Roar Lions Roar: Columbia is 4-0
NEW YORK (AP) _ The way Ray Tellier figured, no college football team zoomed from mediocre to magnificent faster than Northwestern.
So it made perfect sense for the Columbia coach to show the Wildcats’ highlights film to his players before the season began. After all, for many years the Lions have been to Division I-AA what the Wildcats were to Division I-A _ losers of record proportions.
``It was motivating and got us pumped up,″ tight end Ryan Gabriele said. ``We still had almost four weeks to go before the season, but we saw it as something for us to work toward.″
So far, so good.
The Lions are 4-0 and off to their best start in 51 years. An Ivy League doormat for decades, Columbia is now a legitimate contender for its first title since 1961. On Saturday, the Lions play Lafayette.
``We haven’t created a Nebraska of the Ivy League by any means,″ Tellier kidded, ``we just want to find a way to score one more point than the other team.″
And that’s about what the Lions are doing. Both Ivy League wins, 20-13 against Harvard and 20-19 against Penn, went to overtime. There also was a 17-10 win over Fordham and a rare laugher _ 42-16 _ against Holy Cross.
``With five minutes to go in that one, the coaches kept looking at each other on the sidelines,″ Tellier said. ``We had never been in a game that was decided _ in our favor _ with so much time left. It was fun to win one like that. There won’t be many more.″
Tellier, 45, is in his eighth season. He hasn’t completely turned around the program, but the players always believed winning was inevitable.
``We’ve got a lot of confidence now,″ senior defensive tackle Brett Bryant said. ``We’ve been recruiting well in California and Texas and Florida, we’ve got a lot of talent coming here and we’re on a par where we can beat anyone on our schedule.″
Bryant, one of 29 Californians on the team, didn’t feel that way when he first arrived from Placentia, Calif.
``When we were freshmen and sophomores and were ahead, the kids on the sidelines were saying `How are we going to lose this one?‴ Bryant said. ``That’s gone. Now it’s `How are we going to win it? That’s what I thought last week against Penn.″
And then he went out and had a hand in the victory, blocking Penn’s extra point attempt in overtime. The Lions then won by scoring a touchdown and kicking the extra point.
``I think I got it with my wrist,″ Bryant said. ``And I knew we would come back and win.″
Columbia winning the Ivy League title would be comparable with what Northwestern accomplished last season.
The Wildcats went from 23 consecutive losing seasons, with a record 34-game losing streak from 1979-82 tossed in, to a 10-1 record, Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth.
Columbia had a winning season in 1994 _ its first since 1972, and also had a record 44-game losing streak from 1984-88. From the middle of the 1978 season until the streak ended with a 16-13 win over Princeton, the Lions went 5-88-3.
At Columbia, though, there were hints of improvement. George Rupp was hired as the school’s president in 1993 and helped bring additional funds into the program. Also, Tellier said his coaches are spending more time in California looking for players who want to come to New York and have been overlooked by the bigger schools.
In ’94, the Lions beat Cornell 38-33 in the ninth game of the season to assure that elusive winning season. Last season started out 3-2-1, with a victory over Penn that ended the Quakers’ 24-game winning streak, before fizzling with four losses.
``We’ve been getting better the last two years,″ Tellier said. ``But we did sputter at the end of last year. Now we’re finding ways to win instead of lose, it’s as simple as that.
``We’re playing outstanding defense. And even though the offense is young and makes mistakes, we’ve gotten turnovers to keep us in the game.″
With a solid secondary led by cornerback Chris Tillotson, the Lions have 10 interceptions and a defense ranked 16th overall (262.3 yards) in I-AA. Linebackers Rory Wilfork and Jeremy Taylor are the leading tacklers, while end Marcellus Wiley doubles as a fullback on short yardage situations. He had three TDs against Holy Cross.
Bobby Thomason started at quarterback the first two games but fractured his throwing hand. His replacement, Paris Childress, has been shaky at times but threw the winning 25-yard TD pass against Penn.
``We knew it would be tough against them and we responded,″ Tellier said. ``Fortunately, the schedule was in our favor early.
``Every every week is going to be close. We’ve had two overtimes already. My gray hairs are piling up, but so far it’s been a beautiful gray.″