Score, Lion, score: Columbia hires new athletic director, football coach

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A new era for Columbia athletics began earlier this year as Peter Pilling, an executive from the nation’s largest collegiate sports-marketing company, IMG College, was hired as the University’s athletic director and Al Bagnoli, the former Penn head coach, was recruited to lead the Lions’ football squad.

As a vice president at IMG College, Pilling oversaw multimedia rights and corporate­-sponsorship deals for many Division I athletic departments, including those at Brigham Young University, Texas Christian University, Baylor University, and the US Air Force Academy. The job gave him an intimate look at how sports programs at those and other schools are run, he says, and thus helped prepare him to direct his own athletic department. He had been working toward that goal since holding senior positions in the athletic departments at Brigham Young and Villanova in the early 2000s.

Peter Pilling began revamping the Lions’ football program immediately upon being named Columbia’s athletic director in January. / Photographs by Jonathan Lattif

“It has always been my dream to serve as an athletic director at a great university,” says Pilling, who holds a master’s degree in sports administration from Ohio University. “What I’ve found at Columbia is an extraordinary opportunity to bring together the highest achievements in teaching, learning, and research with a commitment to excellence in athletics.”

Said President Lee C. Bollinger in announcing Pilling’s hire: “Peter has spent his career working at several of the most respected college sports programs in the country ... I’m confident that his wealth of knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm will help us build on a strong record of achievement and reach the new levels of excellence that we expect in everything we do as a great university.”

Pilling, fifty­-six, succeeds M. Dianne Murphy, who served as Columbia’s athletic director for eleven years, a period during which the Lions enjoyed some of their most successful seasons ever. In the spring of 2014, for example, the Lions won their second­-straight Ivy League baseball crown, earned an undefeated league championship in men’s tennis, won the men’s Ivy golf title, and brought home a national championship in lightweight rowing. Last winter, the Lions had nationally ranked teams in men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s squash, and men’s and women’s fencing — with both fencing teams finishing the regular season ranked number one in the country.

A notable exception to the Lions’ success under Murphy, however, has been the football team. The Light Blue football squad ran through four different head coaches while winning a total of just twenty­-three games during Murphy’s tenure. The last of these head coaches, Pete Mangurian, resigned in December, following a second-­straight 0­-10 season; Murphy had announced her intention to step down earlier in the fall.

Pilling says that he began identifying potential candidates to replace Mangurian soon after being interviewed for the athletic-­director position in December. “It was obvious that addressing the football situation had to be a big priority,” he says. “So I compiled a list of coaches with the experience to build up all aspects of a football program — from recruiting to game preparation to student-­athlete development, combined with success on the field.”

At the top of Pilling’s list was Al Bagnoli, who, over the course of twenty­-three seasons leading the University of Pennsylvania Quakers, had compiled nine Ivy titles and a league record of 112-­49, making him the second­-winningest head football coach in Ivy history. Bagnoli had retired from Penn just two months earlier but was rumored to be regretting his decision to step away from the game.

“I heard from an old colleague, Villanova head coach Andy Talley, that Al might be interested,” says Pilling. “So I called him up and said, ‘Al, just imagine for a moment that I become the new athletic director at Columbia and imagine that you miss being on the field.’ I sensed his passion to continue coaching. For the next hour, we talked about what would need to happen for Columbia to have a successful football program.”

On February 23, the day after Pilling officially began his new job, the University held a press conference to announce that Al Bagnoli would be its next football coach.

“My first goal is to make football fun again, and I mean that,” said Bagnoli, a spritely and affable sixty-­two-­year-­old, as he addressed a few dozen reporters, administrators, and Lions football players at Faculty House. “I say that to our kids, and you’ll hear me say this all the time. Practice ought to be the best two hours of your day.”

Al Bagnoli was recruited as Columbia’s head football coach within months of retiring from Penn, where he had won nine Ivy League championships in twenty-three years.

Body and mind

During his time at Penn, Bagnoli earned a reputation as a fierce competitor, one capable of coaxing extraordinary performances out of his players and finding ways to beat teams that, man for man, might have been expected to overpower the Quakers. He was also regarded as an unusually gracious leader, who, in post-­game interviews, would blame himself for every loss and credit his players for every win. In the locker room, after schooling his players in Xs and Os, he would often stick around to chat with them about the stresses of school work, planning a career, or being away from home for the first time.

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