With apologies to Homer…..
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Columbia footballers, like the Wrath of Achilles, that brought ills upon Wagner in fulfillment of the will of the gridiron gods.
Or something heavy like that, as a way to begin the tale of a team that had lost 24 consecutive games before last weekend; the epic struggle for a school that hasn’t experienced a winning record in the sport since 1996—and has enjoyed only two seasons above .500 in the past 42 years. The siege of Columbia football sounds like something out of the Iliad—a book, by the way, that is required reading for all Columbia freshman.
In fact, it was before long-suffering Columbia’s 26-3 victory over Wagner that Columbia’s senior defensive lineman Hunter Little mused to WNYC radio’s Ilya Marritz, “There is something to be said for glory. I don’t know if I can speak so much for Homer as someone like Achilles, or any of the heroes that followed him….
“There’s something to be said,” Little judged, “for being out on a Saturday, and playing a game, and being in the moment, and making a great play.”
Marritz has been narrating a weekly podcast called “The Season,” detailing Columbia’s latest attempt to rise from the gridiron ashes. It is an engaging series, and Marritz declares himself “bizarrely interested” in Columbia football, an enterprise that historically has demonstrated it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the Lions to enter into some grid paradise.
In the last 80 years, since Columbia’s 1934 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, it has won one league title (in 1961). From 1983 to 1988, Columbia lost a major-college record 44 consecutive games. Its futility was so beyond human understanding that, after it turned a 17-0 lead into a 49-17 loss to Harvard in the first game of the 1985 season, its first-year coach, Jim Garrett, publicly dismissed his players as “drug-addicted losers.”
Garrett had just arrived at Columbia after 20 years working as assistant and head coach in the pros, but immediately demonstrated how overmatched he was in the Columbia job.
“One adversity comes and—bang!—they’re right back in the sewer,” Garrett fumed after a single game. He somehow was allowed to stay the rest of that 0-10 season before being sent on his way. (When he went, he made sure that his three sons on the Columbia team transferred to Princeton. One of them, Jason, is these days coach of the Dallas Cowboys.)
Nineteen additional lost games after Garrett—two full seasons—Columbia was leading Brown, 16-12, with one minute to play. Brown, after advancing to the Columbia 9-yard line, fumbled and Columbia appeared to recover, which would have ended that gruesome losing streak at 40. It was a brutally cold late November afternoon, with a wind chill of 8 degrees in Providence, R.I., the kind of weather legendary sportswriter Red Smith once described as “a perfect day for football—too cold for the fans and too cold for the players.”
Yet Columbia at last was poised to triumph. Over the elements. Over a favored team. Over daunting odds.
Until the officials ruled that Brown had retained possession.
On the next play, a fourth down-and-two, the second-string Brown quarterback squirted through a small hole in the Columbia defense and scored. And Columbia lost yet again: The story of the school’s football Trojan War. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield as prey to dogs and vultures….
Jordan Sprechman was a Columbia student at that time, and threatened to write a book he said he would call, “At Least Soccer Won.” Now a lawyer for J.P. Morgan Chase in Manhattan who moonlights as an official scorer at Major League Baseball games and as statistician with the New York Jets and, of course, Columbia football, Sprechman explained this week that, “My experience as an undergrad and in law school at Columbia was that the football team won five games in seven years. The soccer team won the Ivy League title all seven years.”
Naturally, during last weekend’s surreal turn of events, that rare Columbia victory over Wagner, Sprechman was crunching numbers in the press box. “You can look at it two ways,” he said. “We’ve won one in a row. Or we’ve lost 24 of the last 25.” Against Penn this week, he puts Columbia’s changes as “less than 25 percent.”
It’s not war, or course. Just football. There is every chance that Columbia’s lads, soon to be sent forth with Ivy League degrees, will find fulfilling, financially rewarding work to even the score in another phase of life. But there’s something to be said for a little football glory.