By Jon Hart
It’s arguably the biggest turnaround in college football history. The Columbia Lions football team – who had a 44-game losing streak in the 80s – are winning. They finished this season at 8-2, earning second place in the Ivy League. In 2015, Columbia had yet another losing streak going, albeit just 24 games.
That’s all ancient history now.
This year, Columbia touted a quick-footed, strong-armed quarterback with NFL possibilities, Anders Hill, and an explosive fleet of wide receivers. In the season’s last few weeks, the Lions’ running game also came up big. For the record, their defense was huge all season. And then there’s an underrated, potent weapon that’s never on the field – a very capable blogger, yes blogger, arguably the team’s most passionate supporter.
Jake Novak is Columbia football’s 12th man.
“I firmly believe that he has helped reshape the landscape of Columbia football,” says former, legendary Lions running back Greg Abbruzzese. “Jake’s blog – http://culions.blogspot.com/ – has generated far more enthusiasm in the program than the anything the athletic administration puts out annually. Jake is extremely balanced and fair with the analysis of the team, the coaches and the administration.”
Born in Oklahoma City, raised in Norfolk, Virginia, until junior high and then Far Rockaway, Queens. Novak never played organized football. Novak didn’t expect to be much of a Columbia football fan when he arrived for orientation. Instead, he considered going out for crew but admits that he didn’t have the “guts” to do so. Then, the Lions were enduring that 44-game losing streak. When Columbia played Penn tight on ESPN, Novak took notice. While many of his classmates viewed Columbia’s football futility as a boost to their school’s academic ranking, Novak saw the football players as Renaissance men – intelligent, talented classmates whom he admired and liked personally.
The week after the Penn game, Novak was multi-tasking, watching the Mets-Dodgers playoffs game with the sound off and listening to the Lions play Princeton at Lawrence Wien Stadium, Columbia’s home turf. At half-time, the Lions led, and Novak knew what he must do. He wound up taking the subway uptown with a few seniors to witness, well, history. After Princeton’s last second field goal fell short, glorious pandemonium ensued. “People just started to grab anything they could. I got my hands on one of the end zone pylons for a moment and then joined in the volleyball game people were playing with the padding pulled off one of the goal posts,” recalls Novak now. Columbia just won one more game that season but Novak was hooked. “They say that gambling addicts are often people who won their first bet, card game or horse race,” says Novak. “The Lions, however improbably won the first game I attended so I guess I became an addict that way.” Perhaps it was a safe bet all along that Novak would bleed Lions’ light blue. His paternal grandfather was close friends with Columbia great Sid Luckman, and he’s a distant cousin of mega Columbia donor Lawrence Wien, the namesake of Columbia’s stadium. Novak started blogging about the team in 2005 and did color analysis for the team’s radio broadcasts from 2007-2009. He stepped down from those duties, so he could be a more independent voice. In that regard, Novak didn’t disappoint.
Columbia football hit perhaps its lowest point – and there have been a lot of lows, as they’ve only had seven winning seasons since 1951 – during the head coach Pete Mangurian era, which commenced in 2011. During Mangurian’s first year, the team won three games. In his next two seasons though, the Lions went winless. Novak didn’t see anything improving without drastic changes. In fact, he boldly blogged that Columbia would never win another game with Mangurian at the helm. Among other complaints – Novak was critical of Mangurian’s mandate for offensive lineman to cut weight. “We are very much the lightest O-line team in the Ivies, and this is by design,” Novak told the New York Post. “It’s not working.” Ultimately, Novak, as well as about 65 alums, demanded that Mangurian be dismissed along with Columbia’s Athletic Director. After his second winless season, amid player abuse allegations, Mangurian resigned. Months later, Mangurian addressed the allegations in this letter to the Columbia Spectator.
The blogger had won – but, of course, his team hadn’t won in more than two years. Someone had to take the ball and run with it.
What’s worse than losing? Losing big – and public embarrassment. Alas, Columbia was shamed into solving its chronic football problem. But could anyone actually solve it? Many had tried but almost all had failed. (In the 90s, fueled by a California pipeline, coach Ray Tellier had a few winning seasons in the 90s.) Eventually, Columbia’s newly hired AD, Peter Pilling, called the perfect play and brought a rain maker out of retirement. Al Bagnoli had won nine Ivy titles during his 23-year tenure at Penn. When Columbia rang, he was still at Penn in an administrative capacity. Fortunately, Bagnoli still had the coaching itch, and he told Columbia what he needed to come aboard – more money for recruiting and assistant coaches and an indoor bubble. Columbia agreed to every request, and they had their man. Three years later, Columbia is roaring on the gridiron. And by all accounts, everyone is eating heartily.
Next season, it will be thirty years since Jake Novak euphorically danced in the mud at Wien Stadium. These days, he’s married with two daughters. On the professional front, he’s the senior editorial columnist for CNBC. Still, his fire for Columbia football refuses to flicker. However, he’s enjoying the ride a lot more these days. “I still feel the pressure and anxiety on game days,” says Columbia’s 12th man. “But the pressure to publicize the team and give it its due is subsiding for all the right reasons.”
You can follow Jon Hart @ManVersusBall