fifteen years removed from their last NFL game, the City of Angels, has reinvented itself into a hotbed for college football. Much like it was before the then Cleveland Rams moved out west in the 1940s, and four decades later, during Al Davis' temporary NorCal to SoCal venture, football in Tinsel Town is again a Saturday event. Of course Saturday football has always been the only meaningful sport for vast rural sections of this country. Areas like State College, Pennsylvania, or College Station, Texas, or Gainesville, Florida, which each revolve around massive state schools, and which, like Los Angeles, have no future in landing an NFL team. Not that these college towns, or at this point, even LA, cares much about that anyway.
That's however where the similarities between today's LA college football scene and those college towns end. Hollywood's top team, the USC Trojans, is not a cookie-cutter state school but instead a ritzy private institution located in the heart of downtown and with an endowment that would make most eastern elite schools blush.
Simultaneously, the Trojans feature a celebrity row (led by Snoop Dogg, Will Ferrell and Keanu Reeves) that humbles most NFL teams. On top of that, unlike anywhere else, LA is as its always been, a two team town. UCLA plays the part of the region's big state school and despite a decade's worth of mediocre play, they too bring a rich football history to Southern California. Although the Bruins aren't the trendy pick amongst the locals, and have never held the passionate fan base of say, the University of Tennessee, UCLA is still a big draw in the single most famous college stadium in America, the Rose Bowl.
When the two sides meet the proximity of the schools make their rivalry every bit as fierce as Oklahoma/Nebraska, Alabama/Auburn, or Miami/Florida State. With the 32 team NFL not looking to expand anytime soon, expect the USC/UCLA rivalry to only grow. Despite that, perhaps the most important rivalry game is not played in LA, or in one of the many college towns.
Instead, it is played right here in New York City. The competitors? The Rams of Fordham and Lions of Columbia, two schools who don't have enough talent to even fill most JV rosters of the teams mentioned above. They don't even have the talent to match Temple and Villanova's recently renewed battle for Philadelphia. Still, Fordham vs. Columbia (I-AA teams who have combined for only 6 winning seasons over the past 20 years while playing at the secondary Division I level) might just take part in the most important college football game of them all. This because the Rams and Lions play for more than Big Apple bragging rights when they meet on the field every September. They play for the Liberty Cup, a somber remembrance of the 9/11 attacks which eight years ago killed close to 3,000 New Yorkers. The death toll included scores of Fordham and Columbia grads. Amongst the many murdered that morning, Kevin Szocik, Fordham's starting QB for the 1996 season.
Columbia had been scheduled to play Fordham just days after the attack. At the time it appeared to be another nondescript chapter of an on again/off again (mostly off again) series. Another low level game featuring a rather movable object vs. a quite penetrable force.
Like the Chicago Cubs, Columbia football has spent most of its history as a source of ridicule. Traditionally it's been the worst Ivy League team, which traditionally had been the worst I-A conference before being relegated into the I-AA level in the late 70's where it has since slipped into a below average I-AA conference. In fact, Columbia's greatest claim to fame was once holding the record for the longest Division I (A or AA level) losing streak. Between the 1983-'88 seasons, the Lions racked up 44 straight losses. Their second greatest claim to fame has been, CUMB, the Columbia University Marching Band. A hodge-podge collection of "musicians" notorious for being as poor and disorganized as their football team. Unlike the football team, CUMB is bad on purpose. We think.
Known for mismatched uniforms, blowing bubbles on the field as if on an ecstasy high, and off colored jokes (the band leader, their "poet laureate" does stand up and even works blue, Columbia blue at least) they've at least been able to successfully upset opposing fans in ways that the Lions football team usually can't. Basically CUMB is everything which the militant, beret wearing, "i" dotting, Ohio State band is not. A feat Columbia is proud of. Their football team is everything Ohio State is not as well.
After a recent quote by the Buckeye's star quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, the Lions might be proud of that as well. Pryor, who after squeaking out a win against Navy, in where he wore the names "Mike" and "Vick" on his eyeblack told reporters that he supports Vick because "everyone kills people, murders people." Pryor has not yet picked a major so criminal justice is still an option.
Speaking of Ohio State, the old quote describing Fordham was that they wanted to be Harvard from Monday through Friday, and Ohio State on Saturdays. While they're still chasing Harvard (and Columbia for that matter) during the week, Fordham has certainly stopped chasing Ohio State on game days. But this wasn't always the case for a school which during the 1930s and early '40s had one of the nation's winningest programs. Called the Notre Dame of the East, Fordham was famous for the Seven Blocks of Granite, anchored by Alex Wojciechowicz who went on to be an NFL Hall of Famer, and Vince Lombardi who went on the be the NFL's greatest coach of all time.
They were quarterbacked by the likes of two time NFL Champion, Ed Danowski, and later, Steve Filipowicz, who guided the Rams into the Cotton Bowl and then the Sugar Bowl before becoming a professional two sport athlete for the NY football Giants, as well as the old NY Giants baseball team. Later still, they were lead by Dick Doheny who led the country in passing in 1950 and Roger Franz who matched that feat two years later.
Despite the success of Doheny and Franz, football at Fordham, and the Northeast as a whole, was on a decline in the 1950s. Dwindling crowds, in part due to a de-emphasized regional schedule, as opposed to the national one played during the Seven Blocks of Granite days; games seen for the first time ever, for free, on the new medium of broadcast television; a growing popularity in the NFL's Giants (a team owned by Fordham grad, Wellington Mara); pricey rents at both Yankees Stadium and the Polo Grounds; and increased expenses due to an expansion of D-I roster sizes, all lead to huge financial losses for the Catholic school. After a disastrous 1954 campaign, the Rams looked to hire Lombardi who was coaching at Army, one of the few Northeastern schools which remained successful throughout the '50s. It was rumored to be a final ditch effort at recreating the glory days. Instead of doubling down, however, Fordham ultimately chose to fold. They dropped football after the '54 season and Lombardi instead moved on to the NFL.
Since that time, the Rams have taken a long road back to Division I. Division I-AA at least. While Columbia stuck through with their program and a half century of futility, Fordham struggled to merely field a team. In 1965 students created a "club" football team. The university took over the program and upgraded to the NCAA's D-III level in 1971. In 1989, after nearly two decades of mixed results, Fordham upgraded again. This time they skipped past D-II, and into the I-AA level where they found a home in the Patriot League, a collection of "junior" Ivy League schools. There the Rams floundered tremendously throughout the 1990s. Despite two separate winless seasons, even in losing, Fordham could not top Columbia's tradition of ineptitude. While the Rams were bad, very-very bad, they still weren't "longest losing streak of all time" bad. The addition of Towson State (who had a few years earlier been playing in D-II) and later Georgetown (who had a few years earlier been playing in D-III) to the Patriot League kept Fordham from even being the worst team in their own conference. Even while losing 5 of 6 games to Columbia between 1991 and 2000, Columbia was still the Cubs. Covered (along with the rest of the Ivy League) by the New York Times and local cable, Columbia remained the gold standard for college football incompetence. This as the Rams sputtered on, losing in front of miniscule crowds, and treated by the media like the mostly anonymous Pittsburgh Pirates.
In fairness, things weren't all bad for Columbia during the 1990s. Lead by defensive stopper, Marcellus Wiley, who went on to become an NFL Pro Bowler, the Lions managed two winning seasons and in 1996 nearly won the Ivy League crown. Not quite their "Golden Era" of fifty years earlier, but the mid 90s did bring Columbia only their 5th and 6th winning seasons since that time. That "Golden Era" of the mid and late 1940s saw Columbia sweep through three straight winning seasons and two Top-20 finishes. Included in Columbia's win total during that time were victories over top ranked teams like Army and Navy. That comment alone (with respect to Navy's recent resurgence) shows what a different world it was back then. Going back even further, the Lions, the 1934 Rose Bowl and an unofficial national champs, proved to have had other brief moments of greatness.
Coached for nearly 30 years by Hall of Famer, Lou Little, Columbia produced several NFL greats, including Sid Luckman who quarterbacked the Chicago Bears to four NFL Championships in the 1940s. This included a win over Ed Danowski's Giants in the 1941 NFL title game.
Although Columbia and Fordham grads occasionally bumped heads in the pros, the two schools spent most of their history avoiding each other. The difference in playing levels had much to do with that.
While Columbia's schedule has consisted mostly of other Ivy League teams for over 100 years (they did play and beat a much smaller Fordham team twice during the turn of the previous century) the Rams have been all over the place. Early Fordham rivals included small, rural, Protestant schools like Bard, Thiel, and Muhlenberg as well as smaller locals like CCNY and Manhattan College. This changed with the arrival of Hall of Fame coach, Frank Cavanaugh in 1927. Within a few years the "Iron Major" elevated the program into the big time. By the 1930s opponents like Colby were replaced with Pitt, Purdue, and North Carolina as Fordham took on all comers, often at a sold out Yankees Stadium.
As the popularity of college football waned throughout the Northeast after the war, Fordham downgraded their grueling schedule. Like their Catholic counterparts (Detroit, Xavier, Dayton, Duquesne, Georgetown, Villanova, Holy Cross, and Boston College) each of whom had also tried emulating Notre Dame during the pre-war years, Fordham football declined. Each of these schools as well as many private universities like GW, Temple (at the time still private) and NYU became regional teams after the war. Since that time only BC has managed to keep their program at a I-A level. Maybe the '50s, as both Fordham and Columbia were stepping off the national stage, would have been a good time to start the rivalry. For whatever the reason it didn't happen. Minus one game in 1972, it certainly didn't happen when the Rams brought football back to the club and D-III levels.
That one game, played at Columbia when Columbia was still considered a I-A calibre team ended in disaster for a seriously overmatched Fordham team. The Daily News reported the score in their back page the next day with the headline "Lions 44, Christians 0."
It would be nearly another 20 years, after Fordham moved up and Columbia was reclassified to the I-AA level before the teams would meet again. As mentioned earlier, starting in 1991, the two schools met 6 times over a period of 10 years. Those games went unnoticed to most. The 2001 game probably would have gone just as unnoticed had it not been for the 9/11 attacks. Defiantly, days later the two schools stood together and decided to not cancel the scheduled game. It took an NCAA mandate for the two schools to finally agree on postponing the affair. They rescheduled for the end of the season and did eventually meet on the field on Thanksgiving morning. They've met every year since, with a new trophy, the Liberty Cup on the line since 2002.
The Liberty Cup doesn't feature the celebs of USC/UCLA. Nor does it offer the pageantry that the soldiers and sailors of Army/Navy carry. It lacks the history of just about any other rivalry game. Of course it certainly doesn't come close to matching crowd sizes. This year's game, played at Fordham's one sided 7,000 seat stadium brought in about 6,500 fans. Not bad for a I-AA contest, but only about 1/5th the size of the Temple/Villanova crowd, let alone the crowd sizes at any of the truly big rivalry games.
Despite all of that, the New York City showdown offers what the other's can't; a remembrance to this country's darkest day. The low key half time presentation honors 9/11 first and second responders as well as the many fundraising groups who support them and truly will never forget. The humble tribute probably means more to Fordham Head Coach, Tom Masella, than any other coach in the game. This because Masella once worked as a fireman for the FDNY.
As the Lions and Rams improve (both teams are darkhorse challengers to their respective league crowns and Fordham has gone the extra step in bringing scholarships back to their program for the first time since 1954) we hope that media coverage for this important event also improves.
Perhaps finding a permanent neutral sight venue like the new Yankees Stadium, which has recently signed to host several upcoming Army games, could help in giving this game the high profile it deserves. Not to ever lose the meaning of the Liberty Cup but New York has it's share of names too. Getting some of our better known locals, like Spike Lee, to show up at Columbia/Fordham instead off flying across the country to stand on the sidelines with the USC Song Girls probably wouldn't hurt either.
As an aside, although Lee attended NYU, he's worked with Academy Award winners who did graduate from Columbia (Anna Paquin) and Fordham (Denzel Washington) respectively.
While the names above didn't make this year's game, we did. Columbia ended Fordham's two year hold on the trophy by scoring a 40-28 upset over the hosts. NFL prospect, John Skelton, threw for nearly 400 yards for the Rams but his three interceptions were too much to overcome. Lion's quarterback, M.A. Olawale, a neuroscience and behavior major with future plans on being at Harvard Medical School rather than the NFL only passed for 167 yards. But Olawale also scrambled for 50 yards and scored 4 touchdowns (two in the air, two on the ground) while making zero mistakes.
Below, the sights of this year's Liberty Cup:
With 533 yards in total offense Fordham appeared to have the better numbers. But Columbia owned the clock for over 36 minutes, had a +3 turnover ratio, +100 in return yards, committed 100 fewer penalty yards, and avoided costly mistakes. The undersized Lions did more with less and after a two year stay in the Bronx, the Liberty Cup now returns to Manhattan. We'll be back next year to again cover college football's best rivalry game of them all.*