Hail, Columbia, Where Losing Isn't Everything, It's the Only Thing—Just Ask the Fans

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

D. Keith Mano has known suffering. Even now, at this raucous tailgate party outside the Columbia University football stadium, there is pain to be seen in his eyes. Mano, class of '63, pours himself a large tumbler of Wild Turkey, perhaps to forget. Then he grabs a fried chicken leg. "In the Middle Ages monks slept in their coffins," says the 45-year-old novelist. "And that's what Columbia football is like—preparation for death." He takes a slug of 101-proof embalming fluid. "It's preparation to lose everything."

Indeed, the Columbia Lions have lost so much for so long that they have managed to acquire a perverse notoriety. The Harvards beat them. The Yales beat them. The nasty rumor is that Barnard plans to suit up a women's team and beat them. Just 10 years ago, on this very campus, the word "streak" meant a jog in the nude. Now it refers to the melancholy fact that Columbia has not won a football game since October 1983. That's 34 in a row, and with their loss, on Oct. 3, to Penn, the Lions tied the record for futility set in 1982 by Northwestern.

As for Mano, he is working on a streak of his own—one that should get him into the sadomasochists' book of world records. He has attended every Columbia game, home or away, since 1970. That's 153 straight games. It would have been 154, but on the way to the Brown game back in September. 1970, his wife went into labor. "I dropped her off within easy walking distance of the hospital," he says. "But by the time I got back to the field the game was over." (They're now divorced.) In addition to being one of the Lions' leading agonistes, Mano is also a columnist for the conservative National Review. Ask him why the Lions are such losers and he doesn't hesitate to go mano a mano with his ideological enemies. "Columbia is one of America's great liberal institutions," he says. "And liberals distrust aggressiveness, centralized authority, regimentation, even uniforms." In short, everything that makes football football. "If we ever win," he whispers, "the ACLU will come to investigate."

With 41 Nobel prizewinners among past and present faculty and alumni, Columbia has always considered itself an intellectual rather than a gridiron power. Its tradition of football failure is rich, but not unbroken. In 1934 the Lions actually won the Rose Bowl. But it also fielded writer Jack Kerouac as a running back in 1942. Later Kerouac wrote of his old teammates as "a bunch of weak-kneed punks, tall and disjointed and sorta decadent." Hardly anyone was offended.

Recently, however, there have been indications that Columbia might like not to fail so often so publicly. In 1982, after New York City had finally condemned sections of its crumbling Baker Field, the university began construction of a handsome new facility, the Lawrence A. Wien Stadium. The next year, the school hired Jim Garrett, an NFL field coach who was billed as a hard-nose scrapper. But the pressure, or something, was Garrett's undoing. He excoriated his scholar-athletes as "drug-addicted losers" after a bitter come-from-ahead loss to Harvard, which wasn't quite what the school had in mind. Garrett was gone by the end of the season—which, like several others, was winless. He was succeeded by the current coach, Larry McElreavy, who combines elements of Doctors Pangloss and Norman Vincent Peale. The streak has "focused attention on our program, so I look at it as positive," he says. "The players are gung ho."

It's true. In practice, the Lions appear anything but demoralized. They joke about moving up in class and taking on a superpower like Oklahoma. They hit each other with abandon. "We're playing like we have nothing to lose," says team captain Mark Bissinger. "And we really don't."

Except for another game, of course. On this day, against Penn, McElreavy's defense plays tough; the Quakers don't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. As for the Columbia offense, well, some things are better left unsaid. Final score: Penn 23, Columbia 0.

Last weekend the Lions faced Princeton. And this time they really couldn't lose. After the final whistle on Saturday afternoon, the mighty Lions would either have stunned the heavily favored Tigers or set a new record for consecutive losses. In a game of fleeting glories, that record is one that can be expected to last longer than most.

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