For the moment, alumni dollars aren’t reflecting any such jaundice. On Oct. 18, the annual Columbia Giving Day yielded over $3.1 million in pledges for athletics, compared with $2.7 million in 2016, according to Lauren Dwyer, the university’s senior associate director of athletics development. Last year, about $260,000 was earmarked for football; this year the total so far is $302,000, Ms. Dwyer said.
In general, current students are more enthusiastic than battle-hardened alumni. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve found my heroes,” wrote Joseph Siegel, a sophomore, recently in the Columbia Daily Spectator. “The titanic athletes in their helmets and pads, the wide expanse of the stadium, the goal posts and lights scraping into the sky; for all this, I see no substitute.”
Some alumni are simply coming to grips with their own changing perceptions.
“The pure joy of Columbia football is that we’re not supposed to be good,” said Sahil Godiwala, Columbia College class of 1999. A New York-based lawyer, he vividly remembers the coverage on the student-run radio station WKCR-FM.
“I got hooked on the broadcasts,” Mr. Godiwala recalled. “The announcers lost all semblance of professionalism and talked about the games as if they were a comedy show. They conveyed the surrealness of the situation. If we had a win, it was because some freak accident happened. We would get a fumble on the goal line or something like that.”
Now, he said, he is “thrilled” that the Lions are winning. “I have absolutely no reservation.”
“My feelings as an alumnus are very different from when I was a student,” said Stephen Holtje, Columbia College class of 1983. When he was in the university’s marching band, he said, “Being a rabid sports fan was not really hip. I remember taking great delight in Columbia’s perfection of the forward fumble.”
Today, Mr. Holtje is manager of the record label ESP-Disk and has a different slant. “I no longer need to be hip and ironic,” he said. “When they’re losing, it means nothing and I don’t notice. But when they win, it’s like this amazing blessing out of nowhere.”
Mr. Holtje dismissed any notions that Columbia’s current football prowess might overshadow the university’s emphasis on academics. “It’s sufficiently obvious that we will not be Ohio State,” he said, “so we don’t have to worry — even if we have an undefeated season.”
But Mr. Passaro, among others, is not satisfied. For him, today’s Lions symbolize a cheerful, rah-rah Columbia that he derides as “Princeton on the Hudson.” To his mind, the authentic Columbia is the scrappy institution of higher learning he attended in the 1970s — when New York was bankrupt, the Baker Field stadium was rotting and the Lions were reassuringly predictable bums.
“Whatever this miraculous thing is that you’re telling me about, I don’t understand it and I don’t like it,” Mr. Passaro said. “My Columbia was a happily bohemian place and I wish it were still.”
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