Through 22 seasons as Penn’s head football coach, Al Bagnoli has found unprecedented success by getting his players to buy into what he has to say.
But heading into his 23rd and final season, there’s one message his players might not listen to quite as closely: the one in which Bagnoli has told them that the 2014 campaign is not about him.
“Coach Bagnoli is a living legend,” quarterback Alek Torgersen said. “It’s basically like we’re playing for Joe Paterno of the Ivy League. It’s awesome. And it’s going to definitely be a motivating factor for us this year to play for him and try to end his career on a high note. We’re playing for our team and we’re not necessarily playing for him. But we want to win this one for him.”
Ever since making the surprising announcement in April that the 2014 season would be his last, Bagnoli has tried his best to make sure that his impending retirement would not become a big storyline. But unlike most other things in his career, he’s failing in that mission.
During Monday’s media day interviews, Bagnoli admitted that he “cringed on the phone” during the preseason Ivy teleconference when every other coach in the league heaped praise upon him. And he told the assembled reporters at Franklin Field that he “would never want to talk about me,” even as the questions continued to fly in.
“I tell the team we’re preparing for the season; it’s not my final season that we’re preparing for,” he said. “I don’t want it about me. It’s always been about the kids. It’s always been about the program. It’s always been about Penn. That should stay the same. But you guys are making it hard.”
His own humility aside, it make sense why so much attention has been placed on Bagnoli, who’s captured nine outright Ivy League championships in his 22 seasons at Penn, including three in the four-year stretch from 2009 to 2012.
And it’s only natural that his players will want to make sure their coach goes out with another one, before he passes the torch to longtime assistant and hand-picked successor Ray Priore at the end of the season.
“How can it not [add motivation]?” said senior linebacker Dan Davis, a preseason All-American. “You look at what he’s done for the program – the championships, the facilities that we have – and you can’t ignore that. It’s an exciting time for me going out the same year he does.”
Davis, who at one time was a highly touted recruit out of Oklahoma, pointed to Bagnoli as the biggest reason why he chose to come to Penn in the first place. According to the standout linebacker, he was committed to Stanford for two years before being dropped before signing day. Then, while looking seriously at Harvard, the coach that was recruiting him left the Crimson program. It was a chaotic time in his life but seeing the kind of stability that Bagnoli, Priore and another longtime defensive assistant coach in Jim Schaefer brought to Penn made his decision an easy one in the end.
“It was a big selling point for me and I think it’s been a big selling point for a lot of other kids that have come here,” Davis said.
Davis has not regretted his decision, and has grown to admire Bagnoli even more while watching him coach in person.
“He’s great about knowing what his players need as well as what they want, and finding a happy medium between those two,” the linebacker said. “He has Penn football running like a smooth machine.”
There are some lighter moments during the coach's machine-like practices, though. Davis said a lot of players do Bagnoli impressions, imitating how when he says the word “idea” it sounds more like “idear,” for instance. And running back Kyle Wilcox noted that Bagnoli sometimes takes friendly jabs at players in meetings to keep things light.
“I love him,” Wilcox said. “He’s hilarious. He has to have a serious side but with the players he’s really good at connecting. I feel like he’s really good getting out of the players what their full potential is.”
And even though Bagnoli has instructed those players not to think about how the 2014 season will be his final one, Wilcox has noticed something different about his head coach heading into the Sept. 20 opener.
“I see a little more spark in him this year,” the running back said. “He’s got a little more kick in his step. It’s pretty exciting.”