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  • Writer's pictureLucas Semb

24-hour turnaround: How Columbia's Mark Fabish has settled into first head coaching role

NEW YORK CITY – Columbia University football coach Mark Fabish was taking a solo stroll along the Wien Stadium track, pondering how fast everything in the Lions football program had just changed; how quickly everything had just changed for himself.

The 2023 season will be longtime assistant coach Mark Fabish's first as a head coach. (Credit: Columbia University athletics)

Less than 24 hours ago, Ivy League coaching legend Al Bagnoli announced his retirement.

After a 30-year head coaching stretch in the Ivy League that led to nine conference titles and an eight-year run with Columbia that was beginning to revitalize the program, he was done.

He was Fabish’s college coach at Penn back in the mid-90s, and then his superior at Penn and Columbia as a coach over another nearly 15-year period. That chapter of their book was finished, too.

For a large chunk of his career, Fabish had Bagnoli in it - what was next?

That’s when Fabish’s phone began to ring. The caller ID showed Peter Pilling – Columbia University Athletic Director.

That afternoon, Fabish began his walk as the team’s longtime offensive coordinator. When he hung up the phone and left the track, he had a new position: interim head coach.

“He (Pilling) asked me if I’d want the opportunity to lead the program this year and I gave him an emphatic yes,” Fabish said. “It’s been a whirlwind ever since and I haven’t looked back.”

In just one day’s time, Fabish had gone from a career-long disciple of Bagnoli to his successor. He had become a first-time head coach with just a month-and-a-half to go before the Lions’ season-opener at Lafayette.

A few hours later, the news was announced to the rest of the coaching staff and then another couple hours later, to the team – it was official.

Getting the role was bittersweet, as it marked the end of a long tenure working with someone who’s meant so much to him, but just one thing kept standing out amongst the cluster of emotions.

“If you do this long enough - I’ve been fortunate enough to work with three great head coaches, Coach Bagnoli the longest - but if you pay attention and have an open mind and observe and see how things are done, by default you’re going to be a little bit ready,” Fabish said. “I think my background with him has prepared me for this role and now I have no other choice but to be ready.”

There’s no time to waste.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

When Bagnoli transitioned his staff from Penn to Columbia in 2015, they were inheriting a program that was winless in back-to-back seasons; 20 games of football with zero wins to show for it.

The system needed to be blown up and reworked from the ground floor. It only took a couple years to see that what they implemented was working.

In 2017, the Lions went 8-2 with a second-place finish in the Ivy League. After a COVID cancelled 2020 season and 14-month period without seeing their players due to New York City’s strict COVID restrictions, the Lions came back in 2021 to finish 7-3. In 2022, the team started just 3-4 before beating Harvard, something it hadn’t done since Bill Clinton was the president, sparking it to win out and finish 6-4.

Bagnoli’s system works – all Fabish has to do is take it and run with it.

“The beauty of it is that we have a plan, we’ve done things a certain way since we got to Columbia in ‘15 and its worked,” Fabish said. “There’s no reason to change something that’s not broken. I’ve mentioned it probably too much in the few opportunities I’ve had to speak with people about this opportunity, but we’re on a trajectory and it’s my obligation to Columbia, to Columbia football, to our players and staff to continue that trajectory.”

“I’m not inheriting a program like we did in March of 2015 where they were a ship without a sail so to speak and we had to come in and really build the ship in order to get it going and then get the sail up and then make sure the sail was going. Right now, for me it’s just continuing that process that has worked.”

The only thing that’ll be different is that ‘Mark Fabish’ will be the name associated with leading the program. And it’s something that everyone who’s reached out to him has urged him to embrace.

As great as his coaching role models have been, now he’s in the seat and no matter whose system he plans on using, he needs to lead it his way.

“Of all the outreach I got from people, the thing that stood out the most was, ‘be yourself, do it Mark Fabish’s way,’” Fabish said. “I’ve worked for Kevin Callahan at Monmouth University, and he reached out right away to offer a few suggestions but at the same time, making sure I do it my way and I don’t try and be Kevin Callahan and I don’t try to be Al Bagnoli.”

For Fabish, who would ideally like the interim tag taken off his title at some point, that’s easier said than done. Someone looking for a permanent promotion and success will do whatever it takes to secure those things, even if that means straying away from what they stand for – but not Fabish.

“Inherently, I am a process-driven football coach. I don’t chase results; I never have, and I don’t want to change that because of the chair that I’m sitting in,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that we’re ready, that our guys play hard for each other, and the result will be a byproduct of that. If we ask them to do the right thing and the results are a byproduct, then things will fall into place, and I’ll have peace of mind knowing I did everything possible to put Columbia football in the best position to be successful no matter how that gets measured or perceived. … if that leads to having the interim tag lifted, so be it.”

Expect Columbia’s continuity to remain intact, just with a new face at the helm.

The Lions approach on the field and in the locker room will remain primarily unchanged under Fabish's leadership. (Credit: Columbia University athletics)

Trial by fire

On the day of his promotion, there was just a month-and-a-half to go before the season-opener so “getting settled in” is hardly a sufficient term to describe what Fabish has endured since taking over.

Instead, Fabish calls it “trial by fire.”

“You have to be ready,” Fabish said. “These guys are smart, and they are motivated, and they will see through you if you’re not prepared so every meeting every day, I have to be ready. My message at the end of practice, every meeting, it better be on point and better hit home otherwise I lose credibility. They are listening to every word, locked in, they know what it should look like because I’m following a legend, so I have to make sure I’m on for them.”

There’s been no time to sit back and consider all his emotions or how he wants to do things. He’s needed to just keep plugging away.

“Every day I have the opportunity to talk to them at the end of practice, every day in team meetings, now more than ever because they are living the lives of football players. School hasn’t started yet,” Fabish said. “And I owe it to them to make sure we’re pulling in the same direction and that is the obligation of the role is the stewardship of this program.”

“Being sure I’m pointing them in the right direction, and they are receiving a consistent message, we’re not changing the mark every day. Every action and every word I share with them has that focus in mind. So being cognizant of that throughout the last two weeks. It’s been making sure I am keeping my eye on the prize and that is doing everything we can to just progress – constant forward motion.”

But through the hard work and chaos of rapid change, he’s been enjoying every moment.

In an ode to NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash, Fabish has been working even harder on making things fun than he has on Xs and Os.

“When he (Nash) won MVP, they did a study on him, and he led the NBA in high fives and hugs and touching his teammates. And so, for the last two years I made it a point every year in practice of giving every player before we started a high five,” Fabish explained. “And now I want to lead the world in high fives with our guys … I’ve had to work a little bit harder, but my adjustment is giving all 110 high fives before practice starts … it’s been such an awesome thing being able to experience both sides.”

The Lions will travel to Easton, Pennsylvania for a non-league matchup with Lafayette of the Patriot League to kick off the Mark Fabish era on September 16.


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