For humorists, there was a nine-year-old boy Parading around Princeton's Palmer Stadium Saturday afternoon holding a cardboard sign that pleaded, PLEASE WIN BEFORE I GROW UP. For symbolists, there were the Columbia cheerleaders, whose van broke down en route from New York, whose next ride, a taxi, got a flat and whose last lift, another van, wandered aimlessly before depositing them at the stadium at the end of the third quarter. For ironists, there were Princeton's three best players, the Garretts, whose father is still on Columbia's payroll, even though he was fired as the Lions' coach two years ago.
But for Columbia loyalists, there was only ignominy. By tumbling 38-8 to the Tigers, the Lions extended their losing streak to 35 games, thus breaking Northwestern's five-year-old record for Division I futility. Some of the 600 Columbia students in attendance raised index fingers to mark the defeat. A few trotted onto the field as time ran out. But for the most part, the faithful merely mused on history in the making, and then exited, either saddened or morbidly amused.
Their classmates' mixed emotions weren't lost on the Lion players. "I dare one of them to come up and say, 'I'm glad you lost,' " said senior cornerback Paul San Filippo, who hasn't experienced victory in his 24 games at Columbia, "I'd probably knock his head off."
Decapitation is pretty much what the Garretts—John, a senior wide receiver; Jason, a junior quarterback; and Judd, a sophomore running back—did to the Lions. In 1985, their father, Jim, became the Columbia coach. John was already a player there. Jason transferred from Princeton and, in accordance with NCAA rules, sat out that season, and Judd was on the freshman team. But the family plan didn't last long. Jim was forced to resign after an unseemly outburst in which he called his troops "drug-addicted losers," and his kids transferred to Princeton, where they sat out the '86 season.
October 18, 1987
Jim, who's still being paid for the last year of his Columbia contract, was on hand Saturday as his sons reminded Lion fans what they could do. Eleven seconds into the game, Judd swept right for 58 yards and a TD. On the Tigers' next series, Jason completed a 76-yard touchdown pass to John. Judd went on to score two more TDs and finish with 147 yards rushing. Jason had 173 yards passing, 90 of them to John.
The Lions, meanwhile, returned a lot of kickoffs. As usual, they tried their best. As usual, they were beaten. In the 31 years since the Ivy League was formally organized, Columbia has won the title once, in 1961. The winning percentages of its coaches from 1968 to the present are: .315, .231, .102, .000 (that's Garrett's 0-10) and .000 (0-14). During the streak, which began after the Lions manhandled Dartmouth 17-17 on Nov. 5, 1983, Columbia has been outscored by an average of 24.5 points a game and outrushed by nearly three miles. Harvard played eight quarterbacks in its 34-0 romp last year.
Unlike Northwestern's many seasons of frustration against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan, the Lions' three decades of disappointment have come mainly against schools that, like Columbia, don't offer athletic scholarships. Columbia's size is one difficulty: Its freshman class includes just 400 males, the smallest number among the Ivys. Continuity is another; the Lions have switched coaches three times in four years. And the seasons of failure have created a sense of gridiron despair. "Right now, the biggest obstacle is for the players to believe they can succeed," says second-year coach Larry McElreavy. "I don't look at us as rebuilding a program, but building one."
Some alumni, like three-letter man Ron Szczypkowski, who graduated in 1958, suggest that Columbia drop to Division III in football. "There has to be excitement and self-esteem in it for the players," Szczypkowski says. "To see them lose 28-nothing, 35-nothing is not good for the image of the school or the psyche of the player. If we can't turn it around at the end of two years, we should downgrade."
Other Columbia graduates are more reluctant to bail out of the Ivys. "The press we've gotten has been ridiculous. But if we drop out of the Ivy League in football—talk about publicity!" says Gerry Sherwin, '55, president of the Varsity "C" Club. Nor would downgrading necessarily stop the slide. Villanova, a Division III team, whipped the Lions 42-34 last year after trailing 28-14.
Columbia's athletic administration has been working to bring about better times. Its fund-raising efforts have tripled the number of substantial donors to the football program in the past decade. Baker Field, which once had 20,000 of its 32,000 seats condemned, has been pleasantly rebuilt and the new stadium named after benefactor Lawrence A. Wien. And there are signs of life among the underclassmen. Last year's freshman team—McElreavy's first crop of signees—went 3-3. This season's freshmen are 2-0 after taming Princeton 26-8. "The name of the game is having the resources to recruit," says athletic director Al Paul. "We're finally getting better athletes."
Just 11 Columbia seniors made the trip to Princeton. For them, playing each game is the top priority; the streak, an afterthought. "On the field, it's just me and the guy I'm looking at, and the world can go to hell," said San Filippo after Saturday's defeat. "Now is the tough part. When you come off the field." For the future, the question remains, how much tougher is it going to get?