Six weeks into their WNYC podcast, “The Season,” Ilya Marritz and Matt Collette worried that their listeners were getting bored. Entering a road game against Yale, Columbia was 1-5 and hadn’t won an Ivy contest since 2012.
But thanks to a strong performance from Skyler Mornhinweg and a bit of trickery, Columbia walked off the field with a 17-7 victory and, suddenly, the podcasters found a second wind.
“We had this joyous parade back to the tennis field, and they [were] in the parade going up to guys with the microphone,” former defensive end Chad Washington, CC ‘16, recalled.“Everyone was going up to them and talking to them. That was probably the biggest connection they had to the entire team.”
The Yale win also exemplified what the two had sought to highlight from the outset: improvement.
At the time of the show’s inception, Columbia football’s biggest claim to fame was a then-21-game losing streak, and the Lions had not been serious contenders in the Ivy League for years.
The podcasters figured that the marriage of one of the Ancient Eight’s winningest coaches and one of its least successful programs provided a compelling case study.
“Are they going to get better, and how do you get better?” Collette reflected. “Which, in a lot of ways, is a universal challenge––and tell it in a specific way that you can follow week to week.”
To dive into answering that question, the podcasters had to develop relationships with the most important pieces of the puzzle: the players.
Cameron Molina, CC ‘16, and Washington were each captains during the 2015 season, and both quickly became fixtures on “The Season” as training camp got underway.
“It was a great opportunity,” Molina said. “Not only for the program, but the timing of it all with Bagnoli coming in really helped let people know that we [were] making changes.”
Though they saw the show’s potential rise at the beginning, Molina and Washington were surprised by the scope and access of “The Season.” Collette and Marritz became entrenched in the daily routine of the team once the season began.
“They saw everything,” Washington said. “They were up early when we were up early, they were in late when we were in late, filming, recording every little thing. And they had so much material, and to condense that down—that was pretty remarkable.”
Marritz and Collette were present everywhere from the practice field to position meetings, embracing the opportunity to educate themselves about the nuances of the sport.
“I think one of the things that was surprising was that Ilya himself took an interest in football strictly because of how little he knew about it going into it,” Molina said. “It was cool being able to actually help him learn about the sport, and I think that also played a role in how much they were covering.”
The intimate access granted to Marritz and Collette helped them forge those kinds of relationships and narrowed their focus to the ultimate goal of the podcast: to report on the aspects of a football team that go beyond football.
Washington’s backstory was the focus of an entire episode, and its production, a process that had initially taken him aback, had a strong impact on both player and producer. Washington found the final product so compelling that it remains saved on his computer to this day and led him to strongly consider a career in journalism. He now works for NBC.
“[Marritz and Collette] were incredibly professional about [the interview],” Washington remembered. “Honestly, [they] kind of made me think about my whole pursual into journalism and media, and why I’ve chosen it as a career.”
Thanks to Marritz and Collette’s insistence on personal depth, the podcast resonated with a larger audience. Although it never reached the heights of the most popular NPR programs such as RadioLab, it acquired what Collette described as a cult following.
“I have a lot of friends who I think probably listened to the first episode because they were my friend, and then they stuck with it,” Collette said. “They stuck with this team, because this team, in a lot of ways, was doing things that most of us are not: something where it is really easy to tell at the end of the day if it’s a win or a loss.”
But in the end, that connection went well beyond wins and losses. Though Marritz and Collette left plenty of room for Xs and Os in “The Season,” their unconventional approach allowed them to transcend tried-and-tested cliches and paint a broader picture of football’s larger relevance.
“In some ways, it’s really interesting, to be able to break your world down like that,” Collette said. “At the end of the day, we are all trying to get better at something, and we tried to make a story that, in the end, was that.”