When longtime football assistant Dan “Coach Lake” Staffieri — known for the blue helmet he rode around campus, his red plaid attire and the cheers he led at Franklin Field — became ill last year, the Quakers dedicated their season to him.
“It would mean the world,” senior receiver Kyle Derham said at the time, “to be able to go to his house and bring him another ring.”
The team came through on that goal, and on Wednesday, head coach Al Bagnoli delivered the 2009 championship jewelry.
But on Thursday morning, Staffieri lost his battle with bladder cancer. He was 85.
“I’m glad that one of the last things he can probably remember was that we brought the Ivy League championship back to Penn,” Derham said.
“Coach Lake: the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, the most passionate, most enthusiastic guy you’ll ever meet and one of the best human beings. … I always wanted people to get to know him because he’s that special. I’ve never met anyone like him.”
Staffieri was hired in 1977 to help coach the freshman football team. That program was disbanded by the Ivy League in the early 1980s, which, not coincidentally, is when Staffieri took to the helmet-golf cart to stir up fan support.
Until his death, he was officially the Quakers’ Game Day Coordinator. But unofficially, he was their No. 1 cheerleader. Staffieri was with the Red and Blue for 13 of their 14 Ivy League titles.
“It is hard to believe that the face of Penn football will no longer be on the sidelines imploring kids to ‘do better than your best,’” Bagnoli said in a statement. “He will forever be remembered as an iconic figure in Penn football and a great friend and mentor to all.”
Staffieri has been around football since he began playing Pop Warner. In 1941, he won the Germantown High School championship. He spent five years in the Marines during World War II before winning the Sugar Bowl — and the national championship — as a guard and linebacker for the University of Maryland.
Before coming to Penn, he coached high school teams in the Philadelphia region for 25 years, which is when he acquired his nickname. It started from a simple mnemonic for forgetful players: “Staffieri, like Lake Erie.”
“Sometimes we overstate the impact that one has on people’s lives, but not with Coach Lake,” Athletic Director Steve Bilsky wrote in a statement. “He gave hope and confidence to generations of student-athletes who had the privilege to know him. We are all saddened by his passing.”
Over the years, Staffieri battled numerous health problems, which he proudly rattled off several years back: Five cornea transplants, two hip replacements, a breathing aide, not to mention two plugs in his heart, put in after he suffered a heart attack in 2002. The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania sent a helicopter to his Blue Bell, Pa., home, and, as legend has it, Staffieri regained consciousness before the landing. As the chopper passed over Franklin Field, he yelled down to the Quakers: “Get it up down there!”Still, none of those ailments kept Staffieri away from the game, until he was diagnosed with cancer. Through 2008, he would meet each week with the Quakers and pump them up with his unique cheers before gameday.
“Every single Friday this season, there was always an empty feeling because he wasn’t there to do it for us,” Derham said. “For those couple hours on Friday practice, we still thought about him all the time.”
Senior cornerback and captain Chris Wynn remembers receiving packages of newspaper clippings that Staffieri would send to him and other players during the summer. After sifting through articles he would add his own notes at the end of each story.
“It’s just a testament to his character and his devotion to the Penn community,” Wynn said. “I think every single person who’s played football here was affected by Lake one way or another.”
Staffieri had no children but is survived by his wife, Suzanne “Buttercup” Staffieri.
— Senior staff writer Neil Fanaroff contributed reporting to this article.