Can we make something clear to all you potential Columbia football recruits? Fellows, you don't have to take the subway to practice. O.K.? There are team buses for that. The buses leave a couple of times each afternoon from Amsterdam Avenue and 116th Street, close to the campus's east gate, and travel the 102 blocks uptown to Baker Field, through Harlem and all the rest of the funky big-city stuff. And the buses will bring you back at night. Safe and sound.
"You've got to make sure people know that," says assistant sports information director Ron Lieberman. "Schools recruit against us by telling kids they'll have to ride the subway to and from practice if they go to Columbia."
You don't have to; but you can. Which is what a bunch of the Columbia players are doing now, riding back to campus on the IRT after the last practice of the year. Ironically, they're riding the No. 1 train.
The mood of the players is unsettled, pensive yet eager. If they lose to Brown tomorrow, they are worse than dirt. The defeat will mark Columbia's 31st straight loss, by far the longest current losing streak in Division I football; the closest rival is Tennessee Tech, which has lost 14 in a row. The Columbia Lions are also dangerously close to the alltime major-college futility mark of 34 consecutive losses set by Northwestern from 1979 to 1982. Another defeat will also mean that the Columbia seniors—all 11 of the battered souls who remain from a freshman squad of 50—will become the first players in Division I history to go their entire varsity careers without winning a game. (It should be noted that in the Ivy League freshmen are not allowed to compete at the varsity level.)
December 1, 1986
But if Columbia does beat Brown, well, as senior wide receiver John Pennywell says, "It will make everything, everything, worthwhile." Brown is 4-4-1, and according to senior free safety Larry Alletto, "They don't have great team speed, and we match up well with teams like that." Hope, like subway graffiti, springs eternal.
Junior quarterback Mike Morse, who will be making his first start tomorrow, is revved up. A transfer from Navy, Morse once steered a destroyer across the English Channel from France to England, and at one point during the voyage, he let the wheel get away from him so badly that sleeping crew members were flung from their bunks like teacups. At 6'4" and 200 pounds, Morse is bigger than most of the Columbia players, and he is still developing as an athlete, which is probably the kindest thing that can be said about any of the Lions. Like the others, though, Morse is a good man, and when there is commotion at a subway stop—a girl screaming, police dashing onto the platform—he steps off the train to see if he can help. He steps back in and, after a time, the train moves on.
"What happened?" a player asks.
"Somebody tried to mug a girl," Morse says. "I asked her if she was O.K., but she didn't speak English."
"A mugging?" asks the team's leading tackier, senior cornerback Joe Policastro.
Policastro sighs. "Ho hum," he says.
These guys have seen so much, both on and off the field, that they deserve varsity letters in life. Columbia, founded in 1754 as King's College by King George II of England, is the most urban of America's great universities. Its 36-acre campus sits in the midst of the teeming, racially mixed Morningside Heights section of Manhattan and is separated from the neighborhood only by an iron fence. At night all entrances but two are locked, and guards screen visitors. Otherwise, the school is open to the myriad influences of the Big Apple.
"The kind of student who comes to Columbia is somebody who is very serious about academics and who sees the city as a chance for a great double experience," says director of admissions Jim McMeniman. Bucolic U it is not. Sports information director Bill Steinman remembers a basketball player who came to Columbia from a tiny town in Oklahoma. "About his second or third day on campus he missed a meeting, and we went looking for him," says Steinman. "We found him at the corner of 116th and Broadway, staring at cars. He said he'd just never seen so many of them."
Of course, good football players are notoriously rural creatures, preferring, in general, the open spaces of state colleges in the middle of cornfields to urban environments. Which is one reason why Columbia, which has been playing football since 1870 and even won the Rose Bowl in 1934, has had so few good players in recent times. And even when decent players want to come to the school—and are smart enough to get in, and wouldn't rather go to Harvard, Yale, etc.—there are parents to contend with. "I had a player who was crying, he wanted to come here so bad," says first-year coach Larry McElreavy. "But his mother wouldn't let him near New York."
It doesn't help the football program that the athletic complex is so far away from the campus or that the undergrad enrollment is a mere 3,300. Unlike Division I-A schools, the Ivy League (which offers no athletic scholarships) often gets players from the rank and file. Still, McElreavy sees better times approaching. "We're in better shape than Northwestern," he says. "Because of their requirements their talent pool isn't the same as the other Big Ten schools. It's microscopic. The Ivy League talent pool also is microscopic, but at least we all look through the same microscope."
The problem for Columbia football, overall, has been that the university has been content to stand on its academic record, with its 41 Nobel Prize winners, past and present, from the alumni and faculty. Columbia's role, according to the school fact book, is "custodian of the Western intellectual tradition," a tradition that has little to do with X's and O's. Three cheers for academic integrity.
"But the thing that is maddening is the liberal imagination that goes along with it all," says writer D. Keith Mano, Columbia class of '63 and wild-man cheerleader for the team. "To liberals, to beat somebody on the field is to be morally aggressive. The entire liberal philosophy is based on passivity. You're better if you're a victim. If we ever won the Ivy League title, the administration would have us investigated by the ACLU!"
McElreavy learned years ago how the school felt about football. As the offensive line coach for Yale, he came to Baker Field with the Elis in 1980, and while walking up to the press box he fell through a plank in the stairs. "They built temporary stands in 1920 and didn't finish the stadium until 1986," he says. But the stadium has finally been completed, and now the administration seems to want the team to win. The question is, does anybody remember how to win?
Later on Friday night a group of players lounges in the second-floor TV room at the Sigma Chi house on 113th and Broadway, watching Miami Vice, checking out Crockett and Tubbs as they break up some vile and illegal South Florida activity. The players cheer the explosions and gunfire. Ah, if only a 30-game losing streak could be snuffed so easily.
Somebody gets up and changes the channel. Policastro explains that the house used to have a remote-control tuner, but a robber broke in with a pickax one night and tried to make off with the TV and the tuner. The thief ran into one of the fraternity brothers, dropped the television, but escaped with the tuner.
The tale reminds junior defensive back Paul San Filippo of the time one of the Columbia players had his watch stolen in a subway station, then chased and caught the guy and threw him down onto the tracks. A train was coming, and the player made the terrified thief throw the watch to him before he would let the man crawl back on the platform. This story reminds Policastro of what he feels is the premier big-city college-campus story.
"One night back in 1983 a freshman soccer player was walking along and saw a nice, decent-sized rug out on the street and decided to use it in his dorm room," says Policastro. "He and his roommates carried the rolled-up rug to the sixth floor of Carmen Hall, and then they said, 'Damn, this thing is heavy.' So they rested and leaned the rug against the wall. When they did, two feet dropped out. There was a body in the rug. True story."
Such bizarre incidents are more than tempered by the cultural enrichment the students receive from being in the city, says Policastro. But what hasn't been tempered is the fiasco that occurred in the football program last year.
After head coach Bob Naso resigned after going 0-9 in 1984 and winning just four games in his five years at Columbia, his successor, Jim Garrett, tried to shake up the team with a fiery approach. When the Lions lost their 1985 opener to Harvard 49-17, Garrett exploded, calling the players "drug-addicted losers." He also told punter Peter Murphy he would "never kick for me again," and would most likely be a failure when he graduated and went to work on Wall Street.
The Lions had been ahead of Harvard 14-0 at the half and 17-0 midway through the third quarter before they gave up seven consecutive touchdowns. To this day none of the players can explain what happened, only that there was some vague failure of will, that each setback compounded the one before it, that maybe the team was terrified of winning.
None of this excuses Garrett's outburst, of course. At the end of the season he resigned, and his three football-playing sons left Columbia and enrolled at Princeton. "His kids were excellent, too," says Policastro. "They would have made a difference this year."
The heartbreakers have piled up this year as well. Columbia lost to Lafayette 26-21 as time expired with the Lions at the Lafayette five-yard line. Columbia lost 20-14 to Princeton, after which McElreavy said, "I'm disappointed in our entire offensive day, except for the last five minutes when, for whatever reason, we caught fire." And the Lions lost to Villanova, a Division III school, 42-34 after leading 28-14 at the half.
"It's the lack of tradition, I think," says Policastro. "Football is a deeply traditional game, and as freshmen we never heard those stories from upperclassmen about how they pulled out games in the last seconds, all that great stuff. We seniors have had four different coaches in four years, counting our freshman coach, and we've been like rookies again and again. We've heard it's nice to have just one coach, but how would we know?"
Oddly enough, the Lions have been getting almost as much media attention as they would if they were undefeated. "You know, I think maybe this is like when Rock Hudson got AIDS or Len Bias died from cocaine. Maybe this is the dramatic thing that will shake everybody up," says Policastro. "Columbia has been losing for 25 years and nobody cared."
To start instilling some tradition, McElreavy declared Thursday's practice Senior Hit Day. Each senior got to call out an underclassman—"somebody who has been ticking you off, who stole your girlfriend or something"—and knock him butt over teakettle onto a rubber mat. The seniors then ran their final 100-yard dash of the season, after which they dived and slid on their bellies through the cold, wet practice-field slop. Then, filthy as pigs, they ran their final lap around the gridiron, ending their jog by funnelling through the assembled team, which sang, Roar, Lions, Roar.
Corny or not, the ritual seems to inspire the players. By Friday evening there is spirited talk of whupping Brown, of buying champagne for the victory celebration. "What about some cigars?" senior fullback John Chirico asks the guys in the Sigma Chi tube room.
McElreavy seems to know that victory probably lies somewhere further down the road. "I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was that bad," he says, recalling his assessment last spring of the talent on the team. As the media have hammered away at him this season, he has tried to keep his sense of humor.
"I know this will be painful," a network-TV reporter said to him before an interview.
"Who knows," replied the coach. "Maybe some great running back in Tallahassee will see this and say, 'That's where I want to go! Columbia!' "
But in the locker room at Baker Field before Saturday's game against Brown. McElreavy's smile withers.
"I'm tired of all this b——," he hisses to the silent team. "They're all here! Let's get them off our backs!" On the bulletin board he has pinned a New York Times article that suggests Columbia quit playing Ivy League teams.
Out on the field, under a clear blue sky, the game is lost shortly after it begins. On the fourth play from scrimmage, quarterback Mark Donovan of Brown scrambles for 48 yards, and the Bruins score moments after that. At the end of the first quarter Brown leads 21-0. At the half it's 28-0, and spectators are saying that it looks a little like a college team playing a high school team. "It's like people stopping to look at a car accident," says the band's halftime-show organizer, Frederic Schwarz. "Kind of rubberneck football."
As play resumes, distraught cheerleader Mano bellows sadly, "We are overly generous!"
The Lions' play brings to mind beatnik writer Jack Kerouac, a former Columbia gridder who quit the team back in 1942 and wrote: "This is a bunch of weak-kneed punks, tall and disjointed and sorta decadent."
Actually, "tall" would be stretching it with the current crop. The players try, but they simply don't have it. The game ends at 45-7, although the scoreboard operator, having a little fun, has it Columbia 46, Brown 45.
In the locker room, Alletto is stunned that his very last game with the Lions should be one of the team's worst. "It's like a death," he says. "I can't change anything now. It's written in stone."
In the interview room, McElreavy vows that next year the Lions will have some "quads, thick necks and nice triceps on them. Lean body tissue." For the seniors, though, there is no next year.