Saturday afternoon, I ventured up to the northern tip of Manhattan to watch my alma mater, Columbia University, begin their football season. After graduating in ’82, no longer having to work on weekends, I used to make the journey up to 218th Street quite a bit. In fact, I had been a spectator through much of “The Streak”—the 44-game losing streak that, for a time, represented an NCAA record for futility.
I hadn’t been up there in 26 years. The passage of time had filled me with curiosity about what had transpired in the meantime.
Much about the atmosphere and experience of watching a game had changed since I had last seen a football tossed in the air by members of my old school (starting with the place, now called Robert Kraft Field in Lawrence Wien Stadium at Baker Athletic Complex. But one thing hadn’t changed: the team still lost.
The 49-7 final tally versus Fordham doesn’t give an adequate idea of the futility involved. With a little over three minutes left, I left the stadium with the score at 49-0. Shortly after walking out the gates, I heard a roar coming from the crowd. It turned out that the Lions had broken up Fordham’s shutout with a touchdown pass with less than a minute to play.
Was I surprised by the loss? Not really. I hadn’t heard a whole lot of good coming out about the team in recent years. This is a group, remember, that not only had lost all its games in 2013 (including a 52-7 battering by Fordham’s Rams that must have given onlookers yesterday a bad case of déjà vu), but that had had only three winning seasons in the last half century.
Not that a number of alumni take the losing lying down. Late last year, a rather nasty battle broke out in the pages of The Columbia Daily Spectator (reported on breathlessly by The New York Post) about how steamed many of them are by the weight-loss/nutrition program instituted for the team’s offensive linemen by Lions head coach Pete Mangurian. (Evidently, the bruising blockers average about 20 pounds per man less than their counterparts at Princeton and Dartmouth.) Some have called for Mangurian’s head, and others for that of Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy for allowing the situation to continue.
A fan in the stands—a father with a son on the squad—had remarked, with something of gallows humor, as I took my seat a couple of minutes after kickoff time: “I saw the other team do something already that I didn’t see all through last year—punt.” I’m sure that other fans have reacted far more cynically over time, such as this exchange I heard at the height of The Streak, when several yelled helpful coaching hints as a pass began to transpire:
FAN 1: “Send a linebacker!”
FAN 2: “Send an end!”
FAN 3: “Send in the clowns!”
FAN 4: “Don’t bother—they’re here!”
While I understand some of the cynicism (it beats having your heart broken over and over again), I find it hard to maintain it for too long myself. Waking up during the season at 5 am for a bus ride 15 minutes from campus, enduring hours of practice, summoning your brain to somehow stay awake and complete class papers and study for tests—then have your head handed to you by a different opponent every Saturday—can’t be much fun.
I don’t think this is all that can be said about the Columbia football experience, however—and later this week, I’ll get into my own seriocomic experience as a Rip Van Winkle in a forum where much has changed, even as the Lions continue to be eaten.