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Photo courtesy of Mike McLaughlin

Longtime fan of Columbia football Jake Novak looks back at how he came to follow the program, and what he hopes to see going forward.

Why do I do this? 

By “this,” I mean going to Columbia football games for so many years and following the Lions much more closely than any other sports team. 

I’ve been going to Columbia games since I came to Morningside Heights as a first-year in the fall of 1988. My first game wasn’t really a full game at all, as I rushed on the subway a month into my first semester in hopes of catching the final moments of the Lions’ win over Princeton to end the record 44-game losing streak at Homecoming that year. Sure enough, I made it in time for the final minutes, as Columbia won 16-13. From then on, I was hooked. 

Since then, I have attended a total of 152 Columbia football games. In case you’re wondering, the Lions’ win-loss record in those games was 42-110. 

When I tell people about that record, the younger Columbia fans almost always respond in shock that I’ve seen so few wins. The older and longer-term Columbia alums and fans respond in shock that I’ve seen so many wins.

My all-time favorite game is not that 1988 streak-breaking win over Princeton, even though it certainly still is for most of my former classmates. For me, it was the 20-19 overtime win over Al Bagnoli’s Penn Quakers at Franklin Field in 1996, because of the miraculous nature of that win and the fact that it was part of a 6-0 start and 8-2 finish for that magical team. Oh, and the fact that Columbia hasn’t beaten Penn since seems to increase the importance of that win every year.

What’s the toughest loss I’ve witnessed? For some people, the absolute blowouts are the hardest to endure, but for me it’s the game when you know your team blew what looked like a sure win. There are a lot of contenders for that title, but I’d have to go with the 23-22 loss to Yale in 2009 that included the trifecta of a sure game-icing TD wiped out by a fumble at the one, a late Columbia fumble to give Yale a chance to win the game, and a questionable pass interference call on a fourth-down play to keep Yale’s eventual winning drive alive.  

Yet through all the disappointments and the sub-.300 winning percentage, the actual act of following Columbia football and going to the games remains close to 100 percent positive for me. Maybe it’s because my first game attended was indeed a historic win. Or, maybe it’s because, by wonderful coincidence, the first games each of my two daughters ever attended turned out to be Columbia wins. Or because my 100th game attended was a win. Or because my last two games as a broadcaster during a three-year stint I did as the color commentator with play-by-play man Jerry Recco were wins, too. 

But, win or lose, going to the games and following the team has been my best way of staying connected to Columbia and its current students. The deepest emotions I have connected to Columbia football began because of the way I looked at the great players who were so committed to the team despite little game day glory. 

It started with my contemporaries at Columbia, including Matt Sodl, Greg Abbruzzese, Bob Kent, and Des Werthman. Then you had great ones like Rory Wilfork, Mike Cavanaugh, and Marcellus Wiley. More recently, guys like Alex Gross, Sean Brackett, Jeff Adams, and now Gianmarco Rea and Keith Brady. The list of players who were not only great on the field but also great people off the field—who deserved so many more wins at Columbia—is almost endless. But I keep thinking about how they showed up for every practice and absorbed every hit for love of the game. All I have to do is buy a ticket and find parking. 

Speaking of which, it’s hard not to enjoy going to the Baker Athletics Complex or really any one of the other seven Ivy football venues. Ticket prices are cheap, the season ends before it gets too cold, and your kids can go back and forth to the concession stands and the bathroom without an armed guard. If you’re a current student reading this, just remember that when you have your own kids, getting a chance to spend no-worry time with them is rare. And the entire experience in the Inwood neighborhood is a really great measure of the way the city has changed for the better since my student days of the ’80s and early ’90s—the area has restaurants and shops and generally looks sunnier now. It’s a good thing. 

There’s also the investment factor. Look at how much more Cubs fans are enjoying their World Series win after a 108-year wait right now. That’s what it’s going to be like when the Lions finally win the Ivy football title. I guess I’m a real long-term investor. 

Every time I turn on a major college football game and see what are obviously a bunch of non-students playing a dangerous game to make someone else money, I thank God for Columbia football—win or lose. It’s a non-guilty pleasure. 

Of course, the nadir for me came during the Pete Mangurian coaching regime, for reasons that went beyond the back-to-back winless seasons. But in true optimistic fashion, it turned out that this low point was met with new highs in administrative investment and commitment to the program, along with the brilliant and bold hiring of Bagnoli. Somebody up there saw the suffering and gave us hope again. 

The one worry I have going forward is the fewer and fewer students I see at the games now. Only a winning program will change that. But even before that winning era begins, students and recent alums who don’t come to the games really don’t know what they’re missing. Yet, with the way the team has been improving over the last two years, I think a lot of them will soon find out.

Jake Novak, CC '92, is a columnist for CNBC.com. He also runs the Columbia football fan blog culions.blogspot.com.

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