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Bagnoli ends 'sabbatical' to take on challenge of Columbia

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NEW YORK (AP) To get an idea of how peculiar it is for Al Bagnoli to become Columbia football coach three months after retiring as the coach at Penn, think of it this way: What if Steve Spurrier, one of the most successful coaches in Southeastern Conference history, stepped down at South Carolina and then decided a few months later to coach Vanderbilt?

Bagnoli, who won nine Ivy League championships in 23 seasons at Penn, has returned to coaching after a short ''sabbatical'' to take one of the most challenging coaching jobs in Division I football. The Lions haven't won a game since 2012 and have had only three winning seasons in the past 43 years.

Columbia has lost 21 straight games, a string of futility that is still less than half of the school-record 44-game skid the Lions slogged through from 1983-88.

''If you like challenges, this is it,'' Bagnoli said at a news conference Tuesday held at the school's Upper West Side of Manhattan campus.

The 62-year-old Bagnoli was 148-80 at Penn, with a 112-49 Ivy League record. His longest losing streak at Penn was four games, last season.

New Columbia athletic director Peter Pilling said he approached Bagnoli about coaching the Lions before he was hired by the school earlier this month. Pilling's first official day on the job was Monday, and his first act was hiring Bagnoli.

Pilling said he got a tip from Villanova coach Andy Talley that Bagnoli, who announced in April the 2014 season would be his last at Penn, might be interested in coaching again.

''I ended up calling Coach Bagnoli and I said, `Hey, listen. I'm not the athletic director yet. I hope to be the athletic director at some point, but let's pretend I am and let's have a dialogue as if you were interested in the job.'''

The day after Pilling, a former executive at the sports marketing firm IMG, was hired by Columbia, he went to see Bagnoli.

Coming off two straight losing seasons, Bagnoli handed off the Penn program to defensive coordinator Ray Priore.

Bagnoli moved into athletic administration at Penn as director of special projects. He said he did some work on scheduling, recruiting protocols, financial aid and equipment inventories.

''They weren't as challenging as I had hoped. And really it's nobody's fault. I really didn't have any idea what administration was. I have never been in the administrative world and three months into it I said, `Well, I can tell this probably isn't going to be suited for me.'

''It was like being on sabbatical. It was like a professor taking a semester off.''

Bagnoli said he was ''a little bit nervous'' about how this move would be received at Penn.

''The people there, the former players, the alums that I have dealt with have been nothing but positive to me and have wished me nothing but the very best,'' he said.

Columbia's athletic programs have been on the upswing in general in recent years, but football has still badly lagged behind.

''This is a great statement saying football is important at Columbia,'' Harvard coach Tim Murphy said in an email.

''In Al they are getting an outstanding veteran coach who will recruit well, get the most out of the kids and represent Columbia in a classy professional manner.''

Not only did the Lions go winless the past two years under Pete Mangurian, who was let go in December, they were outscored by a combined 791-176. To make matters worse, Mangurian's three-year stint ended with allegations that he mishandled player injuries.

The university investigated whether injured players were mishandled and ''found no evidence to support an allegation of a departure from that protocol with our football players.''

''My first goal is to make football fun again. Practice has to be the best two hours of your day,'' Bagnoli said to about two dozen football players who attended the news conference.

''We'll care about the welfare of our student-athletes both on and off the field,'' he said. ''We'll be hard on you, but we will be consistent in our approach.''