Football won its first Homecoming game in 16 years, beating Dartmouth 9-7, this November in front of 8,946 fans. But lifelong football fan Zach Warren, CC ’17, chose not to attend the event.
“I’m not particularly invested in Columbia [football],” Warren said. “It was cold—my friends were here, we had fraternity alumni coming back, and they weren’t going to the game.”
“I guess that speaks to a deeper culture historically,” he added. “I wanted to just stay here, and it didn’t really faze me.”
Though Warren has only been at the school for four years, recent alumni and former employees of the University also agree that the problems with the football program’s fan culture are rooted in history.
The most frequently cited answer is simple: a lack of winning.
Kevin DeMarrais, CC ’64, has been around the program as a student, sports information director, and loyal fan ever since stepping on campus in 1961. During his very first year of study at Columbia, the Lions earned an Ivy League title—an honor that has eluded the program ever since.
In that season and the ones immediately after that, DeMarrais pointed to a much more loyal student fan base, partly resulting from a succession of winning records.
Spectator Archive Photo
“In percentages, a lot more students were following football, going to games, because, hey, winning is fun,” DeMarrais said. “If you don’t win, you don’t draw people—pure and simple.”
DeMarrais added that the issue of program loyalty was particularly exacerbated at a place like Columbia, where other social events around the city are accessible.
“Maybe if you’re in Ames, Iowa, there’s nothing else to do on a Saturday night, and you go to the football game and the party after,” he said. “There are too many distractions or other things to do at Columbia.”
The fan count, per DeMarrais’ estimation, sometimes ran higher than 20,000 for particularly important contests. That number would be impossible to accommodate today, since the University transitioned in 1982 from wooden bleachers that seated 32,000 to Wien Stadium, which only seats 17,000 attendees. While the University has auxiliary bleachers to place on the south end of Robert K. Kraft Field in case it expects a much larger crowd, they have yet to be used.
In recent years, however, average attendance at football games has increased—it hit a high-water mark in recorded attendance in 2015 when it averaged just under 6,000 fans per contest. Attendance for Homecoming was also at its highest that year, in part because of the sense of hope and anticipation surrounding the hire of head coach Al Bagnoli, one of the most successful coaches in Ivy League history.
Football broke a 22-game losing streak against Wagner in Bagnoli’s first season at Columbia, another reason for the surge in attendance.
But an over 50-year-long decline, not without some exceptions, preceded 2015, according to DeMarrais and longtime Athletics sports information director and historian emeritus Bill Steinman. It began just around seven years after the Lions’ first and only Ancient Eight championship, when the riots of 1968 began.
At the time, Columbia’s president was Grayson Kirk—who DeMarrais and Steinman both noted was not a strong supporter of Athletics—but there was a glimmer of hope. David Truman, then-vice president and provost of Columbia, was notably more on board with supporting Athletics financially.
As the riots flared up, Truman got a fair amount of flack for the student body’s protests and resigned in 1969 months after the April strike that students held to protest the University’s plans to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park.
“[Had Truman become president] there definitely would have been more support for Athletics from Low Library in budgets and scheduling,” DeMarrais said.
Followed by a one-year interim president, William McGill took the helm of the University for 10 years. His successor, Michael Sovern, held office for 13 years starting in 1980. During the pair’s combined 23-year tenure, from 1970 to 1993, the team posted just one winning record and one of the worst losing streaks in college football history: a 44-game skid that lasted from 1983 to 1988.
The riots not only affected the school’s prospective president but also tainted the program’s image in the eyes of recruits and their parents.
“You’d have a newscaster talking about something happening elsewhere, but they would have footage of someone at Columbia holding a picket sign because it was a whole lot easier [for television crews] to come up from Midtown to the campus than head to Wisconsin, or wherever it was,” DeMarrais said.
That negative response from recruits was profound—nor did it help that in 1978, the NCAA separated the Ivy League from most Division I schools by placing it in the lower Division I-AA. In turn, the media perception of the program worsened, and fan interest declined, according to DeMarrais.
“You pick up the Sunday New York Times, and you might have a one-sentence story on a Columbia football game. It’s just a totally different world,” DeMarrais said. “It was a time of transition that has in some ways continued to this day.”
But media coverage and fan interest did see a brief upswing, just not for reasons the program may have wanted. Larry McElreavy, the head coach that broke the streak in 1988, saw an ironic peak in interest as the program’s inauspicious streak continued.
“There were people that wanted to see the streak end, and I think there were people that wanted to see the streak continue,” he said. “It’s a little bit like a traffic accident: You hope that nobody’s hurt, but you’re going to look around just to see what happened.”
When McElreavy broke the streak against Princeton in 1988, those in attendance rushed the field and tore down the goal post—one of the more profound showings of school spirit in Columbia Athletics history.
Courtesy of AP | Ed Bailey
But winning is, of course, an even more sure route to garner support. After McElreavy broke the streak, successes occurred most frequently under former head coach Ray Tellier, who led the Light Blue to an 8-2 season in 1996.
For Doug Feinberg, CC ’95, a Spectator staff writer and WKCR sports commentator at the time, the season showcased a rare outpouring of support from the student body.
“They had the streak that got them national attention for the wrong reasons, and then here they are having a winning season for the first time in so long,” Feinberg said. “It was cool to be a football player, which is not the norm here.”
Since then, the program has yet to post a winning record.
And its reputation has waned. Warren added that that perception may be a result of the program’s image not matching up with what many students expect of a program worth supporting—not necessary win totals.
“No one really wants to ride 30 minutes up to the [Robert K. Kraft] Field,” Warren said. “It’s supposed to be a walk down fraternity row, with parties on both sides all the way to the field. It [should be] a gameday, tailgate atmosphere—not getting on to a commercial bus to head uptown.”
But the minor successes of the football program, along with administrative efforts, have helped with chipping away at that apathy.
Columbia Athletics’ Director of External Operations Anthony Azama has tried to amplify student support from the surrounding community. He sees the need to match what many believe will be a sustained upward trajectory in performance on the field with more innovative methods of marketing the games to students.
Part of that solution, per Azama, includes initiatives to encourage first-year resident advisers to take their halls on gameday trips and target the students who they believe will actually make the trip up to Baker on Saturdays during the fall.
Azama said he sees an opportunity particularly with the school’s first-years, who haven’t necessarily been on campus long enough to develop apathy or bias against the program.
“I think there is a level of distant messaging of really showing images of other students having fun so [first-years] can at least consider it,” Azama said. “You want to go to the market, and you want to think what you have is for everybody—and that is not day one. Day one is you find your niche, and then that niche continues to grow. … That is how you build something.”
If Azama is right, those first-years could become the class that will turn the tide of student apathy, and, come senior year, won’t want to miss its last Homecoming game.