Today I made my annual trek to the first home football game for Columbia University. Construction projects on the subways meant chaos for public transportation in northern Manhattan, but the Lions and their powder-blue uniforms still drew more than 4,000 people. Columbia games are one of my favorite fall activities in New York, an underrated experience in a city few associate with college football.
Columbia hosted another New York City team, the Fordham Rams. This season Columbia opens with a somewhat-bizarre schedule, with four straight home games kicking off the season.
I've seen probably a dozen Columbia games the last four or five years. They've won a couple of those but lost most. Rarely has Columbia been blown out in the games I've attended. Same story today. Columbia took a second-half lead, only to lose it as Fordham rallied to take a 16-9 lead. Then, in the dying moments, with the crowd excited and the Lions on the move, ready to march in for a tying touchdown, a fluke fumble near the goal-line ended their hopes and an opponent's kneel-down ended the game.
But back to the beginning. Norries Wilson is Columbia's head coach. In the Columbia program, though, his official title is the Patricia and Shepard Alexander Head Coach of Football. Columbia's football coach is an endowed position, just like on the tennis team and wrestling team. The Alexanders gave a "major" gift to the program in 1998, sparking the endowment. A true friend of the program. Columbia has a fetish for naming things, whether buildings or jobs. The football team plays its games at Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at the Baker Field Athletics Complex.
Wilson played his college ball at the University of Minnesota, back in the mid-1980s, when the Gophers made a few bowl games and weren't simply a punchline to jokes told by residents of the Dakotas. Wilson's coach at Minnesota was John Gutekunst, who, like all Gopher coaches of the past five decades, had a few big victories peppered in with even more ugly losses. Gutekunst has bounced around college football since leaving Minnesota, most recently serving as a defensive assistant at East Carolina. But Gutekunst reunited with Wilson this year, working as Columbia's defensive secondary coach. As of now, the defensive secondary coach is not an endowed position, but any Columbia grad with a few hundred thousand dollars to spare could probably get their name on that one.
I sat on the Columbia side, in the general vicinity of a man in his fifties who devoured two dozen Reese's Peanut Butter Cups during the game. It's an unconventional diet, though one I admire. What made it strange(r) was that he wore blue rubber gloves the entire game, as if he were prepping for heart surgery just down the road at Columbia-Presbyterian. Staying with the surgery angle, he opened each wrapper with a razor, which he used to slice through the orange wrapping, before unfurling the chocolate from the brown container. It made me wonder if the cups had a horrible flaw. Had they been caked in asbestos, doused with mercury? He didn't cheer for Columbia or Fordham. He sat passively, except when he aggressively dissected his treats.
Probably an old engineering major.
A large group of enthusiastic Fordham students followed their football team to Manhattan. They certainly outperformed their counterparts. At one point the Fordham students erupted into a chant of "Harvard Rejects," a creative - if factually dubious - taunt.
Neither offense did much for most of the game. Columbia finally cobbled together a scoring drive early in the second half, only to have Fordham block the extra point - of course. Fordham kicked a pair of field goals to tie it at 9-9, then took the lead late in the fourth. Trailing 16-9, Columbia drove down the field with an efficiency previously unseen in these parts. The Lions made it to Fordham's 4-yard-line. First-and-goal. A minute to go. This is when the crowd stood. The Columbia students finally cheered, ignoring the Fordham bullies. We were all ready for overtime.
Then the center fired the snap back to the quarterback - who stood in the shotgun - when the QB wasn't expecting it. The ball hit off his hands, somewhat comically bounced into the air and then fell to the ground, where a Fordham defender fell on it, clinching the victory. An exasperated Patricia and Shepard Alexander Head Coach of Football Norries Wilson shook his head. He'd seen this play before, and the ending never seems to change.
As I left the stadium, two guys in front of me lamented another Columbia loss.
"Same as always," one said. "How many times have we seen that?"
A lot. With five more home games left on the schedule, they'll probably see it a few more times. And so will I.