Al Bagnoli’s been around long enough to know a good story line. And you don’t get any better than having the man who coached Penn for 23 years — the final one after he’d already announced his “retirement” at the end of the season, only to change his mind and take over the reins at Columbia, the worst program in the Ivy League — return to his old stomping grounds at Franklin Field
One would expect Bagnoli’s young Lions to take it to his old Quakers, coached by his former longtime assistant and good friend, Ray Priore. Maybe some time in the future, but not yet.
“The program’s finding its stride, gaining a foothold in this league,” said Bagnoli, after his team gave the reining Ivy League co-champs a battle for three quarters Saturday, before Penn broke it open for a 35-10 win not nearly as dominating as the score suggests. “It’s been rewarding. It’s been satisfying. It’s been frustrating. But we’re working with great kids at a great place. Moving forward I think there are brighter days on the horizon for us.”
And no regrets about what seemed an impulsive decision back in February 2015, taking over a program that had lost 21 straight and has had just three winning season in 50 years.
“I didn’t plan on doing this,” admitted Bagnoli, after Penn’s Alek Torgersen threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns, while Tre Johnson ran for a career-high 127 yards and a touchdown and also threw for one late score. “I wasn’t retiring from work. I tried administration and it just wasn’t for me. When I had an opportunity to go back it was a wonderful opportunity but obviously a challenge. We’re still not where we want to be but we’re heading in the right direction.”
As for the school he left behind with nine Ivy League titles, they’ve managed just fine. Since going 2-8 Bagnoli’s final season, the Quakers have rebounded to go 7-3 last year and earn a piece of the crown, then 3-2 this year.
“We knew the cupboard wasn’t bare,” said Bagnoli, now 3-12 in his new digs. “But Ray and his staff have done a wonderful job with those guys. They are really high-powered on offense and they can make explosive plays.' We did a nice job first half bottling them up (down only 7-0). They did a good job in the second, but the final score wasn't totally indicative of how we played.”
For Priore and company, once they forgot about who was on the other side of the field, things went much smoother. “How could you not think about it?” conceded Priore, Bagnoli’s assistant for 27 years. “I’ve watched him … and he’s watched me for years, so the little chess match going back and forth is always fun.
"But whether we're playing Al or playing my brother [Chuck Priore coaches Stony Brook], you try to separate it. We don't want it to be a distraction for the kids.”
Still … “I never really had lot of personal interaction with him but its definitely motivation when you play against an old head coach,” said Johnson, after a six-play 80-yard drive capped by Torgersen’s 6-yard pass to Christian Pearson’s to make it 28-10 midway through the fourth finally put it away. “We’re just excited to come up with win. It doesn’t matter who.”
Next up is Yale on Friday in New Haven, followed by Brown, Princeton and Harvard, as the Quakers try to preserve their piece of the Ivy lead. Meanwhile, Bagnoli’s trying to do the impossible: Make Columbia football relevant again.
Now that would be a really big story.