Policastro sighs. "Ho hum," he says.
These guys have seen so much, both on and off the field, that they deserve varsity letters in life. Columbia, founded in 1754 as King's College by King George II of England, is the most urban of America's great universities. Its 36-acre campus sits in the midst of the teeming, racially mixed Morningside Heights section of Manhattan and is separated from the neighborhood only by an iron fence. At night all entrances but two are locked, and guards screen visitors. Otherwise, the school is open to the myriad influences of the Big Apple.
"The kind of student who comes to Columbia is somebody who is very serious about academics and who sees the city as a chance for a great double experience," says director of admissions Jim McMeniman. Bucolic U it is not. Sports information director Bill Steinman remembers a basketball player who came to Columbia from a tiny town in Oklahoma. "About his second or third day on campus he missed a meeting, and we went looking for him," says Steinman. "We found him at the corner of 116th and Broadway, staring at cars. He said he'd just never seen so many of them."
Of course, good football players are notoriously rural creatures, preferring, in general, the open spaces of state colleges in the middle of cornfields to urban environments. Which is one reason why Columbia, which has been playing football since 1870 and even won the Rose Bowl in 1934, has had so few good players in recent times. And even when decent players want to come to the school—and are smart enough to get in, and wouldn't rather go to Harvard, Yale, etc.—there are parents to contend with. "I had a player who was crying, he wanted to come here so bad," says first-year coach Larry McElreavy. "But his mother wouldn't let him near New York."
It doesn't help the football program that the athletic complex is so far away from the campus or that the undergrad enrollment is a mere 3,300. Unlike Division I-A schools, the Ivy League (which offers no athletic scholarships) often gets players from the rank and file. Still, McElreavy sees better times approaching. "We're in better shape than Northwestern," he says. "Because of their requirements their talent pool isn't the same as the other Big Ten schools. It's microscopic. The Ivy League talent pool also is microscopic, but at least we all look through the same microscope."
The problem for Columbia football, overall, has been that the university has been content to stand on its academic record, with its 41 Nobel Prize winners, past and present, from the alumni and faculty. Columbia's role, according to the school fact book, is "custodian of the Western intellectual tradition," a tradition that has little to do with X's and O's. Three cheers for academic integrity.
"But the thing that is maddening is the liberal imagination that goes along with it all," says writer D. Keith Mano, Columbia class of '63 and wild-man cheerleader for the team. "To liberals, to beat somebody on the field is to be morally aggressive. The entire liberal philosophy is based on passivity. You're better if you're a victim. If we ever won the Ivy League title, the administration would have us investigated by the ACLU!"
McElreavy learned years ago how the school felt about football. As the offensive line coach for Yale, he came to Baker Field with the Elis in 1980, and while walking up to the press box he fell through a plank in the stairs. "They built temporary stands in 1920 and didn't finish the stadium until 1986," he says. But the stadium has finally been completed, and now the administration seems to want the team to win. The question is, does anybody remember how to win?
Later on Friday night a group of players lounges in the second-floor TV room at the Sigma Chi house on 113th and Broadway, watching
Miami Vice, checking out Crockett and Tubbs as they break up some vile and illegal South Florida activity. The players cheer the explosions and gunfire. Ah, if only a 30-game losing streak could be snuffed so easily.
Somebody gets up and changes the channel. Policastro explains that the house used to have a remote-control tuner, but a robber broke in with a pickax one night and tried to make off with the TV and the tuner. The thief ran into one of the fraternity brothers, dropped the television, but escaped with the tuner.