By Jon Hart, Guest Contributor
In its first season, the well-known Serial podcast tackled the tragic loss of a promising, charismatic, high school senior. The Season, another excellent podcast produced by WNYC, investigates a far less grim and tragic subject: The Columbia University football team, one of the oldest collegiate programs in the country. While the Columbia Lions won the Rose Bowl in 1934 and the Ivy League title in 1961, they are mostly known today as a symbol of football futility. Most memorably, in the 80s, the Columbia Lions lost 44 consecutive games. This season, the Lions had a 24 game losing streak going.
Enter former Penn coach Al Bagnoli, who collected Ivy championships in Philly like he was collecting baseball cards. Bagnoli had retired from coaching but had an itch to return to the sidelines and signed on to be Columbia’s new head coach. Could Bagnoli, a proven winner, turn Columbia football around and make history? If Bagnoli could deliver, there should be a record of it, something more than newspaper clips and a few television highlights.
Enter The Season podcast, whose quarterback, Ilya Marritz, is an unlikely host. Marritz had no football experience prior to assuming the reigns of the program. In fact, he tried to avoid it at all costs. That lack of experience turns out to be a huge plus as Marritz brings a fresh voice to the gridiron. He reports on each game, interviews current and former players, and Bagnoli. Most importantly, Marritz gets into the psyche of his subjects. What does it take to play this brutal game when you lose week after week? One former Columbia Coach makes a startling admission about his Columbia tenure. No spoiler here, listen.
In the course of each weekly episode, which are about 20 minutes or so, Marritz also explores less obvious areas, from the unconventional Columbia band to Jack Kerouac’s playing days at the university. The famous writer was a wide receiver for the Lions. Marritz doesn’t shy away from literary references, but he doesn’t over do it either. All the while, Marritz wants to know: Can Columbia football turn it around? Can gridiron history be made?
Marritz took a few moments away from his WNYC non sports related reporting duties to discuss The Season.
Jon Hart: How did this podcast come about?
Ilya Marritz: WNYC’s news director, Jim Schachter, attended Columbia many years ago. I believe he was editor of The Spectator, the school newspaper, and had heard about the change of coach at Columbia football, and thought it could make an interesting story, given the team’s long history of failure. In a newsroom meeting, Jim mentioned the idea, but there seemed to be only tepid interest from the reporters. Around the same time, I’d become interested in doing a long-form story. Maybe something told in chapters, taking advantage of the explosion of interest in podcasts. Jim’s idea of following Columbia football for a season was perfect, but for one thing: I really had no knowledge of football, and not much interest in sports generally. Jim told me again and again that my ignorance could be an asset. Eventually, I decided it was worth the risk.
JH: Were you apprehensive about doing it? Obviously, that would be understandable because you had zero football experience.
IM: Yes. I remember forcing myself, last July, to watch a college football game on Youtube. I’d never watched an entire football game before. I believe the game I clicked on was Georgia-Clemson. The experience was not reassuring: a) I found the game hard to follow, and worse, b) I was bored. I was really worried I might not find a way to engage with the sport. Around the same time, I read Collision Low Crossers by Nick Dawidoff, an account of one year the author spent with the Jets. Nick is a fabulous writer and the husband of a friend from work, and in the book, I started to find themes that excited me: the messiness of players’ and coaches’ lives, the difficulty of getting a team to hold together and work well as a unit, and the terrible toll of injuries. I also watched “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” a really marvelous doc about a game played back in 1968, told from the perspective of the players, several decades later. That film got me really excited about the possibilities of this podcast.
JH: How much access did you have to the team? Were there any ground rules? In the past few seasons, the team seemed to be kept away from the media.
IM: We never had hard and firm ground rules, but I knew that access to the players would be a sensitive area, and that we might never get into the locker room or the weight room and in the end we didn’t. It was clear that the university was concerned about protecting players, and the team’s rep. And yet…in our very first meeting with Al Bagnoli, coach said something to the effect of, ‘it would be good for the kids ie the players to talk with you.’ I think he really believes that for a team to succeed, it needs to be be a part of its community. And that means talking to the media. Even if that’s sometimes uncomfortable, or just risky.
JH: Columbia coach Al Bagnoli said a lot of inspirational words over the course of the season. Any particular ones that will never leave you?
IM: The indelible words for me are “where is it written that you guys can’t win?” The insight I think I’ll carry with me is this: to succeed in any endeavor, you need to take a clear-eyed look at past performance, learn what there is to learn, and then move on. Really set aside past failings, and do your best in the present. Matt, my producer, and I talked about that one a lot. Sounds trite, but it’s so important.
JH: A tough one: Why do you think Columbia has had so much trouble winning games?
IM: Any answer I give is as a complete newbie, who is less knowledgeable than many of the fans in the stands. That said, here are a few thoughts:
CU defense was unexpectedly strong, but offense really had difficulty putting points on the board. The team’s reliance on star running back Cam Molina shows that other elements of the Lions’ offense were not as far along.
Coach put a lot of attention on special teams. I don’t honestly know how CU kickers compare with other schools’ but in several games, a field goal here or there would have made the difference.
Confidence. The Lions definitely gained a strong sense of their abilities, but right up to the end, they could be rattled, play small ball, or lose focus.
Recruitment. Coach Bagnoli arrived too late to do much recruitment. He was working with the elements on hand. I was in awe of the Lions’ athleticism. But they were not chosen by their own coaches.
JH: Hypothetical: Coach Bagnoli invites you to be an assistant coach and sends you on the recruiting trail. What’s your pitch land student athletes? Is it different from Columbia’s standard pitch: NYC, elite education, be part of the turnaround and making history…
IM: There is only one pitch to recruit to Columbia: you can make history, you can re-build the team.
JH: You revealed some personal stuff about yourself during the podcast. What was your childhood like?
IM: I grew up about half a mile south of the Columbia campus. My parents at one time worked as waiters at the CU faculty eating club. My mom is an artist, my dad is a cameraman. They both value creativity very highly. Even in this come-as-you-are setting, I was aware from an early age of being different from other little boys. Avoiding team sports was instinctive to me from an early age. In high school, I became a runner, cross country and track and field, and got a ton out of that: a sense of self, and a diverse group of friends. I’m a little sad it took me so long to become an athlete, because I actually really enjoy swimming, cycling, outdoorsy stuff.
JH: What’s next for you? Are sports in your future in any way? Have you been to an NFL game?
IM: Haha no I haven’t attended an NFL game. If someone invites me, I’ll gladly go. I haven’t figured what’s next for me, work-wise. Fortunately, WNYC has held my regular job as a reporter in the newsroom. I’d love to take on another big nonfiction project. It was outrageously rewarding.
Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures, www.manversusball.com.