Focused on the Long Game
When Al Bagnoli was named Columbia’s head football coach in the spring of 2015, many considered it a coup. Here was one of the most successful coaches to ever work in the Ivy League agreeing to take charge of a team that hadn’t won a game in two seasons. Yet for Bagnoli, Columbia looked like the right challenge at just the right time.
For one thing, Bagnoli says he saw a group of student-athletes who needed football to be fun again.
“You get an unbelievable education at Columbia,” Bagnoli says, “and these kids learn as much from football as from any other class, but they need to be reminded that it can be fun too. Football mimics life with great moments and not-so-great moments, and through the game you learn how to recover from adversity and handle things humbly.”
“We count on alumni and fans to help create a program
worthy of our remarkable student-athletes.”
Bagnoli further recognized that the strength of Columbia’s football program runs far deeper than any one season’s win-loss record.
A Giving Tradition
In addition to outright gifts, Patricia and Shepard Alexander made significant gifts through their estate plan to endow the head football coach position at Columbia. Shep had played tennis while at Columbia College, but as an alumnus he was enthralled with Lions football and was a fixture at home games for decades. Their gifts allowed the couple to recognize, as Shep put it, “the many fine times we have had at Baker Field over a period of so many years.”
The Alexanders also made generous gifts to endow student scholarships at Columbia College, but what made the gifts to Athletics so extraordinary was this: while there were already many endowed professorships throughout the University, their gifts created the first-ever endowed position in Athletics.
“I feel personally grateful for what Patricia and Shep have made possible here,” says Bagnoli. “We could not run our program at this level without the support of alumni and fans like the Alexanders, and they understood early on the importance of giving for the long term.”
Bagnoli says he has seen an increasing emphasis on endowing coaching positions, not only at Columbia and within the Ivy League but across the collegiate ranks as well. The more stable funding a school can guarantee with endowments, he says, the less pressure there is year after year on both the development staff and the coaching staff.
Athletics Director Peter Pilling agrees. “Endowments enable us to recruit the best coaches and mentors for our student-athletes,” he says, “and they provide the resources to maintain continuity in the leadership of our programs.”
Pilling says one of his top goals is to get Athletics alumni more involved with today’s student-athletes, in whatever capacity they can. “Our alumni help us not only by giving but also by identifying prospective student-athletes, providing internships and job opportunities, and, of course, cheering on our teams when they compete,” he says.
Pilling points to the Ivy League Digital Network, which live-streams games online, as a great way to connect Columbia's alumni and fan base with today’s student-athletes and teams.
One Fan’s Perspective
One fan who is thrilled to watch Lions games online is Walter Day. Day, who currently lives in Nevada, has vivid memories of the countless Columbia football games he has attended, beginning with his very first. Day’s father, a 1924 Columbia graduate, took his twin brother and him to see the Lions in October of 1947. The three then went to a game a year together for the next eight years.
“It became a tradition,” Day says. “My father told me about seeing games when the team was still playing on campus in the early 1920s. I’ve followed them during the glory years and the lean times, always keeping the faith. It’s fun for me, and it's a connection to my father and to the city where I grew up.”
In the 1990s, Day would listen to the games on the telephone through a paid service that would patch callers to the radio broadcast. Now he catches the games online. Though not an alumnus, Day has supported Columbia’s football program for years. He is also making a significant gift through his will, one that will provide unrestricted support for the football program.
“The Ivy League is tough,” Day says. “You have to attract students who are qualified academically and can handle the workload of school and sports. What you get, then, are student-athletes of high character. These are great kids, and they deserve a strong program.”
For Bagnoli too, it all comes back to his players.
“It’s not simply about strengthening a program for our student-athletes, it’s also about recognizing what these remarkable young men and women add to the Columbia experience,” he says.
“Just as you want to provide them with a first-rate education in the history department or in a science lab, we owe them that same level of excellence in their sports as well.”
If you are a Columbia Lions fan, a former student-athlete, or simply believe in the mission of Columbia Athletics and wish to support any (or all) of Columbia’s 31 varsity sports teams through a planned gift, please contact the Office of Gift Planning to tailor a gift that best meets your financial and charitable goals.
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