Before last Saturday's game against Lafayette, the Columbia
players gathered for a most unusual team meeting. "With all the
success we're having, we just needed to remind ourselves that
now is not the time to get complacent," senior linebacker Rory
Wilfork said later. Columbia? Complacent?
"We were saying, All the reporters and the pro scouts are coming
around now, but it'll be a ghost town here if we stop winning,"
added senior defensive end-tailback Marcellus Wiley. Reporters?
These are intoxicating times on the Upper West Side of
Manhattan. After nipping Lafayette 3-0 in a rainstorm, the Lions
are 5-0, the school's best start since 1945. Yes, this is the
Columbia that went 5-88-3, including a then NCAA record 44
straight losses, during a stretch that spanned most of the 1980s.
However, expanded recruiting, upgraded facilities and, most
important, a major attitude adjustment have made Columbia one of
the season's stunning success stories. "The goal since we
started here has been to reverse the tradition of losing and
make it a tradition of winning," says eighth-year coach Ray
Tellier, who has outfitted his team with T-shirts that read
THINK BIG, MAKE HISTORY. "It takes time, but it's starting."
Playing in wind and rain that stripped umbrellas to their ribs
and sent ponchos wafting toward the heavens, the Lions' quick
and nasty defense forced five turnovers, giving Columbia a
plus-11 margin in takeaways-giveaways on the season. Matt Linit
was the hero with a 24-yard field goal with 5:06 left. And the
Lions once again displayed the cool confidence and flinty desire
that have carried them to Ivy League victories this season over
Harvard and Penn. "We're learning to find ways to win, while in
the past we were looking for ways to lose," says Tellier. "It's
as simple as that."
Tellier arrived at Columbia in January 1989, just months after
the 44-game free fall ended. He needed six seasons to turn the
Lions into winners: Their 5-4-1 record in 1994 was the school's
first above-.500 finish in 23 years. His success can be traced
to his can-do approach and his emphasis on football
fundamentals. But with typical self-effacement he says of the
turnaround, "We haven't gotten any smarter around here. We've
gotten better football players."
Rather than just battle the other Ivy schools for players in the
Northeast, Columbia also scours Florida, Texas and, especially,
California; 29 of the 93 players on the roster, including 11
starters, hail from California. These Lions are bigger, faster
and more precocious than their predecessors because many have
come from top high school programs in cutthroat football
regions. "We used to see the recruits come in, and we'd say,
'Hey, look at all the new punters.' But the thing was, they
weren't punters, they were linebackers!" says Wiley, whom
Tellier lured from Los Angeles. "We're bringing in studs now."
Wiley is a 6'5", 270-pound warhorse who wreaks havoc on both
sides of the ball. His future in the NFL is on defense, as he
showed against Lafayette with 10 solo tackles, a sack and a
fumble recovery. On offense Wiley is a short-yardage wrecking
ball, scoring seven touchdowns in only 41 carries as a junior
and four more TDs in just 16 carries this season. "They call me
Glory Boy," he says, sheepishly, of his offensive teammates.
"There's a lot of love on this team," says sticky-fingered
wideout David Ramirez. "We play for each other and nothing else.
There are no personal agendas, it's just about the team. You can
see it every week when someone different steps up."
That sounds a lot like the credo of last year's
up-from-the-ashes darling, Northwestern. It's no accident.
Tellier and his staff spent a few days with Northwestern's
coaches last spring, and they have imported some of the
Wildcats' drills and much of their philosophy. Tellier even
showed his team Northwestern's highlight video before this
season. "It sounds corny," says Ramirez, "but that really did
give us the idea that anything is possible."
Whether the Lions run the table this season remains to be seen,
but they don't figure to revert to past performance anytime
soon. Sixty-eight freshmen and sophomores are on this team. "The
foundation for success has been laid," says Wilfork, who also is
an NFL prospect. "We know where this program is going. We also
know where it has been--that's why we can't let up now."
OVER THE TOP
There is something palpably strange about college football's new
overtime rule, which calls for tie games to be broken by teams
alternating possessions starting 25 yards from the end zone.
It's Football Lite, a quick alternative to the real game, played
on a short field with no kickoffs and no punts, and it seems an
unjust way to decide a game after 60 minutes of conventional
football. That view, however, is fast being steamrollered by the
raw excitement that overtime has created.
Last Saturday the rule came of age, as USC-Arizona State and Air
Force-Notre Dame, two high-profile games with wide television
audiences and high stakes, went into OT.
At Sun Devil Stadium a crowd of 74,947, which had been given a
referee's warning for excessive noise, sat nearly silent while
the rules for overtime were read over the public address system.
That audience then was treated to a wild double OT, eventually
won by fourth-ranked and undefeated Arizona State 48-35. At the
finish USC coach John Robinson said of the tiebreaker, "I loved
it. It's a hell of a lot better than going out and playing
another 15 minutes of regular football." And Robinson, an
old-fashioned sort, likes regular football.
Notre Dame was upset 20-17 at home by Air Force. The loss, the
Irish's first to a service academy since 1985, came in
overtime--and suddenly. Notre Dame had the first possession in
OT, but ran only one play, on which quarterback Ron Powlus was
sacked and fumbled, with Air Force recovering. The Falcons
deadened Notre Dame Stadium five plays later, when Dallas
Thompson kicked a game-winning, 27-yard field goal.
When college coaches voted last February to endorse
regular-season overtime and recommended this to the NCAA rules
committee (which rubber-stamped the motion), they could scarcely
have imagined it would have such an immediate and profound
effect. Last Saturday was the watershed day for overtime, but it
was also in OT that Oklahoma emotionally won its first game of
the season, 30-27 over Texas, on Oct. 12 at the Cotton Bowl.
Both of Columbia's victories in the Ivy League have been in
overtime. On Oct. 5 Florida A&M took five hours and six overtime
possessions to beat Mid-Eastern Athletic conference rival
Hampton 59-58. The score at the end of regulation was 20-20;
then, astonishingly, each team traded scores tit for tat--five
touchdowns, three PATs, one two-point conversion and one field
goal each--before a missed extra point cost Hampton the game.
After that marathon Florida A&M coach Billy Joe said, "I hope
this never happens again. It almost makes you wish for a tie.
I've never been in such a stressful situation."
What is stressful for coaches has been riveting for fans. Each
possession in overtime is paramount, each play is run within
easy scoring range. It's a high-risk event played at video-game
speed. Still, the question must be asked: Arizona State's OT
victory was thrilling, but if the Sun Devils had attempted an
old-fashioned, all-or-nothing two-point conversion after scoring
with 1:30 to play in regulation, instead of kicking the extra
point that tied the game, would that have been less exciting?
LOTS OF CONS...AND PROS
This season's strong showing by fourth-ranked Arizona State
notwithstanding, the Pac-10 has developed a reputation for
softness. Of the eight major Division I-A conferences, the
Pac-10 and Conference USA were the only two that failed to place
teams in the final Associated Press Top 10 in either 1994 or
'95. Moreover, other than Washington, no Pac-10 school has
played in a bowl game with the national championship on the line
since '79. Yet the Pac-10 is second to none in delivering
players, especially quarterbacks, to the pros. Here's a
breakdown of how the Pac-10 stacked up against other conferences
in filling the NFL's 1996 opening-week rosters.
NFL Players Total Starting
Per School NFL QBs NFL QBs
Pac-10 19.9 15 8
Big Ten 17.6 13 6
SEC 17.2 6 0
Big East 16.9 9 4
ACC 16.0 12 3
Big 12 12.3 1 0
USA 6.3 4 1
WAC 6.3 7 4