By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. — It isn’t a long cab ride from Broadway to Lawrence E. Wien Stadium, the stunningly beautiful venue of Columbia football, near the banks of the Hudson River.
When the Odd Couple was making its debut on Broadway 50 years ago, the Columbia Lions had already established a tradition for losing football, something they have continued with only one winning season since then (8-2 in 1996).
It was a stop-the-presses moment when Norie Wilson led them to a 5-5 mark in 2006. Wilson was named Ivy League coach of the year for that accomplishment.
What makes me think of the Odd Couple as I contemplate Columbia football?
I can’t think of a much more unusual marriage than the joining of one of college football’s greatest current coaches, Al Bagnoli, and the hapless Lions.
When I heard that my friend Al had left a fundraising position at Penn designed for him after his retirement last fall at Penn — where they have to be planning a new statute in his likeness next to George Munger’s at the west end of Franklin Field — to become the latest coach at Columbia, I had one question.
How much did they pay you? Hopefully, a lot.
The Lions had lost 21 games in succession before Bagnoli arrived and had added three more since then, the last being a 10-5 decision in the driving rain at Princeton a week earlier.
Knowing how much Bagnoli hates losing, I expected him to be bald, or in a hospital somewhere when I next saw him.
This is a guy that should be a first-ballot inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame as soon as he retires — again — from coaching.
Bagnoli had gone 232-91 as a college coach before getting a key to the Baker Sports Complex executive bathroom. He had won nine Ivy League titles with six undefeated conference marks and three perfect seasons in 23 years at Penn.
His 1993-95 Quaker teams established an FCS record with 24 consecutive wins, a mark finally broken by North Dakota State during its recent championship run. He is the second winningest coach all-time in the Ivy League.
But after watching Columbia run its record to 24 straight losses, Bagnoli did the unthinkable last Saturday. He led the Lions to a 26-3 win over winless Wagner (0-5).
It was the first victory for the Lions since Nov. 10, 2012 when they beat Cornell,34-17.
Last weekend was one of the weirdest this writer can remember in FCS history, complete with Portland State winning a game against an FBS opponent — North Texas — 66-7.
So I guess it was only to be expected that Columbia would win.
The Lions erupted for 17 points in the first quarter and then let their defense — always a Bagnoli forte — take over.
Cameron Molina powered in from six yards out for the first Columbia touchdown a little over five minutes into the game after clutch passes from Skylar Mornhinweg to Cameron Dunn for 16 yards and John Huston for 24 more.
On the next play from scrimmage, Max Keefe grabbed an Alex Thomson fumble in the end zone and Columbia led 14-0.
After a first-period field goal extended the advantage, Mornhinweg dashed 32 yards for another TD in the second period and Columbia was on its way.
The Lion defense forced two more turnovers in the second half and Wagner was called for a safety when a returnman muffed a kick, stepped into the end zone and knelt down. It was the type of play that typically would have reminded someone of a Columbia-styled moment.
But things have already begun to turn around on the banks of the Hudson.
Outside of a 44-24 loss to a ranked opponent from Fordham, the Lions have played competitively this season. Something that shouldn’t surprise anyone with Bagnoli calling the shots.
The Lions will go for two in a row when Bagnoli faces his old team, Penn, for the first time on Columbia’s homecoming.
Don’t be shocked if Bagnoli starts another type of streak. Maybe this won’t turn out to be such an Odd Couple after all.