Bagnoli steps down as Penn football coach

Posted: April 25, 2014

Al Bagnoli used the word correct when talking about coaching Penn's football team. It's been the correct place for him to be for the last 22 seasons, and for one more. And it's the correct time to step down, he suggested.

Always the analytical type, Bagnoli said he never came that close to leaving for the so-called big-time. He figures he had three or four opportunities, but knew that taking over a last-place program in the Mid-American Conference or Conference USA came with buyer-beware labels.

"They were never the right job," Bagnoli said. "You've got to be careful of what the right job is. I could have gone to some high-risk jobs, where I might have lasted two or three years and gotten on that carousel. I wasn't going to get the job at USC."

This was not knee-jerk or spontaneous, Bagnoli said of his decision to step down after a run at Penn that will stay in the history books.

"The actual conversations have been going on for two years," Bagnoli said of his discussions with athletic director Steve Bilsky, who is retiring himself this year.

That timing, both men going out in the same year, doesn't sound like a complete coincidence, in the sense that they clearly have a strong relationship, could work through all the issues, and come up with a transition plan, which means Quakers defensive coordinator Ray Priore will take over at "4 p.m. on the Saturday of the Cornell game," as Bagnoli put it.

Penn's top brass and also incoming AD Grace Calhoun signed off on this transition plan, all parties said. This makes sense. Calhoun arrives July 1 from Loyola University of Chicago. That's her only stop in charge of an athletic department, and Loyola doesn't have a football team. It's in her interests to have this figured out in advance. If Priore is as successful as Bagnoli has been, that will be great for her. (If not, she didn't hire him.)

From any angle, Priore is the right man for the job. He just turned 50, is 11 years younger than Bagnoli, but was already on the staff when Bagnoli arrived from Union College. He's done all stations of the cross, directly recruited "over 125 kids" of the estimated 600 who showed up in his time, a pretty important part of the puzzle since dealing with admissions and financial aid is always part of the job. He also was defensive coordinator since 1999.

"I've always felt as good as our offense has been at times, the stalwart of our program has been our defense," Bilsky said. "We didn't want to lose him."

Priore talked about opportunities' being so much about timing. He had played for the University of Albany against Union when Bagnoli coached there, and his older brother, Chuck, now head coach at Stony Brook, had been on Bagnoli's Union staff and came here, too.

So of the "100 coaches" applying for the Penn job in '92, Priore said, the one he knew got the job. Priore still can remember the chills he got walking across Franklin Field before his own first game in 1987 when he started as an assistant linebackers coach.

Of working for Bagnoli this season, Priore said: "He is running the ship. I am his trusted employee."

At Tuesday's news conference, Bagnoli didn't sound as if he was questioning his decision.

"I'm scared to death about overstaying my welcome," the coach said. "Every year, I'm my own hardest critic. Am I doing everything I need to do to keep the program where it needs to be?"

There were a few points he dwelled on that helped him decide the time was right.

"The coaching world has changed, with the cellphone camera, the social-media aspect," Bagnoli said. "It's a constant headache now. Just making sure your kids stay collectively in line and things don't happen to embarrass your program."

And with Penn's academic standards rising over his tenure, he said, it meant recruiting more nationally to find the necessary players. That meant literally more time on that part of the job to get it right.

Bagnoli isn't retiring from work, he said, just coaching. It's clear he hopes Calhoun has a place for him in her administration, but nothing is guaranteed.

"I can't remember ever playing a round of golf after Aug. 15," he said. "I can't remember the last time I had Labor Day weekend off, or a Sunday during the fall."

Bagnoli isn't complaining.

"It's not a job you just dip your toes into," he said.

His official title until 4 o'clock after the Cornell game is George A. Munger Head Coach of Football. Munger set Penn's coaching standard in his 16 seasons starting in 1938, winning 82 games, often packing Franklin Field while coaching greats of the game. Without comparing levels of play or eras, Bagnoli has more than lived up to his job title, winning 146 times in 22 seasons. He will try to win his 10th outright Ivy League title on the way out.

"You really have to force yourself not to take it for granted," Bilsky said of Bagnoli's run of success.


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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