There have been very few people in Penn football history that have meant more to the program than Al Bagnoli.
With 110 Ivy victories, 144 overall wins and nine outright Ivy titles, the 60-year-old coach has enjoyed a level of success that is extremely rare for an Ivy League coach in any sport.
And for his players, his resume as the Quakers coach for the last 22 seasons speaks for itself.
“Coach Bagnoli is kind of the figurehead, the legend,” senior defensive back Dan Wilk said. “He’ll probably have a statue [in Franklin Field] one day. He’s awesome because he knows how to win.”
For Bagnoli, it has always come down to winning. In fact, it was winning that brought Bagnoli to Penn in the first place in 1992.
“When I was comparing [Penn] to the schools around it, it had a history of winning,” he said. “It was in a little bit of a mini-slump. But from ’82 to ’89, looking back at the records, they were a pretty dominant football team. When you have past championships, a past level of success, it becomes a little easier to say we can regain that as opposed to other schools that never had it.”
So when offered Penn’s head coaching position on New Year’s Eve 1991, Bagnoli uprooted his family to leave Schenectady, N.Y., where he was Union’s football coach, to helm the Quakers.
And he hasn’t looked back.
ON A RAMPAGE
Graduating from Central Connecticut State in 1975, Bagnoli wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his career. He had just finished four years of playing football for the Blue Devils and was looking for employment.
Luckily, Bagnoli’s college roommate suggested that he join him in interviewing for graduate assistant jobs at SUNY-Albany.
“He explained it to me and I said, ‘That sounds okay. Wouldn’t hurt to get a master’s degree,’” Bagnoli said. “So we both went up. We both interviewed with a gentleman by the name of Bob Ford.”
Ford, who is retiring this year after 44 seasons as Albany’s head football coach, had just begun the Great Danes’ football program five years earlier and liked what he saw in a young Bagnoli.
And from the very beginning of his coaching career, the future Penn coach displayed a fiery intensity for his job, putting in the extra work that got Ford’s attention.
“He and one of his close friends … would challenge each other who was going to get into the office first,” Ford said. “I’d usually get in at around 6 [a.m.] or a little earlier, but back then, they were on a rampage and would try to beat me.
“At that point, he was single, so football dominated most of his waking hours. So I saw a great work ethic, a passion for the game. I saw a very, very competitive young man.”
That competitive drive led to a quick ascent in the coaching ranks for Bagnoli. After a year as the linebackers coach at Albany, he was promoted to defensive coordinator.
And after spending two years as coordinator and receiving his master’s degree in educational administration, Bagnoli left Albany to find a permanent coaching position at Union as the Dutchmen’s defensive coordinator.
Despite coaching just three years under Ford, Bagnoli still credits the 76-year-old coach for being an important mentor in his early career.
“There are always two, three, four people in your life that really shape philosophies and how you do things,” Bagnoli said. “And on the professional front, it was [Ford] and [Union head coach Joe Wirth] that were very instrumental in how to run programs, organization, treatment of players.”
A UNION MAN
At Union, Bagnoli laid the foundation for his defensive philosophies that would shape his Penn teams in the future.
“He worked in a lot of 4-4 fronts early on and then Joe Wirth was an odd-man front guy and Joe taught him a lot of stuff about the odd-man front,” Jim Schaefer, who has worked on Bagnoli’s coaching staffs since 1982, said.
“He’s really taken the two of those and melded them really well. He has great defensive philosophies — very, very sound.”
After learning under Joe Wirth for a few seasons, Bagnoli took over as head coach of a program that hadn’t had a winning season in 11 seasons.
And then he proceeded to reel off 10 straight winning campaigns, dominating the Division III competition on the way to an 86-17 record.
Bagnoli’s Dutchmen squads made the playoffs six times in his tenure, twice making it all the way to the Division III championship game.
During his time at Union, Bagnoli had opportunities to move to bigger programs, receiving interest from schools like Columbia and Bucknell. But for the young Dutchmen coach, the jobs weren’t the right fit.
“When you get down there and you look at it, you think ‘Is this the right time? Is this the right place?’” Bagnoli said. “My gut was telling me something different so I decided not to do it. You never have the crystal ball so it seems like it worked out but you never know.”
And 22 years later, Bagnoli’s legacy remains intact as someone who built up Union’s football program, which has had just one losing season in the last 31 years.
“We were not a very strong football program prior to his arrival, and since he came here … we are one of the top Division III programs in the country,” former Union offensive lineman and now-Athletic Director Jim McLaughlin said.
BAPTISM BY FIRE
Meanwhile, Penn football needed a change.
After Gary Steele took over the program in 1989, the team proceeded to win just nine games in three years, leading to Steele’s resignation.
So with Penn beginning a coaching search, the 38-year-old Bagnoli had already made an impression on the Red and Blue the season before.
“We came down [for a scrimmage] and we had a national- championship level team, so in front of all the administrators, we played great against a pretty good Penn team and kind of beat the heck out of them,” Bagnoli said.
With those circumstances, Bagnoli took over, bringing part of his staff, including Schaefer, to Penn while keeping only one member of Steele’s staff — Ray Priore.
“[Bagnoli’s teams] always had a knack for winning, so given the opportunity to stay on, keep my job, while also work for someone who had been so successful for so many years was a great opportunity,” Priore said.
That knack for winning carried over pretty quickly for Bagnoli, but not in his first game.
Faced with the tough task of opposing the defending Ivy champion Dartmouth squad led by All-Ivy and future NFL quarterback Jay Fiedler, Bagnoli’s tenure at Penn began inauspiciously.
“It was 7-0, we were winning at the half and I was thinking, ‘This isn’t going to be so hard,’” he said. “But then [Fiedler] threw five touchdown passes in the second half.”
THE TEAM REMAINS THE SAME
But while the Bagnoli era began with a loss to the Big Green, the next run of success for the Red and Blue would be historically great.
After the loss, Penn would win 27 of its 29 games over the next three seasons, and the Quakers set a Football Championship Subdivision record with 24 straight victories from 1992 to 1995. With the incredible early run, Bagnoli set a standard for winning just as he did at Union.
And while some coaches set that standard with a rah-rah, get-out-of-your-seat pregame speech, Bagnoli’s former players, including Mark Fabish, say it came from his meticulous preparation.
“He made it very clear that there is an expectation for success,” now-Penn wide receivers coach Fabish said. “It is not a switch that you hit on Saturday afternoon at 12:50 for a 1:00 kickoff. It is a buildup to that point.”
While the Quakers have achieved a high level of success, they have faced stiff competition, especially from teams like Harvard and Brown, who have combined to win nine Ivy titles during Bagnoli’s time at Penn. But even Penn’s biggest rivals respect the job Bagnoli has done during his tenure.
“First and foremost, I like and respect Al Bagnoli and Penn football,” Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said. “It is a tough, non-BS program and their body of work at Penn has been extraordinary.”
And thanks to those winning expectations, his players are whole-heartedly behind him from the moment they step on campus.
“I remember my freshman year, we were playing Fordham and we were down 30-14 at the half. And there wasn’t a guy in the locker room that didn’t know we were going to win the game,” Fabish said.
It has been that kind of belief that has persisted throughout Bagnoli’s career. Over the course of his 22-year tenure as Penn’s coach, his teams have been nothing if not consistent. And nothing has been more consistent than winning.
“You can look at that Fordham game and then look at the last five weeks of last season,” Fabish said. “Our guys know how to win and that’s not a mistake. It’s not random. It comes from that standard that is consistent, that is unwavering, and it comes from him.”
“Penn’s the same every week, every year,” Columbia coach Pete Mangurian said after losing to Penn earlier this season. “I left the league in 2000, I came back in 2012, and they’re the same team. They just change the uniform and it’s the same guy on the sideline and they have the same attitude.”
And that consistency, so easy to take for granted, is what has defined Penn football under Bagnoli.
“As an assistant in other places, I didn’t realize how well he organizes the whole thing down to the last minute,” Fabish said. “It affects all aspects of the program, like when kids lift, what snack we have before we get on the bus, little things like that you really don’t have any idea about.
“You just assume the snack is going to be there, that someone is going to tell you when to come out before a game. But now as a coach, it is the everyday aspect of how he runs a program that what’s impressive.”
MORE THAN JUST FOOTBALL
And with that impact, Al Bagnoli has become one the most important people in Penn sports and will leave behind a remarkable legacy when he eventually steps away from the game.
“As the football program goes, there is an expectation throughout the Penn community of success, and there is a high standard,” Fabish said.
That high standard won’t be met this year after Penn was knocked out of outright Ivy title contention by Princeton last week.
But Bagnoli’s legacy expands beyond winning, past the locker room and into the lives of those who have come through his program over the years.
“He’ll go down as the winningest coach in Penn history,” Priore said. “But he’s been able to be honest with kids, be up front with kids. Kids have done the job in the classroom, graduated and become great family people.
“I think his impact is more than just football. It is everything that has to do with sports and in life.”
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