Under the oversight of second-year head coach Al Bagnoli, the Columbia Lions have made a concerted effort to get stronger at every position.
Bagnoli — the winningest coach in FCS history — began his tenure at Columbia in January 2015. He added two staff members to the strength and conditioning program to augment the efforts of Bob Gilmartin, the Lions’ director of sport performance. Gilmartin arrived in Manhattan the year prior to the head coach.
“The previous staff was big into body fat percentage. So there were tall and linear kids here,” said Bagnoli, describing the linemen he inherited at Columbia. “They looked more like basketball power forwards than college offensive and defensive linemen. So I got together with Bob and the staff and we all agreed that we really needed to concentrate on the strength of our bigger kids.”
That focus has resulted in substantial gains in the weight room. In 2014 the team averaged maximums of 249, 356 and 285 pounds at the power clean, squat, and bench press exercises, respectively. By the spring of this year, those numbers leapt to 280, 480 and 307.
To drive competition in the gym, Columbia honors the player with the highest result after taking his total maximum in the three core exercises and dividing by his body weight. This past spring, rising senior defensive back Christian Conway earned the honor, dubbed the Iron Lion award. Conway and his twin brother Jackson — a running back — both transferred to Columbia from Duke and will be key contributors in their second season in the Ivy League.
“We were way under strength and we didn’t have enough ‘stoutness’ to hold up against the elite players in this league,” said Bagnoli. “We were just not as explosive as we needed to be up front. So that was our No. 1 priority during the peak off-season period (January to mid-late March).”
Columbia also improved on the gridiron. On Oct. 10, 2015, they ended a 24-game losing streak by beating Wagner, 26-3. They followed that by snapping an 18-game Ivy losing streak by upsetting Yale, 17-7, on Oct. 31. The Lions went 2-8 after going winless in 2013 and 2014.
Bagnoli knows what is required for success in the Ivy League. He directed the Penn Quakers from 1992-2014, compiling 148 wins, nine league titles and three perfect seasons. He also knew well of Columbia’s weaknesses, at one point leading his Quakers to 18 consecutive wins over the Lions.
The head coach noted that while the Ivies get some recruits that are developed football players as they enter the college ranks, it’s as important to “get a good athlete, who has a lot of upside and potential and surround him with people who will allow him to grow, prosper, and utilize that potential.”
It was an approach that Bagnoli employed at Penn to great avail.
Developing his athletes includes extensive weight room work. “We needed to get much more explosive than we were, we needed to get much better lower-body strength, we needed to get much better overall team testing numbers,” said Bagnoli.
The Lions’ strength program has benefited from the number of players staying in New York during the summer. “One of the advantages of being in New York is if you need 40-50 internships, that’s not that difficult to do here. So we have upwards of 50-60 kids here for pretty much the entire summer working with our strength coaches,” he said.
The Lions staff also checks in with players that are unable to remain in New York, as well as a talented crop of incoming 2016 freshmen.
“I think it’s going be a collection of 110 guys trying to get this thing turned around, as opposed to just the senior or junior class,” said Bagnoli. “We’re going to need some help from the younger kids. So we had to make sure that they were ready to go even though they weren’t under the watchful eye of our strength coaches in New York.”
Under his guidance, Columbia football is acquiring both the physical and mental requirements of winning.
“You want to make sure that the kids understand how thin the line is between having a really good program and having just an OK program. We really emphasize that a lot of the things that we can do that require really no talent, but if you do them day in and day out, you acquire good habits and ultimately it allows you to succeed.”
The Lions open against St. Francis of the Northeast Conference on Sept. 17.