The Worst Opening Day of College Football Ever

By Michael J. Socolow

Thirty years ago today Columbia University inaugurated its 1985 football season with the worst opening day in NCAA history. The 1985 Columbia-Harvard game wasn’t a classic mismatch. Nor was the game unexciting. What makes the game so legendary — the reason why it remains lodged in memory — was what occurred in its immediate aftermath.

But first, the game itself. Columbia entered having lost 12 straight games since they tied Dartmouth two years earlier. The Lions last squeaked out a victory earlier in 1983 when they beat Yale on the arm of future NFL QB John Witkowski. Despite 15 straight contests without victory, there existed optimism on Morningside Heights going into that 1985 season. Jim Garrett, a demanding and enthusiastic coach with NFL experience, had been hired to inculcate his players with toughness and tenacity.

The new attitude powered the Lions to a 17–0 halftime lead. The New York squad dominated, limiting the Crimson to a mere 8 yards rushing while Columbia’s runners scampered through holes in the Crimson defense for 130 yards. The almost 8,000 fans in Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at Baker Field stood for the lions when they left the sideline for halftime.

Then the game turned. Beginning a few minutes into the second half, Harvard’s subsequent domination would be deemed too unbelievable if appearing in a sports novel. The Crimson scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions while stopping the Lions cold. Final score: Harvard 49 Columbia 17.

That would be bad enough. But Coach Garrett’s post-game comments made a bad situation worse. Much worse. He told a New York Times reporter that his team was made up of “drug-addicted losers.” Despite the fact that the loss was a complete team meltdown, Garrett cut veteran punter Pete Murphy in front of the squad immediately following the game. “The punting killed us,” he told the Times. “You saw it. You and I could have returned those punts.” When asked where he’d find a punter for the follow week’s contest Garrett tersely replied “we’ll get one.” He wanted no excuses from his players. “We’re in this game to win,” Garrett growled. “Don’t tell me it’s a college atmosphere.”

To say Garrett’s tirade set the tone for a dreadful season would be something of an understatement. After the Athletic Director and University Vice President deemed his comments “inappropriate,” Garrett was lucky to keep his job. Or maybe unlucky, as the lions trudged through nine more losses — including three shut-outs — on their way to compiling the longest Division I losing streak in NCAA history.

That losing streak would be broken on October 8, 1988. A young Columbia squad shocked a veteran Princeton eleven at Homecoming in Wien Stadium 16 to 13. The starting QB for Princeton that day was a transfer from Columbia: Jason Garrett. His brother, Judd, also a transfer from Columbia, started in Princeton’s backfield and compiled 116 yards on 22 carries. Both Garrett brothers left Columbia when their father resigned at the end of the 1985 season. Both departed Wien Stadium that afternoon in 1988 without speaking to the press.

But maybe Jim Garrett got the last laugh. His son Jason — the first QB to lose to Columbia in almost five years — now coaches the Dallas Cowboys. One presumes Jason Garrett handles any “drug-addicted losers” he finds in the Dallas locker room in a more circumspect manner than his father.

Michael J. Socolow is an Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine.