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

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“He finds a good balance between being supportive and getting down to business,” says Billy Ragone, a former Quaker quarterback who won Ivy League titles with Bagnoli in 2009, 2010, and 2012. “Come Saturday, you’re expected to win. That’s the attitude. He instills in everybody the belief that you can win every game.”

Pilling says he recruited Bagnoli as much for his character as for his win­-loss record. “He’s someone who’s concerned about victories on the field, victories in the classroom, and victories in life — and his players really see that,” says Pilling. “I had an opportunity to talk to his former players, former coaches, his former athletic director, and that was the consistent message.”

At a recent workout session at the Campbell Sports Center, the Lions’ training facility at the Baker Athletics Complex in northern Manhattan, members of the football team talked about how Bagnoli’s arrival has inspired a new sense of optimism in their clubhouse.

“I said: 'Al, just imagine for a moment that I become Columbia's new athletic director and that you miss being on the field.'”
- Peter Pilling

“Everybody is excited,” said Cameron Molina, a junior running back who was the Lions’ leading rusher last fall. “Going 0-­10 the past couple of years was extremely painful, there’s no question about it. And when things go bad like that, it’s inevitable that a team’s morale will drop. Now we feel like we have something to look forward to again.”

Anders Hill, a sophomore quarterback who played well off the bench in several games last fall, said the Lions are eager to prove how much better they are than last season’s record suggests.

“The guys on this team have been winning football games their whole lives and still have a winning mentality,” said Hill, a cannon­-armed phenom from Boulder, Colorado, who was his state’s high-­school quarterback of the year in 2013. “We’re mentally tough. We promised each other during the off­-season to work really hard and put last fall behind us. We want to help turn this program around.”

 

The gridiron and beyond

Pilling and Bagnoli are currently developing a long­-term plan to revamp the Lions football team. Some of their changes are already being implemented: they have added to the athletics department a strength­-and-­conditioning coach and a speed­-and-­agility trainer, both of whom will work with football players and other varsity athletes.

Pilling says the University is also committed to paying the football team’s assistant coaches more competitive salaries than they received in the past. He points out that this was among the recommendations made by outside consultant Rick Taylor, the former Boston University football coach and athletic director whom President Bollinger commissioned to conduct a top-­to-­bottom review of the football program last fall. That report’s central recommendation was that Columbia devote more resources to the program.

“It’s clear that the University, under President Bollinger, is determined to find this team the resources that it needs to be successful,” Pilling says. “One way we hope to do this is by soliciting more donations from alumni. This will be instrumental in boosting the assistant coaches’ salaries, which, in turn, will help us retain the best people.”

Pilling says he hopes to increase fundraising for all Columbia athletic programs — from its thirty­ one varsity teams to the physical-­education and wellness programs that serve thousands of undergraduates every year. But raising money for the football team is especially critical, he says, since its struggles have at times threatened to overshadow the accomplishments of other Lions teams.

“Seeing our football team succeed will re-­focus the public’s attention on the tremendous achievements of so many of our teams,” he says. “The tide is going to rise for everybody.”

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