Penn football looks to stay on top

As ever, Penn hopes to do better than its best this season. (Jonathan Tannenwald/

The Penn football program unveiled its 2010 squad at Franklin Field yesterday. The primary storylines are well-known: that the team was picked to finish second in the Ivy League despite having won last season's championship, and that the program is still recovering from Owen Thomas' suicide. So I headed over to 33rd Street looking to answer a few other questions.

The first was to find out the psychological effect of having finally won the Ivy League after six barren years. In the early part this decade, the Quakers carried a certain swagger about themselves: they were at the top of the Ancient Eight and they knew it.

But as the years passed without a championship, the mood clearly changed. In the last few years, it sometimes seemed like Penn didn't quite know how to win. Sure, the Quakers won games, but they had a habit of slipping at key moments. Finally, in 2009, they got over the hump.

It wasn't just that they won the league, it was how they did it. The 14-7 overtime win at Brown on Halloween was their first OT win and first win over Brown since 2004. The 17-7 win at Harvard two weeks later was a triumph over the best team in the league on its own turf.

Now it's clear that Penn believes it's back where it belongs, no matter what the rest of the league says.

"When you're the defending champion and you beat [Harvard] at their place and you've got 15 starters back, and you're still picked second, there's obviously something wrong," Penn coach Al Bagnoli said of the preseason poll.

One of the reasons for the program's confidence is that so many players are back from last year. In addition to quarterback Keiffer Garton, all five starting offensive linemen return, as do all the running backs, two top wide receivers and kicker Andrew Samson.

Samson's role in all of this is quite important. You might not think about kickers much, but Penn fans certainly do. They still remember the comedy of errors from Peter Stine and Derek Zoch that played out before Samson's arrival. Now Samson has been named to the watch list for the Fred Mitchell Award, given to the best placekicker in the nation from Division I-AA down.

"The history of Penn kickers has usually benn pretty solid," Samson told me. "I feel fortunate to have accomplished so much and to have the support of coach Bagnoli and my teammates."

There is one more story line to watch, though it's not that big a deal compared to on-the-field matters. This will be the first Penn football season in decades without Dan "Coach Lake" Staffieri, who passed away in April.

It's true that Staffieri wasn't on the sidelines last fall. But he was still a presence, and Penn fans and players alike held out hope that he'd return to Franklin Field. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be - and we are left with nothing more than memories.

Half of Penn's roster will have even less than that: the freshman and sophomores have never seen Staffieri at a game, dressed in his signature red suit and leading the fans in cheers.

"For our younger kids, they don't really know who Lake is," Bagnoli said. "For the coaches, it was strange last year. At least we have the bust [by the tunnel]... For at least half our players, they know who he is, but they don't really know who he is because they never had any interaction with him."

Garton shared a few of his memories with me yesterday.

"He was a great guy that loved Penn football more than probably anyone else," Garton said. "He gave everything he had to this program until the very end, and he's up there looking down on us for sure."

It will be a while before Penn takes the field for a game. Their season doesn't kick off until September 18. Until then, there is still work to do. But there's also plenty of reason for the team and its fans to be optimistic about the coming autumn at Franklin Field.

Check out more from Bagnoli, Garton and Samson in the audio player below.