For well over a year Ray Priore has waited for this moment. And now finally, it’s here.
When Penn takes the field Saturday in Bethlehem against Lehigh the longest coaching courtship in memory will finally end. Since departing Al Bagnoli announced in the spring of 2014 he’d be stepping down after 23 years — anointing right-hand man Priore as his successor — the changing of the guard has been a work in progress.
Following a disappointing 2-8 season — the worst in Bagnoli’s storied Quaker career —change can’t be viewed as a bad thing.
"It’s a lot of fun having Coach Priore,’’ said linebacker Tyler Drake of his former defensive coordinator. “He knows what to expect from all of us on defense. We have a new upbeat staff. Now we need to be physical and play hard. That’s what we’re focusing on.’’
The new coach, who’s actually been on campus in various capacities the past 28 years, can’t wait, either. While last year had to be weird, knowing the job would be his yet still playing the dutiful lieutenant, Priore says he did get some time to acclimate himself for the transition.
“It was strange because there were a lot of things going on," said Priore, who goes back to both the Ed Zubrow and Gary Steele Quaker regimes. “I’m trying to prepare for the 2014 season, yet there was recruiting. Fortunately last summer I was I able to do a lot during down time before we got to camp. Now it definitely changes because my role is different. I think the defensive players know who I am —high energy, very enthusiastic. Gonna run them from the time we hit the field. Kill ‘em with praise and with tough love at times.”
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The players, indeed seem on board, with Priore insisting Bagnoli’s imminent departure really didn’t impact that disastrous 2014 season. More telling was a series of injuries that had a ripple effect, leading to fourth and fifth string running backs and unproven defensive linemen getting significant work.
“We didn’t have a deep backfield,’’ said junior quarterback Alek Torgersen, who threw for 2,689 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. “We kind of had to rely on our receivers to put more pressure on the defense. But teams knew we were gonna pass 75% of the time. This year we have a full amount of running backs.’’
Still, after winning nine outright Ivy League titles, no one expected Bagnoli’s final season to be such a bust. Maybe that ‘s why he pulled an about face on retirement, deciding to take the job at Columbia, losers of its last 21 games.
It didn’t totally shock Priore nor his players, who say they were not deceived by their former coach. However they may have been distracted.
“When he left all options were on the table," said Priore, who’ll face his longtime friend October 17 in New York. "I don’t think Al ever said 'I’m not gonna coach.' He got a chance tos tep away and really examine what he wanted. But I think anything can be a distraction. All sorts of things can become causes. I don’t think Al ever asked for it and I don’tthink the players thought about it, but because of the situation it was adistraction.”
Regardless, he’s gone and it’s Priore’s show now. How different it will be not even he can say for sure. But you don’t spend 28 years waiting in the wings without formulating some ideas of your own.
“We’re picked sixth because we were 2-8 last year,” said Prior of the Quakers lowest pre-season Ivy ranking since 1992. “So we have to prove ourselves on the field. We’ll play some zone and spread it around on offense. Last year the defense was hurt by big plays. And our quarterback didn’t make the right decisions at times.”
Now it’s on him to fix it, beginning tomorrow at Lehigh, as the Ray Priore era finally gets underway.
Before too long we’ll find out if it was worth the wait.