KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Columbia University is known for many things - winning at football not one of them. In the 1980s, the school set a record for most consecutive no-win games at 44. The team is currently at 22 straight losses, the worst in the league. But wait. This season, there is some hope for the Columbia Lions in the form of a new coach with a good record. This fall, Ilya Marritz is tracking the Lions for member station WNYC to learn what it takes to have a breakthrough.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Meet the Columbia University Lions, one of the oldest football teams in the country.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One team.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: One team.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One family.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: One family.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Together.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Together.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Squad on three. One, two, three...
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Squad.
MARRITZ: If you watched them practice, you'd probably think, those are some good athletes, and you wouldn't guess that they're in the middle of a long losing streak.
TRAVIS REIM: I mean, obviously, we haven't won a game in two years, so everyone just thinks we're a bad. But that's not the case.
TOBA AKINLEYE: I haven't won a game since my freshman year.
NICK DURHAM: You never forget the feeling of winning, and that's what we're trying to get back to here, is winning.
MARRITZ: Travis Reim, Toba Akinleye and Nick Durham - all seniors. If things are going to change, this is the year it starts. Columbia is pouring money into the team and working hard to get students and alums to root for the Lions again. But the biggest change is the man at the top - a new coach who's legendary for winning. His name is Al Bagnoli, and in 23 years leading the University of Pennsylvania Quakers, he brought home nine Ivy League titles.
AL BAGNOLI: What we're trying to do here is no different than a company that's gone bankrupt and it's been bought by somebody and they're coming in there with a new management team. And how do you get that business to be solvent, and then how do you get it to be profitable?
MARRITZ: Kristyn Brundidge does play-by-play for the college radio station WKCR, and she thinks Bagnoli may just have the right resume for this job.
KRISTYN BRUNDIDGE: It really would take a unique talent to come in here, change the attitude of the existing players, do the recruiting that's necessary and also appeal to the alumni enough to gain the support that's necessary for this team to compete.
MARRITZ: That sounds like a miracle worker.
BRUNDIDGE: (Laughter). I mean - and, like, the thing is, like, Al Bagnoli is probably the closest thing you're going to get to a miracle worker.
MARRITZ: Bagnoli's approach - attention to deal. Take care of the little things, and work on motivating athletes who've gotten used to losing. So go out, he says, and play 100 miles an hour. Last Saturday, the Lions faced the Fordham University Rams in their season opener. And for the first three quarters, it's close. In what was probably the most thrilling moment of the game, Columbia running back Alan Watson catches the ball at kickoff at the two yard line. He disappears in a knot of Fordham players and then reappears on the other side, sprinting for the end zone.
MARRITZ: It's the Lions' first kickoff return for a touchdown in a decade. In the fourth quarter, it's the Rams, though, not the Lions, who roar. Fordham wins 44 to 24. Up in the stands, Columbia fans are just happy they got to see an exciting, competitive game. It feels like an improvement, but it's not good enough for coach Bagnoli.
BAGNOLI: I don't want our kids happy that, you know, they made this thing respectable. I don't think that's our goal. I don't think that's where we want the program to be at.
MARRITZ: This Saturday, the Lions are on their home field to face Georgetown. If they can make this a win, if they can get even just one win this season, it'll feel like success. For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York.
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