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After Two Years As Losers, A Football Team Attempts A Major Turnaround

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Columbia University Lions lost every football game they played for two years straight. This fall, "The Season" podcast from member station WNYC has been tracing a new coach's efforts to help the Lions start winning again. Reporter Ilya Marritz tells us how they did.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate how awful Columbia football has been for the last two years. The Lions were losing games by blowout margins - 49-7, 45-0.

KRISTYN BRUNDIDGE: Teams had stop playing competitively against Columbia.

MARRITZ: Kristyn Brundidge is a senior who does play-by-play for the college radio station WKCR.

BRUNDIDGE: They would play their starters for a quarter-and-a-half, two quarters maybe, and then clear out the bench.

MARRITZ: Enter new head coach Al Bagnoli. Physically, he's a small guy, but he has gravitas. He looks like a Roman Senator. In 23 years at Penn, Bagnoli won nine Ivy League titles and then decided he was ready for a different kind of challenge - a turnaround.

AL BAGNOLI: What we're trying to do here is no different than a company that's gone bankrupt and it's been bought by somebody and they're coming in there with a new management team.

MARRITZ: His approach - attention to detail, study what's not working and make football fun again. In their first game against Fordham, the Lions show signs of brilliance, including a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. But then, they crumble. And in the next two games, the team seems to lose its fight after setbacks. At every loss, coach Bagnoli says almost the exact same words.

BAGNOLI: Yeah, I mean, this was a disappointment, I think, to us all.

MARRITZ: We need to make fewer errors, he says, and eventually we'll get a break.

(APPLAUSE)

MARRITZ: It finally comes in game four against Wagner College. The Lions come out of the gate fast, scoring two touchdowns in the first quarter, and never let up. Final score - Columbia, 26, Wagner, three. Seniors who haven't won a game since they were freshmen are singing at the top of their lungs in the locker room.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Y'all going to make me lose my mind up in here, up in here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think it was just chaos in there.

(LAUGHTER)

BAGNOLI: It should be. That's good. That's the best I've heard all day. That's good.

MARRITZ: a 24-game losing streak ended and finally a new storyline. A few weeks later, Columbia beats Yale. And even though the Lions lose to Dartmouth and Harvard, those teams' coaches say they have new respect for the team. The final game of the season is at home against Brown, and the first 21 seconds prove to be disastrous for the Lions. They give up two touchdowns in the time it takes to tie your shoes. But the Lions fight back. With under three minutes left in the game...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUNDIDGE: Columbia's got 70 yards to go. They need six points.

MARRITZ: Kristyn Brundidge is calling the game for WKCR. What happens next is thrilling. It's a two-minute drill. And in seven straight passes, Columbia advances to the Brown five-yard line. With just seconds left on the clock, quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg needs to throw a touchdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUNDIDGE: He takes the snap, looks to his left. He fires this one into the end zone. And that one's picked off in the end zone by a Brown corner.

MARRITZ: It's Brown's ball - game over. Columbia went 2-8 this fall. They're tied for last place in the Ivy League. But they're losing by much smaller margins. So how does coach Bagnoli grade this season? He says this is just year one.

BAGNOLI: We're making progress. It just never comes as fast or as seamless as you want it to come.

MARRITZ: After Thanksgiving, it's back to work. Recruiting is already underway for the freshman class of the 2016 Lions. For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York.

SHAPIRO: For more on what it takes to fix a failing team, check out "The Season" on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.