65), Makes a Tackle

Longtime readers of this blog are familiar with my special admiration for the seniors on the 1987 Columbia Lions football team. They stuck with the team and worked hard, despite compiling an 0-30 record during their three-year varsity careers, (freshmen were not eligible to play varsity ball back then). 11 players from that '87 team stayed with the program all four years.

The 1984 Lion Cubs, Matt Sodl, #65, is in front

One of the best players on that team and the strongest was defensive tackle Matt Sodl. Matt came to Columbia in 1984 from rural Pennsylvania and made an immediate impact on the freshman team. By his sophomore season he was starting at nose tackle, recording 59 tackles and three sacks.

But as a senior in 1987, Sodl truly broke out as a first-team All-Ivy player (unanimous selection), with 84 tackles, 5 and a half sacks and 10 tackles for a loss.

During Matt's 0-30 varsity run, not many of the games were close. But two of the last three games of his career became some the most excruciating losses in Lion history. Leading at home against Dartmouth by a 10-9 score, the Big Green pulled out a late FG to take the 12-10 lead only to see the Lions return the ensuing kick-off very close to field goal territory. Columbia indeed got into position to try the winning field goal, but it went just wide, (after a 5-yard false start on the first attempt... of course the actual kick hooked just about five yards from the goal post).

Two weeks later against Brown in Providence, a late Bear fumble was nullified by the officials in one of the worst calls in Ivy football history. Brown kept the ball and went in for the winning score in a 19-16 season-ending win.

But Matt Sodl is proud to have played on this team and for Columbia. And he remains a very strong supporter of Columbia football in many ways.

Today Matt is now Managing Director and Co-Founder of Innovation Capital, where he runs the investment banking firm that has a specialty in the gaming, hospitality and entertainment industries. Matt is often quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, BusinessWeek and the Las Vegas Sun and was named to Investor Dealers' Digest's "40 under 40" list in 2006.

Most importantly, he recently appeared as a guest on FOX Business Network.

Matt was good enough to do an interview for ROAR LIONS ROAR.

Jake: Tell us about where you grew up. Football was obviously a big part of life in that part of Pennsylvania, but how many guys thought about going to the Ivies to play ball?

Matt: I attended Whitehall High School which is located in a farm community just outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The school is best known for its famous alum Matt Millen who grew up down the road from my neighborhood. The Ivy League certainly wasn't in the midset of any of us growing up. All we heard about was Penn State, Pitt, West Virginia and Notre Dame. Our high school football program was populated with several Parade All-American players who played at these schools. I remember Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Bo Schembechler visiting our school, walking thru our weight room... I think you get the point. Most of my teammates were focused on playing for Division 1A schools. Of the 17-seniors in my class, I believe 13 of our players went to play football at a Division 1A or 1AA school.

J: Give us some highlights of your high school career on and off the field.

M: Our high school team was all about winning - competing against the largest schools in the state of Pennsylvania. We lost 3 games in 4 years. We had some phenomenal athletes who could really play the game. I played defensive line, was a two-year starter and earned All-State honors my senior season. In the off-season we lifted weights year-round and actually competed as a powerlifting team, (comprised of nearly all offensive and defensive linemen), where we won the Pennsylvania state championships several years in a row. The off-season weight training program was ahead of its time. The offensive line coach expected all of the football players to lift weights year-round - beginning the Monday after Thanksgiving,(right after our last game), and up and through summer camp. It was here in high school – thanks to my coach John Bendekovitz - that I learned the type of work ethic and dedication that it takes to compete and win.

J: How did you come to Columbia? Who recruited you and what was the recruitment process like?

M: The recruiting process at our school was interesting. When the Division 1A schools looked at our game film, they mostly were focused on my team-mate Chris Parker who was a 6-7, 290lb defensive lineman who played next to me. Parker went on to be a Parade All-American and star at WVU. My 5-10, 220lb. frame obviously didn't excite the Division 1A schools. A number of Division 1AA schools – from the Ivy League and Patriot League - recruited me. That was when I met Jim Benedict, Columbia's Freshman Coach at the time. He met with me in our guidance counselor's office and literally unveiled a model of the Wein Stadium. He said the stadium was under construction, that they were playing games in Giants Stadium and invited me for an official visit. Benedict was a class act and on my visit did all he could to keep my parents calm. As you can imagine, the initial idea of their son living in New York City didn't sit too well my parents who had lived their lives in a small farm community in eastern Pennsylvania. Ultimately, I focused on the long-term and felt that an Ivy League education would create many more opportunities for me down the road as opposed to a Patriot League school. In my business today, I don’t come across too many Patriot football alums. But I run across Ivy League football alums all the time.

J: What do you remember about your first training camp and the 1984 freshman football season?

M: Our first training camp was up at Baker Field. It was my first exposure to the infamous bus ride - which in those days was straight through Harlem. Certainly an eye opener for me. Breakfast was a chocolate donut from "Twin Donut" and an orange juice. Hardly the breakfast of champions. In terms of the Freshman team, the diversity of the athletes was quite astounding. We had some great athletes....we also had some offensive linemen who looked as if they'd never seen a squat rack in their lives...a vast departure from my high school days. In all, as a team we developed a bond that was an "us versus the world" mentality. And, while we are the class known for not winning a single game in four years...I'm here to remind you that we did win our very first Freshman game against Lafayette. It may not count in the NCAA record books but it was nice to play near my hometown and get a win.

It is important to note that there were 11 players from that Freshman team that had the fortitude and commitment to play all four years and not experience a win as a varsity player. Each of us handled the tough times in a different manner but all told, we believed that we could win as a team at Columbia. We played through adversity and used that experience to “wins” in our careers and personal lives after we graduated. The names of these 11 players are: Mike Bissinger, Phil Fusco, George Gianfrancisco, Mike Lavelle, Dave Putelo, Nick Leone, John Miller, Tony Natola, Rich Ritter, Paul San Fillipo and Matt Sodl.

J: What was it like adjusting to life on campus and in NYC?

M: There was certainly an adjustment period necessary coming from rural Pennsylvania. However, as a team we went through it together and that provided the support group we all needed to adapt.

The coaches during The Streak: Bob Naso, Jim Garrett and Larry McElreavy

J: Coach Garrett was in charge during your sophomore year. Most of the players I’ve spoken to from that year say they actually like Jim despite the ugly way his career ended at CU. Are you in that camp as well?

M: Coach Garrett is certainly a lightning road for discussion. My take is that his vision for the program; his quality coaching staff; his expectations; his offensive and defensive schemes; his ability to recruit...ALL were on point. And, yes I am in the camp that like the guy and wish things could have ended differently. I have no doubt that we would have been quite competitive in subsequent years (Garrett brothers notwithstanding) if he had stayed on as head coach. All that said, I think the post-game press conference after the Harvard game got the better of him. I'll leave it at that. Coach Garrett is certainly remembered for his "catch phrases" and empassioned speaches...especially the one in the first meeting where he predicted we would go "10-0" that very first season. We all wanted to believe.

J: What was the transition period over to Coach MacElreavy like?

M: Coach Mac was a tough, hard nosed and no-nonsense guy. He had a proven track record on the college level so I think the comfort level was there - that we could turn this program around. I think Coach Mac shared the same passion for the game as Coach Garrett. That said, I think he was much more approachable than Garrett.

J: As the streak continued, what pressures did you feel on the field and on campus week after week?

M: Living in the media capital of the world that is NYC didn't allow us to forget about the Streak. As the losses mounted, it seemed that the intensity of the press coverage increased. It got to a point where NFL Films and Sports Illustrated were practically a part of the team, riding the bus with us to practice, etc. The one element that I did not appreciate was the support (or lack thereof) of the student body. I truly believe there was a pretty large faction of the students who wanted us to continue losing. I still remember the group of student huddled around Coach Mac shouting "We're number one" after we broke Northwestern's losing streak. Still makes me sick to this day.

J: Did the losses help you focus on life after college a little better than perhaps a player on a team that won every week?

M: I think whether we won or lost, we had no choice but to focus on our school work.

J: Did you have a very different outlook going into the ’87 season? Did you think that this would be the year more than you did in ’85 or ’86?

M: In the '87 season, I was a senior and tried to be a leader - leading by example. The finality of being a senior really drove my intensity. I did not want to end my career without a "W" so I played every day (practice and game) as if it was the last time I would step on the field. I think that intensity level carried over to many of my teammates. Also, Tom Gilmore (our defensive line coach) was a big factor for my elevated playing level my senior season. Playing for a Bushnell Cup winner and thriving off his intensity was something I internalized and that helped me take my game to the next level.

Tom Gilmore, 1985's Bushnell Cup Winner

J: What was it like after those Dartmouth and Brown losses in ’87. How hard was it to cope in the days immediately afterward?

M: Words cannot describe the emotions. After 3 1/2 years, having a "W" in your grasp only to be taken from you. We truly believed we would win those games. Dartmouth - one field goal, wide left. So close. Brown - game winding down. Brown fumbles inside our five yard line. We couldn't stay on the ball. You’re supposed to win those games. I think we all felt numb in the days following those games. Feeling that there is no such thing as a moral victory.

J: Tell us about your playing career after college.

M: I loved the game of football and wished I could have extended my career after Columbia. That said, my 5-10 frame would only take me so far.

J: How did you get into your current line of work, and did you try anything else before getting into the financial world?

M: Like many college students looking to break onto Wall Street, I began my career as a financial analyst at a boutique investment banking firm. I was introduced to the firm by a Columbia alum - Eldridge Gray.

J: Do you think your lack of wins in college spurred you on to better things post-graduation?

M: My Columbia football experience is without question the single most important driver in my career. It taught me to prepare daily; compete harder; the need to work through adversity; and most importantly appreciate victory and success.

Matt Sodl & Son

J: Do you keep it touch with your former teammates and do you know what they’re up too?

M: I do keep in touch with many of the guys in the class of 1988 and surrounding classes. Our 20-year reunion is coming up and I hope to see many of them. No doubt we will be sharing football war stories.

Matt Sodl and wife Cathy have three children and live in a beach community just outside of Los Angeles.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Day 77: Des Werthman

Des Werthman '93 was flat out the most versatile players I ever saw in a Columbia uniform.

It would not be possible to creat a list of memorable Lion players, let alone linebackers, and not include him.

It would also be silly not to simply sum up his career by reprinting the interview I did with Des more than two years ago.


Des Werthman, 1992 (credit: Columbia University Athletics)

It's hard to describe just how much former Lions star Des Werthman meant and still means to Columbia fans. Des was a defensive standout at linebacker, but he also chipped in as a running back on short-yardage situations, and even helped out as a kicker from time to time. That all made Des a throwback-style hero years before people started selling old jerseys for five times the retail price.

Werthman was a part of Ray Tellier's first recruiting class, playing on the freshman team in 1989 and then on the varsity from 1990-92. He made an impact in almost every game he played and Des' career stats are simply breathtaking. I don't think any Columbia player will ever top his 449 career tackles in just three years on the varsity. And what he meant to the team overall during those years can't be quantified.

But nothing can match his heroics in the final two games of his career against Cornell and Brown... both at home.

Against Cornell, Des helped shock the 7-1 Big Red with 16 tackles, two fumble recoveries, two rushing touchdowns, a 2-point conversion, two extra points, just missed a field goal attempt, and even threw a pass, which went incomplete. (There are also unconfirmed reports that at halftime, Des sold game programs in the stands). The final score was 35-30, and the loss eliminated Cornell from the Ivy title race.

But Des was just warming up. The next week against Brown, he rushed for 114 yards, scored 19 points - three rushing touchdowns and an extra point - and had 15 tackles. With the Lions leading 34-28, Des missed a field goal that would have iced the game, but on the very next play he made an interception to end it.

Des went on to a short career in the Arena Football League, something that suited his 5"11, 225-pound frame a little more than the NFL.

For some crazy reason, Des was not included in the inaugural class of the Columbia sports hall of fame last year. It's a controversial decision to say the least.

Thankfully, he was named a part of the CU football team of the 20th Century and he was on the field at Homecoming in 2000, (when Columbia crushed Dartmouth 49-21),

Des' playing exploits are never far from the minds of longtime Lion fans, but when Justin Masorti joined the Lions last year, his build and style of play reminded many of us of old number 49.

Des contacted me via the comments section of this blog a few months ago, and kindly agreed to do an interview.

JAKE: Walk us through the highlights of your post-Columbia life since you graduated in 1993, both personal and career-wise.

Des: Well, I lived in NY until 1998 and then moved back to Chicago. I came out of school and tried to play professionally, with a brief stint in the Arena League and some NFL try outs, but nothing ever materialized. I went to work in the investment field in late 1994 and have been there ever since. On the family front, I got married in 2001 and have two daughters, ages 4 and 2. Neither seem to be big sports fans, but I am trying to convert them.

Jake: Did your time as a Columbia football player play a positive or negative role in your personal life or your career? Did it ever directly hurt or help you?

Des: I don’t think it ever played a negative role. It didn’t produce any jobs when I came out of school, but I met with a whole bunch of Alumni which is interesting and hopefully Columbia alumni will help more with hiring others in the future. I think the years as a player at CU are a constant reminder that one is only as good as the weakest link. A great team can be a thousand times better than a great player. This carries into the real world as well.

Werthman as a member of the Loyola High School Ramblers (Wilmette, IL), where he also excelled in Track and Field.

Jake: You were one of the first players to shine during the Ray Tellier era. Did he and his team recruit you, or were the last group brought in under Larry McAlreavy?

Des: It was interesting, I was originally contacted by one of McAlreavy’s coaches. I met him and then never heard from Columbia again. Several months passed and then one of Ray’s coaches came to see me, Sean McDonnell, now head coach at New Hampshire. I visited some other schools, but had pretty much decided on Columbia once I went to the campus.

Ray Tellier

Jake: What were your impressions of Tellier and why do you think he was eventually able to find success at Columbia after so many had failed before him?

Des: Ray was very good on several fronts and this led to his success. He had been a winner at Rochester and brought several coaches that had been successful as well. I think Ray was very good at several facets of the game. He was a good recruiter, knew the X’s and O’s, and could also motivate people. I think what ultimately led to his success was that he was organized and stuck to a plan of action that ended up working. I think a lot of the success is based upon diligence, focus and planning.

Jake: How did it come to pass that you had to play so many different positions for Columbia, (sometimes in the same game)? Did you take the initiative, or were the Lions so shorthanded that they had to call on you so often?

Des: I never initiated playing any other position except for linebacker. It is funny, but I tried to hide the fact that I kicked extra points and field goals in high school. I was like the super jock character toy with the straight shoe and you would slam the guy's head down to kick. Unfortunately one of the coaches remembered film of me kicking. It was the saddest day of my life…(laughing).

In all honesty, Columbia had good talent, but lacked depth. I think this was the real reason I played several positions. Once the first guy or if we had a second guy, (highly unusual), went down, we would look for options at positions. I started playing running back as a junior in short yardage situations and then more frequently as a senior. This was a lot of fun and I think that was because I was kind of winging it on offense and the guys in the huddle were so serious that I would just start laughing and they would eventually loosen up. There were some really good players on offense; like Mike Sardo, who was a great possession receiver.

Jake: Give us your overall impressions of what it was like to be a Columbia athlete in the late-80's/early 90's. Were the non-athletes friendly or overly hostile to you? How about the faculty and the administration outside of the athletic department?

Des: My experience may be different than others, but I had a blast. I never looked at it as "non-athletes vs. athletes," but to answer your question, the non-athletes were very cool. Sure you had some people who didn’t see eye to eye with you, but that is pretty par for the course. The student body was always friendly and never gave me any hard times about being on a team that lost more often than not.

I never noticed the faculty treating me any differently. But I can recall my senior year asking one of my teachers to let me take the final exam early so that I could attend football camp for the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena League. The guy shot it down immediately and didn’t seem to comprehend what football was. There was no language barrier so I'm not sure why he opposed. In hindsight, maybe he was right to stop me. But it would have been fun to have been there.

Jake: Did you live in the dorms or did you join the large segment of the football players who pledged and lived in the Sigma Chi house?

Des: I lived in the dorms. I never understood why you would join a fraternity when the parties were largely open anyway. I lived in Carmen, Ruggles for two years, and then Wallach.

Jake: How often have you been able to return to Columbia to either see the team play or just to walk around campus? During your visits, what changes have you noticed if any?

Columbia Football's Team of the Century, October, 2000. Des is the back row, third from the right. (PHOTO CREDIT: BEN ASEN)

Des: Honestly, I have been back to 2 Columbia games since I graduated. The last being when the Team of the Century was inducted. I honestly doubt I will ever see another game in person.

Jake: Columbia fans will forever remember you as the guy who seemingly defeated Cornell and Brown singlehandedly to finish out the 1992 season. What are your memories of those games, and what do you remember about the efforts of some of the other players who many of us have forgotten over the years?

Des: I remember the Brown game the most and this makes sense since it was the last game we were going to play. The Cornell game was fun to remember because it was one of the first and last times I got to see some of our players actually smiling on the field. When you lose a lot, smiling doesn’t come easy.

Brown was a really memorable game. My fondest memory combines two plays; the first was when we were trying to ice the game and they sent me in for a field goal. You have to understand that I just hated kicking these things. I would sit there cursing myself for ever having sent a film that had footage of me kicking in it. Needless to say that I missed the field goal, no surprise here right? The next play I pretty much knew the play they were going to run. Call it intuition or whatever, but they had been trying the whole game to run a shallow cross with a deep cross and for most of the day I had played the shallow cross. This time I just knew the QB was going deep and that was exactly what he did. We picked the ball off and the game was over.

We had some great players. Mike Sardo was one of the best receivers I have ever played with, Kevin Robinson was a great running back and moved to defensive back to help the team on defense. The defensive linemen Jim Daine and Bob Wolcott, were key reasons why I was able to do the things I was able to do. Others during my tenure that I got to play with were Galen Snyder, who was a very good linebacker, Bob Kent, Gary Comstock... there were a lot of very good players.

Jake: You were one of the last classes to play freshman football. Do you think abolishing it has helped or hurt Ivy football and what are your memories of playing in your freshman year?

Des: Freshman football was an easy way to get acclimated to the school and the program. That being said, we lost most of our recruiting class during freshman football as a ton of people quit. I think that getting rid of freshman football has been a good thing. I think you mature faster as a player and then you avoid having to endure two years of a acclimating, where you get used to playing your first year and then the next year you have to acclimate yourself to the next team and summer camp.

Jake: The best Columbia ever did during your three varsity years was 3-7. How tough was it to play for a team that never really contended for a title?

Des: I guess it was hard since I am going to say that we were much better than our records, which means I still struggle with the fact that we didn’t win more. It was very hard to get up and go on those teams as the constant losses and heartbreaks made it hard to want to win. This is what happens when you loose, it debilitates your desire to win and wears you down a little more until you become apathetic. I don’t think we ever became apathetic ,because we had a lot of guys that just loved to play the game, but it certainly wasn’t easy. We went up to Cornell my junior year and we threw for a touchdown only to have the refs call it back for the QB being over the line of scrimmage. Our QB wasn’t even close when you looked at it on film, we should have won that game, but didn’t..those were the worst.

Jake: Do you think that Columbia was at some kind of unfair disadvantage during the time you played there? Did things like the long ride to practice, the administration's seeming indifference to athletics, or the quality of the facilities play as big a role as many long-time fans like me think they do/did?

Des: I think Columbia will always be fighting an uphill battle as long as the practice field is so far away. You would barely make it back for dinner. I think people quit just because of that bus ride. I recall one game day when the buses didn’t even show up. We had like 70 guys hailing Gypsy cabs down on Amsterdam in order to be able to afford the ride and get to the field. Imagine playing a game after you did this and got to the field late!?

The facilities were, and maybe still are, just dated. You just can't compete with other schools if your facilities are so poorly kept up and don’t offer the same things that a Princeton or Harvard can offer.

And how can an administration be taken seriously when they have 3 head coaches on the payroll at the same time? I think when I was there they had Garrett, McAlreavy and Tellier on the payroll at the same time. The practice field was used as a parking lot during games, so you would come back to the field on Monday and be picking up glass and stuff like that.

If you want to win there has to be a commitment to the program and I don’t think that was ever there for football. If you aren’t paying to win then you shouldn’t even field the team. This isn’t high school where you are trying to get kids involved in different things so that they try new stuff. This is a college where you had a Rose Bowl championship team and a QB named Cliff Montgomery. Have a little respect and pride.

Jake: If you could do it all over again, would you come back to Columbia?

Des: I loved going to school at Columbia. You have to look at the whole package and Columbia was a great place to be. I almost transferred out after my freshman year, but didn’t. So, I thought long and hard about this and stayed then and wouldn’t change my mind now.

That being said, I look now at the school and think that things could and should have been much better. It still bugs me to this day that there was such a lack of commitment by people at the University and in the Athletic department. I would classify them as dead weight and they are probably still there at the school. I have a sour taste with a lot of these people and some of the people today.