BEHIND THE SCENES with Ilya Marritz

You reveal from the get-go in The Season , that you aren't a football fan, how did that influence your decision to take on this series? And how did it impact the telling?

I am so not a football fan. Or was so not a football fan.

The idea for The Season came from our news director, Jim Schachter, who's a Columbia alum. He knew there was this interesting situation happening with a really successful coach coming in to work with a spectacularly unsuccessful team. And when he told us about it in a newsroom meeting, I thought "Great idea...for someone else.”

But Jim seemed to think I might be the right guy to tell the story. And I was looking for a change, for a big project. So I went to meet with one of the people on the Columbia sports communications team, and I had all of these questions that must have seemed really dumb to her - how many players are on the team? (over 100!) How long is the game season (just ten games! Just ten weeks!) And hearing her talk, I realized this was a traumatized organization, with a really rich back story, trying to fix itself.

But if I was going to tell the Lions' story in an authentic way, I had to immediately confess my own ignorance. So I did.

Honestly, one of my favorite parts of the series is how the game of football grows on you over the course of The Season. Did you expect that to happen, and for it to be part of the story?

I didn't exactly intend this, but my journey to enjoying football gave us a second story arc to work with. In the final episode, I put on cleats and toss the ball with some of the quarterbacks (terrifying.) The transformation is complete. I also mention that I'm gay and grew up staying as far away from football and team sports as I could. This was a last minute-addition, and I remember that not everyone in our production group was sure it was the right choice. But my producer, Matt Collette, agreed with me that this mattered, so we included it.

The Ilya-story was useful, because we didn't always get the kind of access to the team that we wanted. For example, I never got inside the locker room, or a dorm room, I never got to see a weekly weigh-in, when the coaches note the players' body weights. Like six or seven weeks in, I was worried that all we were getting was game day tape and team meetings, and not much else.

But it was important to me that the main story always be about coach Al Bagnoli, his coaching staff, and the team.

Sports lends itself to storytelling, given that there winners and losers, rivalries, etc. How did you work to tell a larger story that went beyond the week's news of wins v. losses?

This was part of Jim Schachter's original pitch to me - it could be a turnaround story. When I thought about it that way, it made sense. And the first time we interviewed coach Bagnoli, he saw it the exact same way. He actually described himself as a businessman, trying to turn around a failing enterprise. And he wanted us to be there, talking to his assistant coaches, talking to his players. So that was the bigger MEANING thing. How do you make real, lasting change? How do you get un-stuck?

But I have to just put in a plug for sports here. I really think more non-sports reporters should at least TRY sports. It's incredibly fun. The built-in drama is thrilling. And your characters are these sort of ordinary people, doing extraordinary things. Even long before I did The Season, I noticed that my ears always pricked up when a story by Tom Goldman or Mike Pesca came on NPR. They’re fantastic storytellers, working with really great subjects.

Can you talk about the hours you put into the series? How much time did you invest each week in getting to know the coaches, and players, their families and team's fans?

Making a serial is incredibly time consuming. I worked pretty much every day for four months straight. So did my producer, Matt Collette. In a way, that was part of the fun of it. But no amount of time is enough. I remember coming back from the Yale game, in New Haven, it was a Saturday evening, and I was like, I dunno Matt…Should we park on campus and try to hit up some parties, get some more tape? See who's out celebrating? -the Lions had just won a game. And Matt was like, No. You and I both need to sleep and do work in the morning.

Did you know that beat poet Jack Kerouac had played football for Columbia when you embarked on the project? Why was it important to include him in The Season ? And why in this episode about the pain/injuries inflicted by the sport?

When I found out that Jack Kerouac had once played for this team that gets no respect, I just immediately wanted to know more. Then, I found Ian Schreffler’s excellent story on the New Yorker website, exploring whether he could have gotten CTE from playing football. Then, I learned the New York Public Library had this incredible collection of Kerouac’s memorabilia. Not just his crutches from when he broke his leg playing for the Lions, but also all these notebooks he kept from high school games. His pain pills.

I wanted the listeners to understand that any one of these guys on the team today could go on to be someone who makes a mark. Maybe in some area far outside of sports, like Kerouac did.

It was Matt’s brilliant idea to make the Kerouac episode about injuries. We knew we wanted to talk about the dangers of playing football, but we also knew that Columbia would never let us anywhere near current players’ medical records. So, Kerouac was a novel way to talk about getting hurt.

Most of the coverage about Columbia's football team has been about its losing record, how did they feel about The Season ?

I imagined that ALL the Lions would all be listening to The Season, maybe on the bus to the game each week. Podcasts are cool, right? Not so. I think they were mostly listening to jock jams, or watching Netflix. Most of the players I interviewed didn’t seem to be listening…which was sort of a relief. But I still would have liked to hear more about what they thought.

You know who listened? Coach Bagnoli’s wife, Maryellen. And she gave me one of the only interviews she’s ever given. And OK, she’s not any kind of celebrity, but it meant a lot to me that someone who doesn’t like to do press saw this as important. Here’s this woman, who was getting ready for her husband to retire, and FINALLY have more time. And he decides to go to Columbia, and try to rebuild a team. And she’s like, Honey, I’m standing behind you. Go for it.

Editors Note: Check out the entire season of The Season , and heck, why not become a Columbia University Lions fan.