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.