Coaches' Greatest Hits
It all starts with Lou Little
What were the best wins for each of Columbia’s head football coaches from Lou Little until today?
Let's go through them one by one.
There’s hardly anyone who wouldn’t agree that Little’s best game comes down to the Rose Bowl win over Stanford in 1934 or the win over Army to break the Cadets' unbeaten streak in 1947.
The Rose Bowl victory was truly a glorious moment for Columbia. But the coaching challenge, as daunting as it was, was not quite the same as what Little faced going up against Army in 1947.
Remember that the Lions were just a few years removed from the absolute ash heap of college football. The 1943 team finished 0-8 with four shutout losses. The ’44 squad was 2-6 and was shutout three times.
But beginning with the successful recruiting of players like Eugene Rossides and Lou Kusserow, things started to turn around. In 1945 the Lions went 8-1, losing only to national powerhouse Penn. The ’46 team went 6-3, but slammed opponents like Syracuse by a 59-21 score and beat Yale at the Bowl, 28-20.
The ’47 team was struggling at the start of that season. It came into the Army game a mere 2-2 and looking like sacrificial lambs to the Cadets. Trailing 20-7, Little engineered the greatest coaching feat of his career. Columbia not only took the lead 21-20, but held on for an agonizing six minutes plus to seal the shocking win.
While the 1961 Ivy League clincher against Penn was the most important win of Donelli’s Columbia career, it was hardly a coaching challenge against that weak Quaker squad.
Donelli’s truly greatest achievement came on back-to-back weekends at Yale and at Harvard earlier in that ’61 campaign.
Against Yale, the Lion defense stunned the defending champion Elis with an 11-0 win over the same team that drubbed them 30-8 on the same Yale Bowl field the year before.
Then the Lions went into powerhouse Harvard and easily drubbed them 26-14 for the Crimson’s only league loss of the year.
Given the choice of those two games, I’d have to side with the win over Harvard. But that Yale win was a major breakthrough.
The 1971 season was Coach Frank Navarro’s best achievement, and there are a handful of contenders for “best game” honors from that year.
The 22-20 win over Princeton that ended a 26-year dry spell against the Tigers was heart-stopper, but I have to choose the similarly shocking win over Dartmouth five weeks later at Baker Field.
This was a Big Green team, (they were called Indians back then), that was a top 20 squad the year before and the winners of the Lambert Trophy for best team in all of eastern football.
The game was an epic battle that came down to a matter of a kick that sailed a mere inches over the crossbar. The final score was 31-29.
Coach Campbell wasn’t blessed with too many wins during his six years at the helm. But his 1978 team was the best squad he put together and they proved it with a hard-fought 21-19 win over Harvard on the road to start the season.
At the end of the game, Campbell called it, "the greatest victory I've had in my coaching career."
Poor Bob Naso only enjoyed four winds during his five-year stint as coach. But he was also at the helm when the great John Witkowski was the QB.
Thus, the 1982 35-14 win on Homecoming against Princeton stands out.
Jim Garrett went 0-10 in his one year as head coach… and thus he gets shut out of this discussion!
Coach Mac’s greatest win was his first with the Lions, the 16-13 historic victory in 1988 over Princeton to end the then-record 44-game losing streak.
Later that season, the Lions also whipped Brown for a 31-13 win. But that pales in comparison.
Choosing the greatest win for Coach Tellier is probably the toughest choice because there were many emotional and improbable victories during his time on the sidelines.
The first significant win came in his fourth year when the Lions shocked title contender Cornell at Wien Stadium by a 35-30 score.
But that was surpassed two years later when Columbia beat Cornell again at Wien to clinch the Lions first winning season in 23 years.
A year later that was supplanted by the fantastic win over Penn to end the Quakers best-in-the-nation winning streak.
But my choice as Tellier’s best coaching achievement came in the 8-2 1996 season against Penn at Franklin Field.
The Lions came into that game 3-0, but badly banged up. Forced to start the untested QB Paris Childress, Columbia fell behind, 10-0 at halftime and it looked hopeless.
But Tellier rallied the troops and got the game tied up at 13 going into overtime. The Quakers scored a quick TD but the PAT was just tipped and sailed no good. When the Lions got the ball, they looked completely inept on offense, but a miracle TD pass from Childress to Dennis Lee set up the winning extra point.
This is another easy one. In his three seasons at the helm, Shoop had two really great victories and they both came in 2003.
One was a gutsy 16-13 win over Harvard at Wien Stadium on just about the windiest day I can ever remember.
But the Hail Mary win against Princeton at Princeton Stadium in week 3 of that year stands out for a lot of reasons.
The fact that the Lions trailed 20-0 at one point is just a small part of the story.
Norries Wilson is about to enter his 5th year as head coach of Columbia football.
I would argue he already has at least two games under his belt that could be considered candidates for his greatest wins at CU.
The first would be the season finale against Brown in his first year at the helm, 2006. That 22-21 nail-biter in Providence ensured the Lions their first non-losing season since 1996.
But since that game was against a relatively weak Bear team, it doesn’t seem as impressive as the season-ending win against Brown in 2009.
So in hopes that there will be many more contenders for the best game title during Coach Wilson’s tenure, let’s put that 28-14 win over Brown on the top of his list... for now.