Check any late-April or early-May Spectator sports column from the last several decades, and you will see a familiar refrain: Columbia Athletics has had its share of struggles over the last four years, but there are reasons for optimism.
You know how the story has gone.
I similarly recall being (friendlily) mocked in my first year by upperclassmen in student media for having such optimistic views. The football team had won three games in a row, so I did not quite understand. The football team has since won five of its last 46 games—now I do.
Yet, here I stand as a senior, ready to cross the stage in the footsteps of dozens of past columnists, and I actually believe we have opened up a new chapter in Columbia Athletics. Finally, optimism is rational.
Let’s start by looking at the progression of the last half-decade. The Ivy championships have increased—even if there was literally nowhere to go but up. There are more programs that are competitive and a select few teams that are taking already-established dominance to unprecedented levels (fencing, men’s tennis, and baseball to a degree). Those three squads have combined to win a National Championship, advance deep into the NCAA Tournament multiple times, and break league records in the last two years alone.
Of course, none of this seemed to matter amid the persistent woes of the football program. Two winless seasons on the gridiron have exasperated students, alumni, and Columbia at large.
Consider that while covering the football team, I actually received the explicit pity of our rival schools. And even while covering the basketball team, officials at three separate schools came up to me—unsolicited—and spouted off about how unbelievable it was that Columbia hired and then stood by its football coach.
brought exactly the kind of respectability that the football program needed. Bagnoli injected optimism into the program, leaving little concern that a lack of competitiveness will persist. In fact, there appears to be some excitement. Thus, in my opinion, the grave problems stemming from the football program have already been fixed.
Make no mistake, no one expects Bagnoli’s first year to be a cakewalk. But the emergence from the depths of defeat will be significant on its own. It means that the true focus next year can be on men’s basketball, a team that will likely be as good as any other in the Ancient Eight. Find an Ivy basketball team that is clearly going to win 10 conference games next year: It’s a difficult task. Try finding an Ivy League team that will shoot the ball as well as Columbia next year: You will not, and nothing will go further toward earning an Ivy Title.
Just think about the impact of the competitive contest against Kentucky. Or other recent trips to Villanova and Michigan State. Being competitive in those games was not a trademark of the pre-Kyle Smith era. And even if bad luck and health continue to hamper Columbia next year, Kyle Smith’s new recruiting class will make the team even more interesting to watch.
Even women’s basketball head coach Stephanie Glance—who has a very clear vision for her young and improving team—is excited by next year’s recruits.
I said it in my second column and I’ll say it again here in my penultimate column: One big season or moment would bring an unthinkable amount of attention to a long-suffering school in Manhattan.
There will always be reasons you can think big because of New York City. Is it all a pipe dream?
After all, Columbia sports such as men’s basketball often seem to suffer from the aforementioned case of bad luck. While New York City may be Columbia’s greatest asset, it can also be its greatest drawback, because it requires a certain type of student-athlete.
Based on my own recent visits, I can say that making your way up to Baker Field can be a pain if you do not stay organized. Clearly, there are institutional disadvantages at Columbia and in its recruiting.
But this has always been the case. Hopefully, the arrival of new athletic director Peter Pilling can help overcome some of these traditional obstacles. He is personable and open—listen to his appearance on the radio last week.
Of course, transparency has not been a strength of Columbia’s in the past.
Consider Bagnoli, Smith, and Glance. Add on fencing coach Michael Aufrichtig and baseball skipper Brett Boretti. Columbia might have its greatest set of head coaches ever. The University is more financially committed to athletics, and despite the inherent disadvantages, recruiting seems to be as strong as ever. It’s not the 1980s anymore—in fact, it’s not even 2010 anymore.
The same can be said of the Ivy League, which is as strong as ever. While that is a problem from a competitive standpoint, it will certainly only become more fun to watch as a spectator. Hopefully, the Ancient Eight will soon understand that it needs to break more traditions in favor of gaining more exposure, and Columbia would hugely benefit from both national TV coverage and conference tournaments in basketball, for example.
In the meantime, we can still marvel about how Columbia and Penn played such exceptional and exhilarating baseball last weekend—and likely will again this Saturday.
It should be a precursor of things to come. The optimism is finally warranted.
Ryan Young is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics-statistics. He is the sports director for WKCR. Roar Ryan Roar runs biweekly.