The most interesting thing about this weekend’s Penn-Columbia football game is going to be the memories. Lord knows it won’t be the game itself. But as former Quakers coach Al Bagnoli makes his return to University City, it bears reflecting on what’s changed in the since Ray Priore took over Penn football.
Bagnoli’s last game at Franklin Field felt a lot like a microcosm of his final two years as a whole: heavily hyped, initially exciting but ultimately a letdown.
2013’s opening contests included a late win over Lafayette and a four-overtime thriller against Dartmouth as the Quakers sought a fourth Ivy title in five year. Early success turned into a 4-6 campaign that culminated in a 2-8 showing in 2014. Not all that different from the game against Harvard at Franklin Field on Nov. 15 that final year.
Emotions were high and Penn played better than any other time that season, taking a 24-17 lead into the fourth quarter. But the final quarter ended up being a total letdown as the Crimson scored 17 unanswered for the 34-24 win.
Bagnoli quickly transitioned into an advisory role within Penn Athletics that left no one satisfied. Athletic Director Grace Calhoun seemed unsure how to use the former coach and Bagnoli himself seemed bored by retirement.
Then came the bombshell.
In February 2015, the news broke that Bagnoli had accepted the head coaching position at Columbia. Instead of watching from the stands as his longtime assistant took over the reins, Al Bagnoli and Ray Priore would both be on the sidelines again — as rivals.
The former colleagues’ first meeting wasn’t even close. To be fair, Bagnoli inherited a program in shambles. No one expected a really competitive game. Ray Priore will never admit that, though. It’s just a game like any other, with the added chance of getting to see an old friend.
This weekend feels a little different as Bagnoli makes his first homecoming. But still, this game shouldn’t even be close.
Last weekend, Columbia managed to edge out Wagner in a 15-13 barnburner. It was the most points the Lions had scored all season. And they didn’t score a single touchdown.
Five field goals. Including two 19-yarders.
Twice, Bagnoli had the ball on the one and decided to settle for the field goal. It’s good to know there’s still some consistency in life. Death, taxes and Al Bagnoli being more conservative than a totalitarian dictator.
Conversely, Priore went for it on fourth down four times last weekend. The Quakers converted on all of them. For a guy who’s been around for 29 years, Priore keeps things a lot more interesting than they were, especially in the final years of Bagnoli’s reign.
Let’s not forget what happened in 2015, either. A 2-8 campaign for Bagnoli, an Ivy title for Priore. For those keeping score at home, that’s 11 rings for Priore to Bagnoli’s nine.
I don’t expect this weekend’s game to be close. I don’t even expect it to be interesting. But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.
This game is going to say something. It says something about the two men on the sidelines, and it says something about how they’ve shaped their respective programs over the last two years.
Both men dismiss that the history they share matters much this weekend. It should, though. Bagnoli left an incredible legacy when he departed University City. But by the end of his run in Philadelphia, it felt like Bagnoli had lost a little bit of his touch. In a conversation we had on the upcoming contest, the sports editor at the Columbia Spectator conceded that same view had taken hold in some corners of New York as well.
Yet Ray Priore has managed to turn a 29-year tenure into a breath of fresh air. He won’t openly say it, but in his quiet insistence that Penn had simply forgotten how to take care of the little things necessary to win, he has shown how rapidly the Quakers could succeed with the right man at the helm.
So feel free to use this weekend to reflect on the historic success of Penn football. But once the game is underway, we’ll get a chance to see just why Penn is better off with things they are the way now.
Patience is a virtue, and Ray Priore waiting 28 years was the best thing that could have happened to the Quakers. We’ll see that in action this Saturday.
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