Rarely have Columbia fans rooted for a better team. After defeating Penn in overtime on homecoming last weekend, the Lions are 5-0 for the first time since 1996, 2-0 in the Ivy League. They play Dartmouth (5-0, 2-0) on the road on Saturday in an unlikely battle for first place.
The attendance at last week’s home game — more than 13,000 — was the team’s largest since 2003, a university spokesman said. And continued success under Al Bagnoli, who won nine Ivy League championships when he was Penn’s coach, has allowed fans to imagine what once seemed unthinkable: Columbia’s first conference title in football since 1961.
That Columbia would have neighborhood fans — especially those with no ties to the university beyond location — seems inapposite. Ivy League football is not the stuff of mass interest even among its best teams.
But why not? Wien Stadium, formerly Baker Field, and still called that by some traditionalists, is just around the corner (unlike Columbia’s actual campus, which is 100 blocks south).
“You could look through my window and see the game,” said Gerard Dowd, 60, who grew up on 218th Street and Seaman Avenue. “My dad used to watch from the apartment.”
Even parts of the Bronx, a borough that does host a prominent sports team which is playing its own meaningful games this month, are Lions territory. “We lived closer to Baker Field than to Yankee Stadium,” said Harry Enten, 29, a journalist at the website FiveThirtyEight, referring to Riverdale, his childhood neighborhood. “I grew up on West 246th. You take the Broadway Bridge right across, and an easy right off of it.”
“It was something where you really had to want to do it,” Enten said of going to watch Columbia. “In Ann Arbor, everyone goes, and that’s great for the community, but you can be a fan without really being a fan.”
Wien Stadium was built on the site of Baker Field, one of the last stadiums with wooden bleachers, which was torn down in 1982. (It took Columbia nearly five seasons to win a game in its new home, which opened in 1984.) It now anchors an athletics complex on a spit of land at the northern tip of Manhattan Island, tucked in near the mound of old-growth forest that is Inwood Hill Park and bounded by a curve in the Harlem River.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, residents said, the neighborhood was predominantly middle-class Irish-American. In the summer, children swam in the river. On fall Saturdays, they went to Columbia football games, typically at no cost — it helped that the Good Shepherd men’s club ran the ticket-taking operation.
“One experience that’s changed,” said Brown, 60, “is now I have to pay.”
The children collected game balls that were kicked into 218th Street after field goals and extra points, tossing them around and running away from the police, and stowing them for future pickup games played at Baker Field after hours.
As they got older, their game day experience changed but they kept coming. Blackberry brandy became a staple of cold afternoons. Old friends met a few hours early at an Irish pub in the Bronx, near the last stop on the 1 train, and traveled down before kickoff. Before Columbia’s offensive drives, someone would shout, “Ding ding ding! Window is open!” and bets would be placed.
“I was usually the bank,” Holland said. “I would say, ‘Columbia will be three and a kick.’ Someone would say, ‘Give me that for two dollars.’ Before you know it, maybe you have five or six guys yelling at you.”
There was even the occasional road trip.
“We rented a school bus to go to Princeton to see them lose,” Brown said.
Indeed, these fans’ dedication is especially notable given that the team was frequently not only not worth writing home about, but not worth leaving home to watch. From 1963 to 1993 the Lions had only one winning season, bottoming out in the 1980s with a 44-game losing streak.
Better teams “would have been nice,” Dowd said. “But it’s not like it’s the SEC.”
Some local fans have passed on the Columbia tradition to the next generation. Brown’s 23-year-old daughter, Brittany, who grew up in Riverdale, recalled waiting outside the locker room for the Columbia mascot, Roar-ee the Lion, to emerge. Enten’s father, Harold, a judge, had seen the great Columbia quarterback Sid Luckman play while growing up in the Bronx.
And if they have not moved far away — Holland is now in California — they still pop in for games from time to time. While the team’s name and colors belong to the university, they know there is a part of the whole thing that only they can sustain.
The college students “are only there for four years,” Holland said. “We were there for decades. And there’s guys still going.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the last time the attendance for a Columbia home football was larger than it was for last week’s game. It happened in 2003, not 2004.