In a league without scholarships, without significant national media exposure and with a diminishing fan base, constructing a winning program may seem like quite a difficult task. Unfortunately for the rest of the Ivy League, Al Bagnoli has not merely created a winning program at Penn. Rather, he has put together one of the most dominating programs the Ancient Eight has ever seen. In his seven seasons at Penn, Bagnoli has coached three Ivy League championship teams -- 1993, '94 and '98. His .793 career winning percentage in 174 games ranks him among the top 10 of all active coaches. "He is like most guys in his profession," former Penn defensive coordinator and current University of Connecticut defensive coordinator Mike Toop said. "He is extremely competitive. If you go play racquetball with him or go play golf with him, you better go play to win. There are a few trees on golf courses on the East Coast that have dents from his golf clubs. I will guarantee that. That is the type of person he is and it reflects into his coaching style. That is why he has the record he does." Unlike other coaches with high winning percentages, Bagnoli received little help from his predecessor. The year before the Bagnoli era began at Penn, the Quakers finished 2-8 under Gary Steele. In 1992, Bagnoli's first season at Penn, the Quakers improved to 7-3; on November 14 of that year they started what would become a 24-game winning streak. Bobby Sherr, who played with Bagnoli at Central Connecticut in the early '70s and then served as a fellow assistant with him at Albany State, witnessed Bagnoli's passion for football -- and for being No. 1 -- virtually from its beginning. "He has always been an intense individual," Sherr said. "When we used to room together, we would have contests to see who would be the first to get into the office in the morning. He was intent to be the first one. Occasionally we would try not to let him be the first one in the office by doing various things. We never achieved that goal." Bagnoli's intensity has stayed with him through the years. Coaches and athletes recognize Bagnoli's devotion to the game as he continually studies and analyzes it. "Al has a great football mind and is very disciplined in what he does," said current Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki, who also worked with Bagnoli at Albany State. "He has real good grasp on concepts of the game. He is a student of the game and an excellent teacher. I think it is a real asset in this league to be that type of a person." Bagnoli feels his success has come from experiencing the success of others. Spending time under head coaches at Central Connecticut, Albany State and Union before taking over the head position at Union in 1982 helped him shape his own game plan and outlook towards football. "I had the good fortune to be under a lot of different people," Bagnoli said. "While I haven't had a lot of different stops, I have had four or five distinct personalities that I worked for and I was able to take things from. As you move on and move on, you take a little bit out of each person and extract it into your own personality. That's how you run a program." After 17 years as a head coach, Bagnoli knows how to motivate and get the most out of his kids. "He is very demanding," Penn co-captain and linebacker Jim Hisgen said. "Even the days before a game he wants everything perfect so that you are ready to play for the game." While intense, Bagnoli does not suffocate his players and coaches. He does not give his athletes a list of rules they must follow and does not interfere with the work of his assistant coaches. Even in the middle of a game, Bagnoli seldom overrules a decision made by an assistant. "He understands the breakpoints of the kids," Penn offensive coordinator Chuck Priore said. "The best thing is that he doesn't have a lot of rules. He flows with the punches and takes each situation differently." "He is a coach's coach," Toop said. "He lets you coach. He manages the game very well. He would listen to your calls. He would step back and let us coach." Bagnoli acknowledges that he has been fortunate to keep the core of his coaching staff intact during his tenure at Penn. Having the same coaches promotes stability, a major factor in his success. "I have been blessed that for the first seven years I have been here I've had the core of my original staff," Bagnoli said. "That really made my job easier." This year, Bagnoli will feel the first major break in his ranks as Penn will be without Toop. In the midst of the championship celebration this past offseason, Toop left the Quakers to take the same position at UConn. Shocking many people, Bagnoli selected himself to replace Toop. "You make an assessment at a given point in time," Bagnoli said. "I just wanted to make sure that the transition went smoothly and everything was done the way that I wanted to do it. The long term plan is to make it through the staff and get it restaffed." The players have found it to be an effective solution. "I think coach Bagnoli is more of an aggressive defensive coach than Toop," Penn senior and 1998 second-team All-Ivy defensive lineman Mike Germino said. "The basic principle of the defense hasn't changed at all. Bagnoli is overseeing the practice and the other coaches are acting as the vocal leaders. It's better because you have more coaches to look it over." Along with Bagnoli's ability to coach, the Connecticut native has been able to build the Penn program through recruiting. In the four-year cycle of college athletics, perennial winners can only be formed by continuously bringing in talent. "Al is smart enough to realize that coaches don't win football games," Toop said. "Everybody in this profession is pretty competent as coaching goes. Very rarely on a Saturday do you go out and out-coach somebody. The more you coach on Saturday the worse you are, so you better get some players. That is how he is." This year will not be any different than the past. After seeing the likes of Jim Finn, Joe Piela and Matt Rader graduate, Bagnoli will be under pressure to secure those positions if Penn hopes to repeat. More than nine months removed from last year's celebration, Bagnoli, as a testament to his coaching style, has not even mentioned the word "repeat" in practice. "You enjoy the season to Thanksgiving, maybe to Christmas," Priore said. "Then comes the first. It's a new year, and everybody asks, 'What have you done for me lately?' That starts at the top. You don't want to dwell on last year, last week, yesterday. You are looking forward and making sure that your kids are ready for what lies ahead." Through the years, Bagnoli feels his involvement with the sport has added a few gray hairs and caused him to mellow a bit. But while a few things might have changed, others have not. As long as Bagnoli is still at the helm, when November comes around, expect the Quakers to be in the hunt.Comments powered by Disqus
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