Pete Speaks

Image Well, it’s a start.  Pete Mangurian, embattled head coach at Columbia University, posted a memo recently.  These are his first words to the alumni and football supporters since the end of the 2013 season other than a generic form letter sent to financial contributors a few weeks ago. Pete’s latest memo didn’t directly address all of the concerns critics and observers have been debating since the season wrapped up at 0-10 but he said enough to indicate he is aware of the criticism and perhaps even partially conceded some of it is warranted.  Primarily, followers of the program want to know what changes will be made to right the ship and prove he is capable of the demands of the job.

A shakeup of the assistant coaching staff did little to show us much.  Three good men left the staff (Mike Cooke, linebackers, Wendell Davis, receivers and Ed Argast, offensive line) and a few young coaches were “promoted” allegedly with more responsibility. With regard to Argast, the OL is one of the biggest problems so it was a much needed changing of the guard anyway.  Cooke and Davis were hardly a problem.  It is a concern that no significant names were added to the coaching staff.  What this tells us is Pete is not one to back down from the biggest coaching challenge of his career. In fact, there is so little talent on his coaching staff his mindset has to be he is hoisting everything on his shoulders.  He has navigated the choppy waters of his first two seasons by shrugging off a coup d’etat threat by alumni and managing to convince his employers to show patience.  If physical appearances count for anything, we can see the toll 3 wins in two seasons has taken on Pete in this demanding profession.  Pete does not cut the figure of a lean, mean fighting machine.  He has shown outward signs of disrepair as the 2013 season progressed and it has gotten worse by the conclusion of spring training 2014.

As we now look to July training camp the biggest question mark will be how a huge freshman class will be able to contribute right away.  Some alumni are upset the JV program was eliminated.  I don’t share that view. In a perfect world, a JV teams gives freshmen a chance to acclimate to the college game.  However, in the case of Columbia, I don’t think the varsity team stands a chance at winning any games in 2014 without an injection of a whole lot of athleticism, team speed, much needed depth and the key intangible of blissful ignorance of the problems of the past hanging over the heads.  The way this roster shapes up without the incoming freshmen class is just way too thin.  They would be stepping into the exact same position of weakness they left after going 0-10. Let’s start on offense.  We still don’t know for sure if big armed QB Brett Nottingham will be ready for the season.  He was knocked out of action the first game of last season as a result of a porous offensive line.  Without Nottingham, the Lions will likely go with Junior Trevor McDonagh, at least to get things started.  Whoever is at QB will need an OL that can pull it’s weight.  They absolutely have to find a solution that keeps the QB upright.

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Game planning and an innovative offense will also have to be significantly improved. At the least, Pete’s system needs to be something all players can digest and run with out of the gate.  Thus far the offense has been dismal under Offensive Coordinator Jamie Elizondo. Now, with all-world RB Marcorus Garrett graduating, there is even more pressure to find reliable ways to gain yards. The good news is several freshmen have potential to step in at RB and OL, perhaps even at QB.  We won’t know until July what this team is really made of with the freshmen infusion.

Fortunately, the defense is in a lot better shape with some excellent returnees.  That may sound ridiculous considering the vast amount of points conceded.  However, the problem last season was too much time on the field as a result of the offense being so inefficient.  If they can balance that out the defense has a fighting chance to stabilize.

Perhaps Pete really is getting in tune with what is really necessary to make this program click.  We can only hope there are no more break of dawn practices.  Whatever fitness and nutrition program that is in place has to be reinforced by the University.  It can’t just be an educational overall body maintenance program.  To get the most of every athlete requires a lot of discipline on the part of the players and the means to help them achieve their goals. This is easier said than done.  It is no secret the very campus of Columbia as well as its practice and fitness facilities location doesn’t make it easy to coordinate all of their needs in synch with a very demanding academic environment.  On top of this, they lost a top shelf strength and fitness coach to Stanford. They have yet to backfill that role. One way or the other, it’s a big challenge to bring all the needful together into a well oiled machine capable of winning games in the very competitive FCS and Ivy League football conference.

At least Pete Mangurian has offered the olive branch, despite nasty criticism tossed his way.  On the other hand, maybe he is just doing the bare minimum required to communicate with football supporters and he really would rather continue to hunker down and dismiss the football supporters as an enemy.  He’ll never admit to either viewpoint whatever the truth may be but a little information is better than the nothing we had been getting since November ’13.

The Pete Mangurian Reign at Columbia

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There is no question when Pete Mangurian took over as head football coach at Columbia in 2012 he was brimming with enthusiasm and optimism.  He was excited to address the campus community as well as the media to get his message across.  That being the program will not be defined by its past.  Who can argue with such a sentiment?  That is what we would all do in such a situation – push forward into a new era without regard for where the program has been.

The problem for Pete was he was handed a big pair of shoes to fill – literally. His predecessor, Norries Wilson is a giant of a man. Out of any Columbia head coach, Wilson looked the part of a leader, ready to tackle the immense challenge of turning around the program.  Wilson did everything he could to turn things around, even if the job turned out to be a little too much for him to succeed at. In 2006 he led the team to a 5-5 overall record.  He tacked on two 4 win seasons but at the end of the 2011 campaign, he was out.

There are varying points of view whether Wilson did or did not achieve successful recruiting classes in his final few seasons. If you asked Pete Mangurian, he would privately tell you the cupboard was a bit bare. He may have had a point. In Pete’s second season, the team regressed to levels not seen since the dark age of Columbia football of the 80′s and the 44 game losing streak.

So what happened here for such a rapid plummet? Was Pete Mangurian the wrong choice for the job?  It’s a little late to debate the outcome but it is widely viewed that Columbia Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy hired Mangurian because of their working relationship when Pete was head coach at Cornell from 1998-2000. On the surface, it is easy to see Pete’s credentials. He has had a long career both in college and pro ranks. However, as professional a demeanor as Pete carries off the field, he is a tough nut to his players.  He has clashed with players in every pro job he has been in.  His abrasiveness was reported as the reason why he was dismissed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prior to landing the Columbia post.

Keep in mind, as an Ivy League head coach, Pete didn’t do too badly in his 3 year stint at Cornell. In fact, he went 16-14 overall and 11-10 in the Ivy League before re-joining his friend Dan Reeves in the NFL.  That didn’t turn out too badly either as he and Reeves took the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl.

It has been much different at Columbia where he is 3-17 overall thus far.

Pete’s relations with Columbia alumni are frosty as he is continually criticized by a small but vocal alumni community. It has gotten so bad, at least one prominent football alumnus has asked for his Columbia athletics Hall of Fame membership to be removed. It has gotten so bad, Pete has all but abandoned his social media outreach to football supporters at large. It has gotten so bad, an alumni group has organized to oust Ms. Murphy (and of course Pete).  In their place, the alumni want to hire a consulting group to help the athletic department find a foundation .

Things are so bad, the typically merciless New York media feels sorry for the program.

Can anyone blame the football alumni and constituent supporters for being fed up with losing and being fed up with the lack of an aggressive strategy to turn things around for all athletics at the university? Not that the powers that be don’t really care.  The issue is they don’t care all that much. M. Dianne Murphy was supposed to bring credibility to the role of Athletic Director. Instead, she has drawn ire from the vocal segment of alumni. It’s not for lack of effort. There are plenty of positives to Ms. Murphy’s reign, just none that are significant enough to point to strong confidence in her leadership.

Though if you believe University President/Emperor Lee Bollinger, athletics and football in particular are on the right track. What is so odd is how he, a distinguished man of letters, can expect the alumni to truly believe such a cardboard sentiment in the face of reality.

So is the currently degraded state of Columbia football really Pete Mangurian’s mess or did he bequeath an untenable situation from Norries Wilson?  Did Dianne Murphy make a political hire with Pete because of her prior professional relationship with him ? We know there were plenty of other capable candidates who would have been a better fit.  Why would a head coach with a track record of poor communication with professional players be counted on to motivate  and lead student athletes?

Something else to keep in mind is Pete took over a healthy Cornell program in 1998.  His predecessor, Jim Hofher, had a 44-36 overall record (35-25 in the Ivy League), including an Ivy League championship in 1990.  Pete’s Cornell years maintained stability with a steady pipeline of strong recruits.  In such a situation, there is no question a good coach can win some games. Pete is a good coach.  He’s just not the best fit for every situation, as we are discovering heading into his third season at Columbia.

But there is more to the story of course.  Pete is as old school as old school gets.  He played at LSU in the mid 70′s.  He was a knock heads, grind it out in the trenches type of offensive lineman.  You know, let’s give credit to those guys who played in the era with paper thin helmets.  As a coach, he stands by what he has learned.  The problem is he does not seem to be very innovative or flexible in adapting.  What he learned from one of his mentors, Bill Arnsbarger at LSU, is for linemen to cut down on weight.  Actually, let’s be fair.  Arnsbarger’s strategy was demanding body fat ratios of 15% for linemen, 10% for backs and tight ends, 6% to 8% for the skill positions.  Every player must meet the requirements by the start of fall practice.  This policy gained college football fame as Arnsparger’s LSU Lunch Bunch transformed into the LSU Lean Machine.

Taking nothing away from the legendary Bill Arnsparger, it’s just good defense that made his coaching successful, not what the players ate for lunch. The same gimmicky notoriety can be said for Arnsparger’s “No Name” defense with the Miami Dolphins and the “Killer B’s” where it so happened the majority of defensive players had last names beginning with B.  His book, Coaching Defensive Football, is excellent by the way.

Though Arnsparger officially retired in 1995, he was the special teams coach and a key asset to Pete’s brain trust at Cornell.

Of course, combining intense fitness with skill is what athletics thrive on but let’s not go overboard.  You need weight to store energy and compete.  You need a calorie burn in practices and games.  That is normal and proven body mechanics for top athletes.  As a coaching staff you have to be flexible.  You can’t force players to cut down on weight to the point where they lose strength.  You can’t sacrifice weight reduction for the sake of a policy or you get hammered. You have to design policies for each athlete to help them achieve peak fitness.

Having such an excellent mentor as Bill Arsparger and a great old school friend as Dan Reeves has shaped Pete Mangurian as a head coach.  The problem is it’s all a poor fit at Columbia. It seems in Pete’s old school mind, players are to be held accountable to the same standard as every player he has ever coached regardless of the situation. Maybe that is the hard knocks of the NFL – players are just tools and coaches have a myopic directive to keep the fire lit under them regardless of a players’ experience level, fitness needs, stature, stats, injuries or anything else.  That strategy may even be normal for some college programs.  Columbia needs something different.

Everywhere he has been Pete is the same gruff coach entrenched in his ways, slow to adapt to what’s outside the box.  He falls into a class of coach who attempts to execute according to what he wants to do, not what is best suited to his personnel. That is how Columbia games have looked in wrenching defeat under Pete. Coaches only look great when their mantra works but really, adapting your personnel, accounting for tendencies in your opponents and most importantly, your ability to get players prepared by taking advantage of their strengths is what will make a coach successful.  Has Pete Mangurian done that at Columbia?  Not by a longshot.

Season 3 of Pete’s reign will tell the story how well an old dog can learn new tricks.

The Old Men Will Always Think They Know It All

There are some who believe you can’t move forward unless you know where you’ve been. Many people are stuck in that kind of thinking. They keep re-living the past because they can’t let it go. I was that way for a few years covering the Oakland Raiders in a blog. Then Al Davis died and things progressively became extremely less interesting. In fact, the franchise bored me to death and I completely lost interest.

Although I never blogged on the NY Jets, I was a lifelong fan growing up near NYC. They too bored me to death, especially in the 80′s.

Then there is Columbia football, the first football team I ever saw play live. I don’t even remember who they played against. I remember going with my Dad to Baker Field and enjoying the atmosphere. Sure, the stadium is not the most modern, it is hard to get to and the Lions rarely won but they became my team. That decision was made in the late 1970′s.

Columbia kept losing and losing badly, despite strong talent at key positions (see this great article from SI).

I moved from New York to Northern California. The Lions kept losing. A few spikes in performance here and there. I actually liked the reign of head coach Ray Tellier. Many people didn’t. To me he was just a good guy. Maybe not the top of the class as far as football coaches go but his heart was always in the right place, at least I thought so. He tells it like it is.

I never got involved in understanding the internal difficulties Columbia had with running their athletic department but clearly something was amiss. Other colleges with losing programs, Ivy and other conferences with limited or no scholarships, managed to turn it around. Columbia never did.

Then Columbia hired Bob Shoop as head coach. What could go wrong with a talented, young, innovative leader? He lasted 3 seasons in the position.  The first year went ok but he just could not amass victories.  His successor, Norries Wilson, met a similar fate.

Now there is a new stadium, new facilities. It’s not all peachy keen perfect but it’s an upgrade. Still, the athletic department just can’t get it right. Losing must be someone else’s fault, right? It’s no secret coaches bear the burden of a losing record but so too should the AD.

That is of course unless you are Columbia University. Let’s just look at the recent past to define what this means. University President Lee Bollinger has raised billions through fundraising. He has done so well the Board of Trustees extended his reign. He may as well be Emperor of Columbia University. The money raised feeds the entire campus and satellites. Everybody associated with the University is extremely happy with this accomplishment. However, we have a caveat to this scenario. Mr. Bollinger does not care a wink about athletics, let alone the brutish sport of football. He does not take a strong hand in ensuring correct guidance – perhaps because it is beyond his capabilities.  Though, alumni insist he needs to take a stronger hand.  For better or worse, football provides flagship visibility for all schools of higher education that can afford to fund a team at all. Football at Columbia is not a revenue generator but the program has existed for well over a century.  It is now a well known football joke, even for people who are not football fans.

Clearly, there is a stigma associated with the University. This stigma is evident even from within the University itself where football is perceived as a  joke. Yet, all is well because opponents of football sit beyond the range of public perception. It is an insular environment within those walls. Very few people actually care about any sports because the University is so healthy otherwise – academically, financially, every which way. Life is good in Morningside Heights if you are lucky enough to have your slice of academics fully funded. What more would you really care about?

Certainly, losing has not stopped football recruits from all across the U.S from attending CU and seeking out a great education. Naturally, making the decision to attend Columbia is not all about football but I have a hard time believing these recruits don’t care about the reputation of the program.

Even today with a shaky coaching staff there are some perks to entice student athletes to be part of the program. There are new facilities financed by Robert Kraft and Bill Campbell – he of the last championship football team from 1960 something.  Uncle Bill threw in a swanky new athletic center with meeting rooms, workout facilities and wow, even an area for student-athletes to play video games. A sign of the times no doubt.

So what is next for Columbia football? More of the same? Another influx of fresh-faced freshmen eager to be part of change, buying into whatever mantra is being sold only to struggle collectively as a team? Then by the end of their freshman season there is a deflation in expectations. A “what the hey, I’m gonna get out of here with a Columbia degree and end up with a pretty good job somewhere. Maybe losing isn’t so bad…” type of attitude. Not that they stop trying to win. It just doesn’t happen very often.

Funny and on point, incoming freshman Nick Surges has the header “The old men will always think they know it all” on his Twitter account. Of course, a quick check reveals that to be a Kenny Chesney song. Buuuuut, we all know what he really means.

Prove us wrong laddie.

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Why is Columbia Football Unsuccessful?

In case you don’t know, Columbia is in the Ivy League and has been playing college football for quite some time.  Their heyday was winning the Rose Bowl against Stanford in 1930 something.  Ok, it was only a 7-0 win but they also won the Ivy League Championship in 1960 something.  Unfortunately, that’s it.  Just a handful of winning seasons and some signs of progress in that entire span of time only to slink back to futility.  Not to say good players have not been part of the program because plenty have.  People have been trying to dissect reasons why the futility persists for decades on end.  One reason stands out – the right people have not been making the decision as who to hire to lead the program.

It’s not for a lack of money.  Columbia has plenty of that at hand.  They have some very generous boosters, a new stadium, some new facilities overall, a renewed game day experience to generate fan support.  Despite the drawbacks of a practice facility requiring a bus ride, playing in an urban environment non-conducive to outdoor sports, good recruits do manage to make their way to Morningside Heights in New York City.  And if it really needs to be spelled out, if you are a good enough student to attend Columbia, you will receive a great education and be fully equipped for whatever career you decide to pursue afterwards.  Football is a big part of the experience but overall, it is not the sole reason student-athletes attend Columbia.  Unlike the big money football programs, Columbia has its priorities elsewhere.  Yet, so do many institutions of higher learning such as the other Ivies and many, many other quality universities – most of whom have good football programs.

Still, despite some earnest attempts, the right leadership has never emerged for the Columbia football program going back to the 60′s.  So what is it that makes coaches fail at Columbia?  One former coach likened it to the players having an addiction to losing.  But that could not explain away the fresh minds and bodies coming into the program with high expectations.  No one plays a college sport to lose.  You don’t sign up to be part of losing.  You are not affected by  negativity – at least not at first.  Maybe it trickles down from the upperclassmen as the futility mounts.

To the alumni supporters, this is not a satisfactory scenario.  It is just unacceptable to be a losing program for such stretches of time without a vigilant effort to turn things around.  Yet, good men have come in and tried their best only to be humbled.

There is a case to be made that Columbia simply does not have the right people in place to make decisions in the best interest of Columbia football and perhaps all of Columbia athletics.

This blog will ruminate and hopefully, coincide with the mythical turnaround expected by supporters of the CU football program.

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The 1930 something Columbia Rose Bowl squad