An Ivy League Buff who can smile again

Columbia's Buff Donelli knows all about losing. But this season has been pleasantly different, and the Lions—surprise!—are at the top
November 20, 1961

Columbia football teams have a losing tradition. To be sure, the 1933 team beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but, for that matter, the St. Louis Browns once won a pennant. Over the years Columbia has been soundly beaten by all of its Ivy League associates with the exception of Brown, everybody's punching bag. Even Columbia's uniforms, powder blue with numerals that look like strips of adhesive tape, seem no match for the orange and black of Princeton, the rich blue of Yale or the dark green of Dartmouth.

But this season, tradition and uniforms to the contrary, Columbia is a match for anybody—that is, anybody in the Ivy League, which it now leads with a 5-1 record. This almost unprecedented situation has been enough to cause some girls from neighboring Barnard College to form a cheerleading group (an idea Columbia nixed immediately) and to create a bit more football interest on the worldly Columbia campus. "I wouldn't say it's a mass conversion," said one player. "Columbia is still Columbia."

Winning football has also made a contented man out of Coach Aldo (Buff) Donelli, to whom Saturday had become a word synonymous with defeat. Donelli—he acquired his nickname as a boy when he idolized Buffalo Bill—came to Columbia in 1957 after coaching successes at Duquesne and Boston University. During his first three years his teams won four games and lost 23, and Donelli, who resembles a member of the Apalachin mob when his mood is grim, often looked like a fugitive from justice. But last year there was improvement, a 3-6 record that might have been even better but for some key injuries early in the season. Now, even in an undistinguished Ivy year, when the league is 4-10 against such outside competition as Colgate, Lehigh, New Hampshire and Connecticut, Donelli is smiling. "He deserves it," says a friend. "He's a sweet guy. He never swears. He'll say 'dang' or 'galdarn,' but Buff never swears." "Well, hardly ever," adds one of Donelli's players.

In a sense, this is Buff Donelli's first Columbia football team, since it is the first year when everyone on the team postdates his arrival. He now has a squad of players who really want to play football. "One of our problems the last couple of years was that the seniors wouldn't set a good example," said Bill Campbell, Columbia's captain, recently. "Seniors must lead a team or else there's no discipline."

Council of war

Last June, Campbell and the other seniors held a meeting of the team at which the law was laid down. Players were told to get into top condition during the summer. When practice began in the fall, training habits were strictly enforced. "We didn't even permit pastries or soft bread. Just melba toast," said Campbell.

Columbia started the season by crushing Brown 50-0. But the next week, after leading 14-0, it lost to Princeton 30-20. "It was awfully hot," says Russ Warren, one of Columbia's fine running backs. "Our first team just wore out. Princeton has two pretty good teams, so they were better rested in the second half. I wish we could have them again."

After the loss to Princeton, Columbia beat Yale, Harvard and Cornell. The Columbia line was strong and the team got good passing from Quarterback Tom Vasell, but what really made Columbia a threat in its league was its backs, Tom Haggerty, Tom O'Connor and Warren, all Massachusetts boys. Of the three, Haggerty, a fine breakaway runner, was the most dangerous, Against Lehigh, he carried the ball only eight times, and Columbia lost. "We got that straightened out fast," said Haggerty recently. The next week against Cornell, Haggerty made touchdown runs of 47 and 64 yards and returned a kickoff 85 yards.

Despite Columbia's good play, Princeton, unbeaten, was still leading the Ivy League before last Saturday's games. Right behind came Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard, each with one loss, each with a chance at the title. While Dartmouth played Columbia in New York, Princeton was playing Harvard in Cambridge.

After six and a half minutes of the Columbia-Dartmouth game, Columbia, taking advantage of a blocked kick and a fumble to make two touchdowns, had scored more points—14—than it had against Dartmouth in seven years.

"We let down after that," Russ Warren said later. "We got our touchdowns too easy."

Dartmouth bounced back to score and make it 14-8. When Columbia could not move the ball, Dartmouth took over and threatened again. Early in the second period, it marched to a first down on Columbia's 14. "It was just like Princeton all over again," said Haggerty later. But Columbia held Dartmouth on its nine and the hard-running backs took over, Ohio State style. Of the next 42 plays, Columbia had 37 to Dartmouth's five. Haggerty, who set a school record by carrying the ball 32 times, made the score 22-8 in the third period and 28-8 in the fourth, both on short runs. Both teams scored late in the game, Columbia winning 35-14.

Near the end of the game, the Columbia stands broke out in a loud roar.

"We knew what it must be," said Haggerty. "We weren't doing anything on the field to cause that loud a roar, so we figured Harvard must have gone ahead of Princeton." Coach Donelli got the news just as his game was ending and he was being carried to the middle of the field by his players. Harvard, he learned, had beaten Princeton 9-7, putting Columbia into the Ivy League lead.

Tom Haggerty was a tired boy after the game, but he dressed quickly, ready for an evening on the town with his parents. "Coach Donelli gives us three curfew hours," he explained. "Twelve-thirty if we lose, one if we win, 1:30 if we win big." On this night curfew was at 1:30.