For as much as he’s loathed talking about it, the time has finally come: Al Bagnoli’s last game is this Saturday.
And with both Penn and Cornell football struggling this season, the action on the field will likely be secondary.
The Quakers and Big Red enter this weekend’s matchup with identical 1-8 records, their only victories having come over woeful Columbia. After starting the season with hopes of perhaps sending their coach off with one last Ancient Eight title, the Red and Blue have been decimated by injuries and defensive struggles and are mired in a four-game losing streak.
But one losing season does little to diminish the entirety of Bagnoli’s time at Penn, a career that has included a record nine outright Ivy League titles and the third-highest winning percentage within the conference since its 1956 inception (.694).
On Wednesday, Bagnoli received a big surprise at his weekly press conference: a visit from numerous Penn coaches, the likes of which included volleyball’s Kerry Carr, field hockey’s Colleen Fink and track’s Steve Dolan, alongside numerous football assistants.
Bagnoli grew visibly emotional at the press conference but was in good spirits at practice when asked to reflect on the turnout.
“That was hard,” Bagnoli said. “It was really nice of them to do, completely surprised me. It was really a classy thing.”
A victory over Cornell wouldn’t be nearly as much of a shock.
In years past, the Big Red were defined by an efficient passing offense led by Jeff Mathews, who set 18 Ivy passing records and is now on the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad.
But with Mathews graduated, the Big Red’s air attack has collapsed. Cornell has rotated through four quarterbacks this season, who have combined to throw for a pitiful 177.3 yards per game, by far the worst mark in the Ancient Eight. As a result, the Big Red lost their first eight games by an average of 21.1 points before finally getting off the schneid last week with a 30-27 win against the Lions.
Penn enters the matchup coming off of an upset bid over No. 14 Harvard that fell painfully short — the Red and Blue gave up 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter after entering the final 15 minutes with a 24-17 lead.
A nationwide stunner in front of Penn’s fans on Senior Day would have been a Hollywood ending for a veteran like Conner Scott, but the chance to end a career this week with a win at the same field he celebrated an Ivy title on in 2012 is no small consolation prize.
“We wanted to accomplish a little bit more this year, obviously,” Scott, a fifth-year senior, said. “Me, Dan [Wilk] and Evan [Jackson] have two rings each, I think that means a lot. It means a lot to us. We wish we could have gotten another, but at least we got our picture up on the wall — and to do it twice was fun.”
Saturday’s game may not matter much in the Ivy standings, but it means the world to seniors like Scott.
“Knowing it’s Al’s last game, knowing it’s our last game, knowing how the season’s gone so far, there’s a ton of motivation to win,” he said. “I love the young guys on the team. I want to set a good example for them in this final game and kind of set them on the right track for next season.”
Though he’s always insisted the focus of this season remain on the Quakers’ on-field play and not devolve into a grand retirement spectacle, Bagnoli can look back on the sum total of his career with pride at this point in the season.
“I’ve been blessed to have a lot of good moments, and it’s been a tremendous 23 years,” he said.
There’s certainly room for one more victory.
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