head football coach, 1930-56
inducted February 18, 2006
Born Luigi Piccolo in Boston in 1893, Columbia’s greatest football coach was known by the Anglicized version of his name, Lou Little. Nothing else in his career, however, was little.
Lou Little was a giant among the nation’s football coaches. He coached at two of the nation’s most prestigious universities, Georgetown and Columbia, from 1924 to 1956. His teams won 149 games while losing 128 and tying 12. At Columbia, he posted 110 victories, 68 more than the second- winningest Lion coach, Ray Tellier.
He coached the Lions to two of the most memorable upsets in college football history, a 7-0 victory over Stanford in 1934 and a 21-20 win over undefeated Army in 1947, as well as huge victories over Navy in 1933 and Georgia in 1940. Over a four-year stretch beginning in 1931, his second season at Columbia, the Lions twice went 8-1 and twice 7-1-1. He had a three-year string of successes in the mid-1940s, going 8-1 in 1945, 6-3 in 1946, and 7-2 in 1947.
He was elected president of the American Football Coaches Association and played a key role on college football’s Rules Committee. Four of his players — Paul Governali, Sid Luckman, Cliff Montgomery and Bill Swiacki — were elected to the College Football Foundation Hall of Fame, and he soon joined them.
He was one of the best-known figures in New York City, found most nights in one or another of the city’s famed nightspots, swapping stories with mayors, sports figures and entertainers. He was justly famous for his wardrobe, especially his shoes, of which it was said that he owned a different one for every day of the year.
Lou Little grew up in Leominster, a Central Massachusetts city. He originally attended the University of Vermont, transferring after two years to the University of Pennsylvania. He started at tackle for the Quakers in 1916 and was named an All-American.
After three years in the military, he returned to Penn in 1919 and helped to win a championship. He again was an All-American selection. Following graduation, Little gave professional football a try, playing from 1920 to 1924 with the Frankfort Yellow Jackets and the Philadelphia Quakers.
He ended his pro career in 1924, when he was named Georgetown’s head coach. Following the 1929 season, he came to Columbia.
Little was a demanding coach, whose sharp tongue could be heard on the sidelines both in practice and at games. But his players revered him and played harder than they ever thought they could. “He always expected the best from his players,” someone wrote. “He demanded that they play football his way, or not play at all.”
Sid Luckman played a great deal under Little and later under George “Papa Bear” Halas, considered possibly pro football’s greatest coach. None of his coaches surpassed Little, though.
“I never met anyone in my life who had such a tremendous influence on me,” Luckman once said of his coach. “There was something about him — his stature, his dress and those pinched glasses like [Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s.”
Little was quite close to another president, Dwight D. Eisenhower; they met in 1924, when Georgetown played a service squad coached by the future Columbia and United States president. It was Eisenhower, then president-designate at Columbia, who in 1947 convinced Little to remain on Morningside Heights, rather than accept an offer to become Yale’s athletics director.
Little’s final season at Columbia, 1956, was the inaugural year of the Ivy League. The Lions got off to an 0-3 start, then went 3-3, posting victories over Harvard, Cornell and, in the season finale, Rutgers. After the 18-12 win over the Scarlet Knights, Little’s men carried him off the field on their shoulders.
He had reached the mandatory retirement age of 65, and soon left the campus, succeeded by Buff Donelli, who became a well-known coach himself.Little returned only once, in a day given in his honor at the 1977 Columbia-Penn game at Baker Field. A scholarship in his name was dedicated that day. He passed away in Delray Beach, Fla., on May 28 of the following year at the age of 85.