The way Penn football celebrated at midfield after defeating Cornell, giving retiring coach Al Bagnoli a ceremonial Gatorade shower, you’d almost have thought the Quakers somehow managed to capture a 10th Ivy title for their leader on some sort of technicality.
But the Ivy trophy belonged in Cambridge, hundreds of miles away, to undefeated Harvard. The Red and Blue would have to settle for the forgettably-named Trustees’ Cup and the pride of knowing they had managed to send the legendary Bagnoli out happy.
“We had been talking about it all week,” fifth-year senior safety Evan Jackson said of the postgame celebration. “Coach Bagnoli’s had a great career. 23 years, nine outright championships. You can go on and on about Coach. It feels right to get the ‘W’ and celebrate how we usually would if we were winning the championship up here.”
Jackson got to celebrate with the Ivy trophy twice on Cornell’s Schoellkopf Field, but Saturday, he would have to settle for his team’s best defensive performance of the year, albeit against a moribund 1-9 Big Red squad.
The Quakers held Cornell to no points on three of four red zone appearances in the second half, sacked quarterback Robert Somborn five times and came out with all the fire and enthusiasm that has become commonplace under Bagnoli.
And for the outgoing coach, Saturday was the culmination of all the incremental progress he had seen in painful near-misses against Princeton and Harvard.
“I think [this win] validates all the hard work we’ve been telling them,” Bagnoli said. “We’ve been getting better the last three or four weeks but we really haven’t had a ‘W’ to show for it.
“And so you keep trying to tell your kids: ‘Hang in there, keep playing better, keep going, keep fighting, keep clawing, keep scratching. And you like to get rewarded for a ‘W.’”
Penn might have only been able to capture two “W’s” in Bagnoli’s 23rd and final season, but that does nothing to diminish the coach’s overall impact on football at Penn.
Whereas in Ivy basketball, champions have a tendency to come in cycles, the Quakers have been a championship rock under Bagnoli.
Bagnoli has pulled off back-to-back undefeated Ivy seasons in three different decades (1993-94, 2002-03, 2009-10). No other coach has accomplished that feat even once.
And while the venerable coach will be around next year in some capacity, things will certainly be different on the field under new coach Ray Priore.
Alek Torgersen will be back under center, but without two of his favorite targets: Conner Scott and Spencer Kulcsar.
The defense will need to replace championship players in Jackson, Dan Wilk, Kevin Ijoma and Dan Davis, among others.
But one thing is for certain: Bagnoli’s influence will not be forgotten by anyone that’s spent even five minutes at Franklin Field in the last 23 seasons.
“Anyone who’s ever played for him, they always have stories,” Kulcsar said. “And they always end up being good stories.”
Here’s to 23 years of stories.
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