Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Al Bagnoli eyes future role with Penn after retirement

On Wednesday morning, it became official: Al Bagnoli's 23rd season as Penn football coach will be his last.

Al Bagnoli eyes future role with Penn after retirement

Outgoing Penn football head coach Al Bagnoli (center) with athletic director Steve Bilsky (left) and new head coach Ray Priore (right).
Outgoing Penn football head coach Al Bagnoli (center) with athletic director Steve Bilsky (left) and new head coach Ray Priore (right).

On Wednesday morning, it became official: Al Bagnoli’s 23rd season as Penn football coach will be his last.

But it might not be his last on 33rd Street.

It was clear from Bagnoli’s remarks during a press conference at Franklin Field that he’d like to move from the sidelines to the front office of Penn’s athletic department.

"At a certain point in time, you just kind of feel when it’s right to move on and do something else," he said. "Hopefully that will occur under a different administration, and I'll get a chance to hang on with Dr. Calhoun."

That's a reference to incoming Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun. She will replace current AD Steve Bilsky when he steps down on June 3, and will ultimately make the decision on what happens to Bagnoli post-retirement.

There's a lot of time for the process to play out, but Bagnoli's many connections within the Penn community make him a natural fit for a role on Calhoun's staff.

Bilsky spent much of the day in a reflective mood. Bagnoli was hired before Bilsky came back to his alma mater from George Washington, and will remain at Penn beyond Bilsky’s departure.

Throughout Bilsky's tenure, Bagnoli has been reliable as any coach could be - and not just because he has delivered nine Ivy League titles to one of the school’s marquee teams.

"Sometimes you take it for granted when you have a program that runs so smoothly," Bilsky said. "That produces great results, great people, both as undergraduates and then what they do after they leave the program. And again, you find yourself never having to worry about our football program, because game in and game out, you know they're going to produce well on the field [and] do everything you would want."

Bilsky also admitted that the sense of taking Bagnoli for granted stemmed in part from Penn’s "having so many programs, and where you are constantly worrying about everything that is going on."

It's 31 varsity teams, to be precise, between the men and women combined. But only men's basketball is more prominent at Penn than football. The spotlight Bagnoli's team occupies makes the consistency over his tenure all the more impressive.

Maintaining that consistency is a key reason why Ray Priore was promoted from associate coach to the head job.

Priore has been at Franklin Field since 1987. He has spent the last 16 seasons as the Quakers' defensive coordinator, and has held the title of associate head coach for the last nine seasons.

It's also why this transition has been in the works for two-plus years, even though it didn’t become public until this week.

"I'd love to tell you that there was a specific things that triggered this - it’s a combination of things," Bagnoli said. "I was always really concerned that I did not want to just overstay my welcome."

Bilsky gave Bagnoli credit for being "open and honest over the last few years" as the end of an era approached.

It probably started more than two years ago. We have a relationship where we talk about our lives, and we talk about our families, and we talk about our careers. We do that after every season, and sometimes we even do it on the golf course - where you’ll find Al the most relaxed.

We talked about our respective lives and careers, and at some point we agreed that [with] retirement when things are good, it’s always good to go out on the good end, [instead of] when somebody tells you to leave.

During that time, Al said, "We should talk every year, because as long as I'm refreshed, I want to coach here, and when there's a time where I think it’s time to move on, I'd like to do that too."

Probably about two or three years ago, we started talking seriously about a transition, and we knew that in Ray we had a really strong coaching commodity. We didn’t want to lose him to another school. So we made overtures to Ray and said, "We don't know when that might be, but when the time comes, we would like you to take over for Al."

Then, at the end of the last football season, we had the talk where Al said, "I think one more season is about right." We executed the plan some time between the end of the football season and now.

Bagnoli, for his part, made it clear that the timing of the announcement is not at all related to Bilsky’s departure or Calhoun's arrival.

"I want to make sure that this has nothing to do with the new athletic director," Bagnoli said. "Steve and I have been in correspondence and contact and have discussed this for the last two years, and we both felt it was the appropriate time to do it now. It's no reflection on Dr. Calhoun coming in, or anything else.

Here are some more highlights from Wednesday's press conference, including exclusive interviews with Priore and Bilsky.

Outgoing Penn football coach Al Bagnoli

On his desire to continue working with Penn's athletic department in some capacity after his retirement:

Well, I'd like first of all to meet with Dr. Calhoun before I expand to the public. I think my football coaching life may be completed, but I would still like to work. I still enjoy my relationships with coaches here, and hopefully I'll have some value for this new administrative team coming in. It's going to be a discussion that I need to have with Dr. Calhoun prior to having it to anybody in this room.

On what he hopes to gain from stepping down from the job:

It's trying to recapture a little bit of time that you can never recapture as a football coach. I was just telling people that some of the things that you don’t even think about, you never realize that you had access to.

For example, I can't remember the last time I played a round of golf after August 15th. I haven’t played one round. I can't remember the last time I had Labor Day weekend off. I can't remember the last time I had a Sunday off during the fall, or I've had a Saturday and Sunday off during recruiting season.

These are things that most people take for granted, but as a football coach it's all part of the job. It’s something I gladly did. It's not something I regret at all. It's just that at a certain point in time, if you've been doing it for long enough - and I've had the good fortune to have been a head coach since 1982 - it's time to do some other things.

On why he thinks Ray Priore is right for the job:

I have ultimate confidence in Ray. He was the holdover coach 22 years ago [and] he has continued to handle more responsibilities both day-to-day and in future planning. He's got more responsibility in terms of positional coaching. He's met all of those challenges great.

He;s a bright, hard-working, organized, creative guy, and I feel very comfortable that we’re turning the program over to someone who’s very, very capable, and I think will continue to do good things.

On what it took, in hindsight, to build Penn into the perennial Ivy League title contender that it was not when Bagnoli took the job:

It all starts with people. I think you need a hierarchy that allows you to be successful, and we’re very blessed - starting with the board of trustees, the president’s office, the provost and the executive vice presidents, all the way down through our athletic administration and our alumni base - that they care. They give you enough resources that if you work hard and surround yourself with good people, you do a good job with your kids and your support staffs, then you give yourself a reasonable chance to succeed.

It's going to remain the case, because I think the program is much bigger than me. It’s much bigger than any singular person.

On whether he considered stepping down after one of the recent years when he won an Ivy League title:

Yeah, I thought about it. My kids have been out [of Penn] for five or six years. I've had a good enough relationship with Steve, and early on, I was always signing five-year contracts. We never publicized them, but they were all multi-year contracts.

Then, probably the last two or three years as my kids got older, we started saying let’s do this one year at a time. I thought it made sense for me, I thought it made sense for the athletic department, I thought it made sense for our coaches to just approach it that way. And as long as I was re-energized and everything was great, then let’s move forward.

I tell people all the time that it's not a job where you can just dip your toes in there. You've got to jump in with both feet if you're going to be successful. So every year we've had that conversation, and as we had the conversation this year, again, there was no singular thing, but the feeling became that this may be as good a time as any to make a transition.

With Steve leaving, it was a good time to have that talk, and move forward for the benefit of the program, the institution and Dr. Calhoun coming in.

On why the announcement was made now, instead of closer to the end of a season or the start of a season:

We had all these conversations, and we had some contractual obligations in place, and then they were going through the AD search. We wanted to certainly make sure we included him or her. So this thing got pushed back, but the actual conversations have been going on for two years. This isn't a knee-jerk reaction or a spontaneous decision, that all of a sudden I rolled out of bed two days ago and said, you know what, this is it.

On what it means to have had the Penn job for 23 years, as college coaches with long tenures in one place are increasingly rare:

I feel really fortunate. I tell people all the time that I've been blessed. When you take your job, you don't really know how long you are going to be there. I've been blessed to deal with some great student-athletes and coaches, and to work with some great administrators both here and up campus.

So again, I feel very fortunate that I can go out on my own terms. And as I mentioned, I'm scared to death about over-staying my welcome. Every year, I'm my own harshest critic, on whether I'm doing everything that I need to do to keep this program where it needs to be. As a result, you kind of self-reflect all the time, and ultimately you come to a decision to continue, or you put a plan in place that will allow a successor to go.

On ruling out a return to coaching some day in some form:

My plan is not to retire from work. It's to retire from coaching. At a certain point in time, there’s a trade-off between re-capturing a little bit of personal time or staying on in your current capacity, with all the things that it brings. I just think it’s at a point in time now where it’s apropos that I try to re-capture a little bit of personal time.

I don't want to go from 100 miles per hour to zero - I don’t think that’s in anybody’s best interest. But I also would like to have an occasional Sunday off. I would like to have a long weekend available. I would like to have a couple of days down the Shore in September, since we do own a place down there. I'd like to do some things that most people consider routine, but are not routine in my profession.

Incoming Penn football coach Ray Priore

On the message that keeping continuity with the program sends to current and future players:

I think continuity is an awesome thing. I'm glad that I'm part of that continuity [and able] to lead. A lot of the things that the kids get comfortable with are the daily routines, [and] they're not going to change. The focus, the mindset, is still going to remain the same. So I think that eases their mindsets. Any time you're a player and there's a change of position, they’re worried about the new guy coming in. I think that part of the transition will be good.

On Penn traditionally giving head coaches time and space to develop programs, instead of forcing them to chase short-term success:

I'm going to say this - I look at everything one day at a time. You can’t worry about tomorrow or three years from now, you've got to worry about what we do today. I trust in the fact that administrators understand what is needed to be successful, and they will put around me the needed resources to be successful. I'm just worried about living in the present, and I think that's the most important thing I’ll take out of that.

On what it has taken to build the Penn football program into a perennial Ivy League title contender:

Here's an interesting point, an observation I'll give you. Being the coach who was held over from the previous staff before, our record was 9-21, give or take. Fifteen of those games were lost by six points or less.* Coach Bagnoli came in and in the first year [1992] was 7-3, and the next year [1993] was 10-0, and then [in 1994] was 9-0, making a great run.

The difference between winning and losing is very, very slight. I think it was the attention to detail that [Bagnoli] brought in and has modeled [for] other programs. That's the difference between winning and losing, whether you're talking about [football or] basketball with hitting free throws in the critical moments. That's Coach's legacy - a point of emphasis, if you wish.

* - It was indeed 9-21 overall (7-14 in Ivy League games) under Gary Steele, who coached from 1989 to 1991. He was wrong about the number of six-point losses, though -that was seven. Four of them were Ivy League games in 1991.

Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky

On the importance of continuity with the football program, especially amid the overall changes in the athletic department:

It's important when you have the right people in place to allow continuity. I am a big believer in promoting deserving associates or assistants that have proven themselves over time. I think it's a very strong loyalty statement. I think it's a message to people in the department, too, that if you do well, you’ll have opportunities like this created.

So this one was easy, because Al was so open and verbal about his life and his career. It doesn’t always work that way.

On what Bagnoli has meant to Penn as a whole:

Football is a cornerstone sport. I've always said that we want to win at everything, but we really want to win at football and basketball from a public standpoint. We've been fortunate [that] during my time, we've won the most number of football championships and the most number of basketball championships [in the Ivy League]. When your cornerstone sports are successful like that, it means a lot to everybody - including other programs.

Year in and year out, we knew that we had a football team that when it got down to the last two or three weekends, we would be in the hunt. I'm going to guess that there have been very few years when that hasn’t been the case.

On whether there was a point during Penn football's era of dominance in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he knew Bagnoli could be with the program for a long time:

Really, it's a two-edged sword, because you have to be aware that he’s the kind of guy who’s going to get wooed by other schools. So the job - people think the athletic director's job is to hire and fire people, but I think that even more important than that is to retain good people.

I don't know how many contract extensions Al has received over 20 years, but it’s been a few, and I've made it clear to him that I want to stay here as the coach. Al is a very sound person, and he realizes that the grass isn't always greener on the other side. He liked being here and he was rewarded by being here. His children went here. And the next thing you know, he spent most of his adult career as the coach here.

On whether Bagnoli would be a good fit for another job within the athletic department after stepping down as coach:

He has tremendous value. Obviously it’s not my decision, and every new person comes in and has the right form her staff however she wants to do that. But there's something to be said for institutional history and institutional knowledge, and he certainly has both of those things.

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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