Sunday, October 22, 2023

This Day in Football History (Columbia Begins Stupefying, Epic Non-Winning Streak)

Oct. 22, 1983—Facing Bucknell in front of a mere 3,800 fans at Hofstra Stadium, Columbia University’s football team managed a 31-31 tie. 

The outcome, though not all they could have wished, left the Lions looking forward to their opponent the next weekend, Holy Cross, with a losing but still not disastrous 1-3-1 record. But that would change quickly.

The not-disastrous part, I mean.

Seven days on, Columbia was annihilated in Massachusetts by Holy Cross, 77-28, and the following weekend tied again, this time with Dartmouth, 17-17. Those two ties in the space of three weeks was the closest the squad would come to winning over 47 games. 

In fact, the penultimate game of the season, a crushing 31-6 loss to Cornell in Ithaca, began a then-record 44-game losing streak that left fans shaking their heads and the rest of the nation simply astonished that this could be happening.

That Lion you see in the logo accompanying this post? During those years, it was a toothless creature that scared few if any opponents in their right minds.

Let me put this another way that might help you better understand the frustration of the Columbia  players: Those who began playing in the 1984 season would graduate without winning a single game.

Like most of the student body in the late Seventies and early Eighties, in the time preceding what alumni still call "The Streak," I had followed the team’s (mis)fortunes at something of an emotional remove. During my four years, I didn’t attend games—a part-time job occupied my time on weekends instead—and had gotten used to hearing about its misfortunes. 

Most of my friends saw the team’s 6-31-1 record during that time as regrettable, but they had their minds on other matters: handling a demanding academic workload, participating in their own extracurricular activities, and/or simply surviving New York City when it was only slowly emerging from its mid-Seventies trough.

That nonchalant attitude couldn’t have been more different from my high school in Northern New Jersey. We had experienced our own season without a win my season year, but it was regarded as an aberration from a tradition of winning and even championships that began when Vince Lombardi started his coaching career there in 1939. Athletes were the gods of the school, with academics hardly so stringent as to hinder football participation.

Columbia had its own tradition of gridiron glory—the third school to play intercollegiate football, back in 1870; a legendary 1934 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford; a 1961 Ivy League championship. But in recent years, the stench of failure had grown stronger and harder to eradicate, with only two winning seasons since the latter title.

The team appeared to have turned a corner when I arrived on campus in 1978, jumping off to a 3-1-1 start under its young, charismatic head coach, Bill Campbell. Then, after it was blown out by Rutgers 69-0 at Giants Stadium, things were never the same. 

It did not win another game that year, and midway through 1979, after the losing continued and Campbell was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion, the coach announced he would be stepping down at the end of the season.

The following years would prove that the failures of the program were hardly Campbell’s fault. “Coaching a Columbia football team may be the most frustrating job in the Ivy League or possibly in all of college football,” noted New York Times reporter Gordon S. White Jr. in his discussion of Campbell’s resignation, citing a home field considerably distant from its Morningside Heights campus and difficulties recruiting athletes.

White might also have mentioned another turnoff to prospective athletes: Baker Field, a 32,000 wooden-seat stadium that had been around for a half century. 

At that structure’s final game in the 1982 season, fans tore out the seats (with some even having smuggled saws into the stands for that purpose) and carried off their booty onto the nearby subway station after—need I say it?—another loss for the home team.

It was a sign of the team’s continuing struggle to escape from oblivion, though, that even the opening of new, gleaming Lawrence A. Wien Stadium didn’t mark a turnaround in the program’s fortunes. In other words, "The Streak" continued unabated.

By this time, as an alum with weekends now blissfully free, I was attending home games when I could. It was just my luck that this took place as losing became more entrenched.

Fans attempted to cheer themselves with halftime entertainment provided by the team’s irreverent marching band and gallows humor of their own. In one contest, as the opposing team marched up the field on an offensive drive, several alumni around me shouted blitz suggestions to the coaches:

“Send the linebacker!” yelled one.

“Send the end!” screamed another.

“Send in the clowns!” my friend Alan offered.

“Don’t bother, they’re here!” countered another Sondheim aficionado.

The nadir of the losing struggle may have been reached after the opening game of the 1985 season, courtesy of head coach Jim Garrett. The Columbia administration may have hired this former WFL and Boston College coach to adjust the team’s attitude. It never reckoned that what needed to be reset was the coach’s volatility rather than any defeatism on the part of his players.

The team was leading 17-0 toward the end of the third quarter against Harvard when the Crimson scored 49 unanswered points in a mere 20 minutes. In an angry post-mortem delivered to a New York Times reporter, Garrett used the words “drug-addicted losers” and singled the team’s longtime punter out for special criticism, in remarks that spiraled into hysteria:

''Don't tell me it's a college atmosphere. This is an atmosphere that creates people for the future. I want to see him when he graduates and goes to work downtown on Wall Street and does three things that he did today. See how long he is gonna work for that company, how long Merrill Lynch or Smith Barney is gonna have him around.”

To be fair, even after his quick, ignominious exit at the end of that inglorious season, Garrett had his defenders. A 2018 post on “Roar Lions,” “the unofficial fan blog of Columbia University football,” featured comments from former players noting that he had been misquoted (the coach claimed he had said the team was like drug-addicted losers rather than they were), that they didn’t want him to go, that the real problem lay with a university administration that did little to support the program, that he was at heart honest and a better person than his successor, and that the team would have thrived if Garrett’s sons (including future Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett) hadn't left with their father.

All these claims may have been true. But whatever hypothetical success in strategy or motivation that Garrett might have achieved, with or without his talented progeny, doesn’t get around the fact that after a certain point, it doesn’t matter if athletes accept mistreatment as part of the program: abuse, whether physical or otherwise, is still abuse.

And, by telling the squad that the punter would never play for him again, then publicly trashing him in such a ridiculous and unwarranted fashion, Garrett had humiliated one individual and made the university’s sports program a subject of nationwide ridicule.

Too bad that the replacement of Garrett as head coach did not mark a swift upturn in the team’s fortunes. Yet I continued to attend home games loyally.

Until, that is, October 8, 1988. I listened to the weather reports carefully that day: windy, cold, maybe even rain, with gray skies not helping matters. And the Lions would be facing Princeton, which had a 2-1 record and Jim Garrett’s quarterback son Jason itching to avenge his father's termination.

What were the odds that this afternoon contest would turn out well? I decided to spare myself a strong chance of a cold on the slim possibility of a Lions win.

Wouldn’t you know that Columbia beat the Princeton Tigers that day, 16-13, in front of 5,400 flabbergasted but delighted spectators?

During the team’s streak, I had tried to make every home contest I could—but I chose to sit out The Big One. The story of my life, I guess.

As George Harrison had philosophically advised me and other Baby Boomers nearly two decades before, all things must pass. And so it turned out for Columbia University’s dubious NCAA losing-streak record, surpassed by Prairie View A&M, which lost 80 consecutive games from 1989 to 1998. 

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