Landon Baty walked down to the Milano Market on the corner of 113th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, on the edge of campus, for his usual lunchtime sandwich — chicken and turkey cutlets. He was proudly wearing a Columbia football T-shirt.
“As the guy was making my sandwich, he was going on and on about the Princeton game and how great it was for us to win there,” Baty said this week. “He was talking about my interception [at Marist] and was completely fired up about it all. I sat there and thought, ‘Wow, who thought this would ever happen?’ ”
“This” is the remarkable start to the season for Columbia, forever a college football punchline, which routed Marist, 41-17, on Saturday to raise its record to 4-0 for just the second time since 1945.
Neither Baty, a senior defensive back, nor any of his teammates were likely to be seen in Columbia football gear during his freshman season, when the team went 0-10 for the second year in a row.
“Not in those days,” Baty said. “You just kept your head down and hoped people didn’t ask you about how the team was doing. Now, there’s actually hype around Columbia football. We’re having fun. It’s amazing.”
Columbia’s remarkable turnaround began three years ago when Al Bagnoli decided it was time for him to ease gently into retirement after 23 years of coaching the University of Pennsylvania’s football team — a run that included nine Ivy League titles, three unbeaten seasons and, not surprisingly, a 21-2 record against Columbia.
He was about to turn 62; his longtime athletic director, Steve Bilsky, was also retiring, and Bagnoli decided he’d gear down from the rigors of coaching football and take a job as an administrator in Penn’s athletic department.
His retirement from coaching lasted 92 days.
“It didn’t take me long,” he said on the phone Tuesday, “to realize this wasn’t for me.”
Bagnoli was well acquainted with Columbia’s dreary football history. He remembered the two losses to the Lions quite vividly. “One ended a 24-game winning streak we were on,” he said, laughing. “The other was when Marcellus Wiley blocked an extra point to keep the game from going into overtime.”
Wiley, who went on to play in the NFL for 10 years, was the star of that 1996 Columbia team. The Lions were 8-2 that fall — and haven’t had a winning season since. That was also the last time that Columbia started 4-0, the record this team will take into Saturday’s homecoming game against — who else? — Penn.
Bagnoli’s predecessor, Pete Mangurian, had gone 3-27, including 0-10 his final two seasons, and left amid complaints from players that he’d been abusive to them. Mangurian was Columbia’s 10th coach since 1956 and the 10th to leave with a losing record.
Bagnoli’s first win at Columbia — over Wagner in the fourth game of the 2015 season — ended a 24-game losing streak for the Lions. There was also a victory over Yale three weeks later. And even though the final record was 2-8, the last four losses were by a total of 20 points.
A year later, the Lions won three times, including two Ivy League wins, the second coming in the season finale at Brown. All of a sudden, they weren’t the perennial doormat, the school best-known for its then-record 44-game losing streak in the mid-1980s.
“The win against Brown was huge,” said senior quarterback Anders Hill, who has thrown for 1,107 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Hill and Baty, both captains and freshmen roommates, are part of a 30-player senior class that has lived through many lows and finally some real highs. “We’d played a lot of games where we’d come close but hadn’t won. That win gave us momentum to carry into the offseason, and we’ve carried that into this season.”
The Lions opened with a victory over Wagner on a last-second field goal, then routed Georgetown. But it was the Princeton win, two weeks ago in their Ivy League opener, that was a real milestone. The Lions’ lifetime record against the Tigers, last year’s league co-champions, was 15-70-1 when they made the trip to New Jersey on Sept. 30.
“We’ve seen a lot of the changes in the culture from the first day Coach Bagnoli got here,” said Baty, a Californian who readily admits that the only thing he knew about Ivy League football before he was recruited was that smart kids played there. “But this was something tangible. All the work paid off. I saw Coach Bagnoli shake his fist when he went out to shake hands with Coach [Bob] Surace. I can’t even tell you how good that felt.”
Defensive tackle Lord Hyeamang, another senior captain, might be this team’s Wiley. He is 6 feet 4, 285 pounds and getting attention from NFL scouts. There are players in Bagnoli’s first two recruiting classes who appear to have big-time potential. Twenty-four true freshmen traveled with the team last season.
“What we had to sell was the chance to build something because, let’s face it, there wasn’t a lot of tradition to sell,” Bagnoli said. “What the older kids have done is let the younger kids know how cool it is to have the chance to play in New York and go to a great school. Last year, we were very young. This year, we’re just kind of young.”
When Athletic Director Peter Pilling began recruiting Bagnoli for the job, the old coach put together what he calls a “comprehensive wish list.” It included a large increase in the recruiting budget, a boost in the assistant coaching budget — including hiring two full-time strength coaches — and money for an indoor bubble that opened in February, thanks to $10 million in alumni contributions. “They pretty much came back and said yes to everything,” Bagnoli said. “I thought, okay then, here we go.”
And now, here they are, all of them truly believing they can win Columbia’s first Ivy League title since 1961 — the school’s only Ivy League title.
“We don’t want to be a team that had one big win and then won four or five games,” Hill said. “We think we’re better than that. Penn will be a huge challenge. And then we’ve still got five games left after that.”
In fact, the Lions’ next two games are at undefeated Darmouth and at Yale. There is a long way to go. For now, though, the focus is Penn.
“We won’t bring it up to him because he doesn’t want to hear it, but we really want to beat Penn, in part because the game is so important, but also for Coach Bagnoli,” Baty said. “He’s done so much for us. We really want to do this for him.”
And then head for the Milano, proudly wearing that Columbia shirt. The sandwich might even be on the house.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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