ITHACA, N.Y. — Two years ago, no one saw this coming.
When Penn football staggered to a 2-8 finish in Al Bagnoli’s final season, there were few reasons for optimism. The team hadn’t won only twice in a season since 1991. The most heralded coach in program history was (seemingly) off to retirement. The Quakers were predicted to finish in sixth place in the 2015 preseason media poll.
But then Ray Priore got the promotion — and that call has arguably been the greatest gift in program history.
Empires shouldn’t be built overnight. Karin Corbett’s women’s lacrosse team has won an Ivy title in nine of the last ten years, but it didn’t get its first one until Corbett’s eighth season, and didn’t even pass .500 in conference play until her sixth year. Mike McLaughlin’s women’s basketball squad is heavily favored to win its third Ivy title in four years, but he didn’t get his first until his fifth season, and his Penn career started with an ugly 2-26 finish in 2009-10.
That’s no knock on those two coaches — both of whom would already go down as all-time greats if they retired today, and both of whom I expect to continue to do phenomenal things in careers that are hopefully still young. But the way Priore has changed the culture around Penn football so drastically in such a small amount of time simply has no comparison.
The Red and Blue staggered to five combined Ivy league wins in 2013 and 2014. In the two years since, the Quakers have won six conference games each season, making Priore the first Ancient Eight coach since 1973 to win league titles in each of his first two seasons.
And it’s not like the personnel has been that different around him. Alek Torgersen was still in the backfield during that disastrous 2014 season. Justin Watson was lining up on the outside. Donald Panciello, Tayler Hendrickson and Corey Power were among the underclassmen to see significant defensive playing time in the Bagnoli era.
Indeed, it’s not finding new players capable of succeeding that’s been the secret to Priore’s dominance — it’s convincing the players next to him that they were. In any sport, the first step to winning is believing that you’re good enough to do it.
In these last two seasons, these Quakers have been sure that they could — and would — dominate everyone. And the majority of the time, that’s been true, ranging all the way back from Priore’s first win over fourth-ranked Villanova to Saturday’s 527-yard offensive onslaught in Ithaca.
But looking at this season itself, Priore showed arguably even more mettle than 2015. It’s not too hard to find motivation when you’re coming off your worst season in 23 years; it’s a lot harder when you’ve finally achieved that improbable goal and you’re merely trying to sustain that level.
Yet Priore and his staff made sure the whole team kept the same hunger as defending champions as they did coming off a sixth-place finish. And even as potential distractions piled up like the questionable decision by Penn’s Division of Public Safety to boost liquor control before the Princeton game or the simply unjustifiable move by Penn to forbid students from entering the Harvard game at a school supposedly working to raise student interest in sports, Priore and his Quakers only had their focus on beating the guy across from them.
And for the second consecutive year, that’s what they’ve done. Penn is the sole two-time defending Ivy champion, a situation that simply was unprecedented months ago.
Undoubtedly, next season will bring some challenges to Penn’s three-peat bid, with arguably the best quarterback in school history and three of the five starting offensive linemen in front of him departing.
But as the names on the depth chart change, the revamped culture around the program will stay the same. And if these last two years have taught me anything about Penn football, one thing is clear:
Never doubt the king.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.