November 22, 2021
‘We’re all energy givers’: Inside the culture that makes Columbia an Ivy League contender
The Lions prepare to challenge the Ivy duopoly
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the locker room after Columbia’s dramatic 66-56 double-overtime victory at Georgetown on Sunday, the Lions celebrated junior point guard Carly Rivera’s singular performance. The Arlington, Virginia, native scored all 12 of her points in overtime and added six rebounds, four assists and four steals in front of a sizeable contingent of family and friends.
“Hold on, hold on,” Rivera said. “Thank you, everybody, but I want to give it to Hardy. This is Hardy’s home game just as much as it’s mine, and Hardy, first minutes out here this season!”
Hardy is Rivera’s classmate Madison Hardy, a Gaithersburg, Maryland, native who played one minute and seven seconds against Georgetown. An injury kept her out of the Lions’ first four games, but she returned to the lineup ahead of schedule to help the Lions improve to 5-0 this season for the first time in program history.
Four of those victories have come on the road, including at Clemson on Nov. 14 and at Georgetown on Sunday. The Lions’ depth has been particularly notable, with three different players leading the team in scoring across the five games and seven players cracking double figures at least once. As a result, Columbia vaulted from unranked to No. 14 in College Insider’s mid-major top 25 poll last week and has a chance to become the top-ranked Ivy League team this week.
The Lions were expected to be one of the more cohesive teams in the Ivy League early in the season, as they returned a league-high 81% of their scoring and 80% of their minutes from 2019-20. But this hot start is about more than an experienced roster: It shows how far Columbia’s culture has come since head coach Megan Griffith took over in March 2016.
To put it simply, the rebuild is done, and the Lions are set to contend for championships this season and beyond.
Griffith’s tenure began after Columbia went 1-13 in Ivy League play in 2015-16, its fourth straight season with three or fewer wins in Ivy League play. The Lions won three and two conference games in her first two seasons, finally got four wins in 2018-19 and broke through for real in 2019-20. Behind Second Team All-Ivy players Abbey Hsu and Sienna Durr—both of whom are back this season—Columbia went 8-6 in conference play and earned the No. 4 seed in the Ivy League tournament before it was canceled due to COVID-19.
Since 2016, Griffith has oriented the program around the motto “EDGE,” which stands for energy, discipline, grit and excellence. Over time, people around the program say, the team has come to look more and more like Griffith, who was a three-year captain at Columbia and ranks in the top ten in program history in points, assists, steals, free-throw shooting percentage, 3-pointers made and games started.
“I’m pretty intense and fiery, and I think that this team has taken on my personality a lot,” Griffith told The Next on Sunday. “But they’ve made it their own, too, and they’ve made me better.”
“As more time has gone by, the more bought in everybody has been to what Coach G has been telling us and our mantra, EDGE,” Rivera added. “And so the more people that we keep getting bought in is really just elevating our culture and bringing us closer, making us 15 [people playing] as one, which is something really special.”
As a result, the difference between this season’s Columbia team and that of just a few seasons prior is “night and day, I’ll be honest,” assistant coach Cy Lippold told The Next. Lippold is in her first season with the Lions but played against them from 2015-19 as a point guard at Dartmouth.
“My freshman year, before Coach G took over the Columbia program, Columbia was an easy win for us and we weren’t even the best in the Ivy League. … She from the very beginning has turned this program around, and now to be full circle and come back six years after she’s built it up, it’s really, really awesome to see the talent that she’s brought in and … the level of commitment and culture that has been built in this program.”
Talking about a team’s culture sometimes feels nebulous because there’s no direct way to measure it and it looks different in every program. So here are five moments that show what goes into Columbia’s brand of championship culture.
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When Columbia took the court for practice on Saturday, one thing was immediately apparent: The gym was not going to be quiet for the rest of the afternoon. The players warmed up their communication as they stretched, beginning each movement with a call-and-response: “Frankensteins! Ready?” “Ready!” And as they did each stretch, every player practiced her on-court communication, rotating through phrases such as “I’ve got your help,” “Switch” and “Watch screen!”
The communication continued from there, as every player was expected to talk both on the court and on the sideline. When a coach called out a play, everyone repeated it back, and when a coach asked a question of the whole team, everyone answered out loud.
Unsurprisingly, that carried over into Sunday’s game and produced a vocal and engaged bench. Several players who haven’t played many minutes this season stood all game long, pointing out things on the court and cheering for their teammates. And from the start, Columbia’s defense was locked in and communicating, forcing multiple Georgetown shot clock violations and scoring 11 points off turnovers in the first half.
Griffith said at Ivy League media day in October that she had been talking less than usual at practice this season because players were ready to take the lead. On Saturday, she showed just how willing she is to let this team be player-led.
After a series of repeated mistakes, a frustrated Griffith said to the players, “Get your team together!” They formed a players-only huddle. “Carly’s talking!” Griffith added, and Rivera talked her teammates through what they were doing wrong.
Toward the end of practice, after another string of errors, Griffith stopped practice and asked the players what needed to change. “Can I have 30?” Rivera asked. Griffith agreed, and Rivera once more led a players-only huddle.
“I’ve done it a little bit before, but I’ve definitely taken it on more this year,” Rivera said of that vocal leadership. “I know that’s a big part of my role and being a leader on this team is something that our team needs to be successful. So as long as it’s what we need, it’s what I’ll do.”
Griffith isn’t a coach who only yells at players—she will hold them accountable, but she’ll embrace them afterward. On Saturday, she showed that on back-to-back halfcourt possessions during practice: The first ended in a poor pass, but the second led to a great cut, pass and finish at the rim. Griffith was so fired up about the latter possession that she sprinted from half court to the player at the rim to celebrate with a run and bump.
“We have to be really close for it to work,” Griffith said of her team’s culture. “So [my staff are] my family, which also translates to how we treat each other and how players treat each other.” The warmth within the program is evident in the big moments, such as the team’s epic celebration of the Clemson win, and the small ones. High fives are handed out generously; players wrap an arm around a teammate in nearly every huddle; and players appreciate under-the-radar contributions, such as Rivera celebrating Hardy’s 67 seconds on the court.
Hsu also spoke about the players’ relationship at media day: “We’re all energy givers. We’re not just focused on ourselves; we’re always trying to lift each other up. … They’re always encouraging me and I have their back as well, so it’s fun playing with this group.”
While the entire team increasingly resembles Griffith and plays with her intensity and competitiveness, Rivera is perhaps the closest comparison. It’s the cliché of the point guard being a coach on the floor, but magnified.
“We’re very similar people,” Rivera said. “So we have a lot of the same ideas and are on the same page a lot of the time, which is … really cool because not a lot of people have that connection with their coach.”
Rivera is listed at just 5’4, but she is averaging 4.8 rebounds to go along with 6.2 points, 6.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game. On Sunday, she bounced back from going scoreless in regulation to hit three straight 3-pointers in the second overtime and effectively put the game away.
“Carly has got ice in her veins,” Griffith said postgame. “… The kid loves the moment. She is totally built for this and she’s thinking ahead of even us [coaches]. She’s so locked in and she’s been a great leader for us.”
While the Lions pride themselves on being hardworking, focused and competitive, they also seek out lighter moments. “I think this team strikes that balance well,” Lippold said. “… We can laugh at each other, we can have fun in practice, be silly, but at the same time, we’re getting after it and going hard, and that’s what our championship culture is.”
In DC, that took the form of a half-court shooting contest at the end of practice. Griffith had already gotten warmed up from that distance at the beginning of practice, but it was Hsu who buried the long-range shot, much to the delight of her teammates. Shouts of “ABBEY!” rang out, and Hardy yelled, “Yo!” as she ran over to Hsu to celebrate.
Griffith has built Columbia’s culture brick by brick, and now in her sixth season, she said that it is “the one thing I don’t worry about with this team.” The program has progressed from getting everyone to understand and buy into the culture to having everyone “believe it and then sell it to each other,” which helps the culture become permanent and player driven.
With that culture firmly in place, Columbia is set up to continue its nonconference success—and even challenge Princeton and Penn, winners of the last 11 Ivy League titles.
“It’s awesome to come from a bunch of programs who were almost there and you can see that now this program is—like, they’ve got it,” Lippold said. “We have what it takes to make it far, and I’m really, really grateful to be a part of it.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.