In the more than 150 years of intercollegiate athletics at Columbia, few teams have inspired as much passion and respect as the 1961 Ivy League football championship squad.
The epitome of the word “team,” the 1961 Lions featured strong coaching, undeniable talent and indomitable leadership.
Under the tutelage of head coach Buff Donelli, the team had high hopes for the season as they arrived at Camp Columbia in the preseason.
Following a grueling few weeks of practice, Coach Donelli had his team ready for the season opener against Brown.
On opening day in Providence, tailback Russ Warren scored three times as the Lions roared past the Bears, 50-0. After one of the most lopsided victories in the history of Columbia football, the stage was set for a championship season.
In week two, Columbia took on its long-time rival from New Jersey. Trailing Princeton 23-20 in the fourth quarter, the Lions were inches away from a victory but would come up just short in a heartbreaking defeat.
But behind the strong leadership from Coach Donelli and captain Bill Campbell, what could have been a deflating loss became a springboard for future success.
Over the next six weeks, the Lions proved to be the class of the Ivy League on both sides of the ball, and getting star performances from different players every week.
Sophomore Al Butts scored a touchdown, a two-point conversion and picked off two Yale passes as Columbia shut out the Elis 11-0 in week three.
The following week, the Lions’ offensive line and running backs dominated Harvard, as Tom O’Connor, Russ Warren and Tom Haggerty rushed for more than 240 yards and four touchdowns in a 26-14 victory.
Against Cornell, the Lions defense forced three turnovers and Haggarty scored on a punt return and a long run from scrimmage as Columbia ran its Ivy League record to 4-1. With two league games to play, all the Lions would need to do was win out and they would clinch the league title.
Against Dartmouth, Dick Hassan provided the spark, scoring twice in the first quarter and Russ Warren provided the exclamation point with a 43-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 35-14 Columbia rout.
The stage was set for a date with destiny.
But the Lions would have to do it without their leader, as Campbell would be unable to play due to injury.
Ever resilient, and in front of a passionate home crowd, the Lions would dominate Penn in all phases of the game. Lee Black was one of five Lions to get into the end zone, Tom Haggerty and Len de Fiore picked off passes as defense dominated the day with the Lions claiming a 37-6 victory and the Ivy League Championship.
Five Lions were named All-Ivy League following the year – Bob Asack, Lee Black, Tony Day, Tom Haggerty and Russ Warren. But more important than any single victory, or individual highlight, the 1961 Lions were all about the team.