Exactly three months after his final game coaching the Red and Blue, Al Bagnoli — Penn football’s winningest coach — has agreed to take the head coaching position at Columbia. A press conference with an official announcement is scheduled for Tuesday.
Although reports over the past several days confirmed that Bagnoli was in discussion with the Columbia athletic department to fill the Lions’ vacancy, the news comes as a shock nonetheless. Winner of nine Ivy League titles and 112 conference games in over two decades with the Quakers, Bagnoli announced last April that 2014 would be his final season at the helm before retiring to a position within Penn Athletics.
“I was always really concerned that I didn’t want to overstay my welcome,” Bagnoli said at the press conference announcing his retirement. “I happen to be my own biggest critic, and, at a certain point in time, you kind of feel when it’s right to move on and do something else.”
While it remains unclear exactly what his responsibilities as Director of Special Projects within the athletic administration were, that arrangement appears to have been short-lived.
“Everybody was pretty shocked,” former wide receiver and 2013 College graduate Joe Holder said. “I first saw it online on Facebook ... and I thought it was kind of a joke. I didn’t think it was a possibility.
As surprising as it may be, the most illustrious coach in Red and Blue history will be back on the sidelines in 2015, and Bagnoli is now tasked with turning around a Columbia program that is in disarray.
In December, Pete Mangurian resigned from his position as head coach of the Lions amid allegations of player abuse and mistreatment. Throughout Mangurian’s tenure with Columbia, the Light Blue won a total of three games, all of which came in his first season with the squad in 2012.
“What seems to be the case is Columbia has been struck with too many seasons of non-competitive football, so they’ve determined they’re going to put money into the program and try to attract someone who can build [it],” William Constantine, member of both the Penn Athletics’ and Football Board of Overseers, said. “Al is certainly the one to do that.”
Since the Lions’ win over in-state rival Cornell on Nov. 10, 2012, Columbia has gone winless, losing 21 consecutive matchups through the end of the 2014 season, the longest active losing streak in the country. Over the course of Bagnoli’s tenure with the Red and Blue, his teams lost to the Lions only twice, with this year’s 31-7 win at Franklin Field being one of only two victories in his last season at Penn.
“I think it definitely adds an emotional aspect to make the game very entertaining, very exciting,” former Penn punter and 2013 College graduate Scott Lopano said. “To be frank, Columbia, they haven’t been very competitive against us in the past so it hasn’t been the biggest rivalry, but this adds a totally different dynamic to it.”
Bagnoli could not be reached for comment when contacted by The Daily Pennsylvanian on Sunday.
At the time of Mangurian’s resignation, Columbia’s athletic department was in the midst of a search for a new athletic director. Following the resignation of M. Diane Murphy in September, the university hired former Villanova Associate Athletic Director Peter Pilling earlier this month to fill the vacancy created by Murphy.
When he was hired, Pilling emphasized that his primary goal was to find a reputable coach that could put Columbia football in contention in the Ivy League.
“We need to hire a football coach,” Pilling told the Columbia Spectator. “That’s priority number one.”
While Bagnoli has been in his new position within Penn Athletics for only two months, it appears the 62-year-old was dissatisfied with the less dynamic nature of a “desk job.”
“You can imagine after a long career of running a big football program and you’re immersed in that and suddenly you’re sitting behind a desk,” Constantine said. “It can be a great desk with great things to do, but it would be a life change, and I’m not sure anyone fully understands what retirement is.”
Although Pilling established mid-March as his soft deadline for a new boss, he wasted no time in finding Mangurian’s replacement. A source close to the situation confirmed to The Daily Pennsylvanian late last week that it “look[ed] like the move to Columbia will happen.”
“I think he was ready to step down from 23 years at Penn,” Constantine said. “I don’t think he envisioned sitting on his backside in retirement, although I don’t think he saw coming back into coaching.
“He’s still a relatively young man. He has energy. He has passed along the baton at Penn.”
For the Lions, the hire represents a clear desire to improve the state of their football program. During his time with the Quakers, Bagnoli twice won three Ivy titles over the span of four seasons with his final championship with the Red and Blue coming in 2012.
Between 2001 and 2004, Bagnoli’s Penn squad put together the longest winning streak in Ivy history, capturing 20 consecutive conference victories. After 10 years at Union, Bagnoli led the Quakers to two undefeated title-winning seasons within his first three seasons.
“It’s manna from heaven to have Al available and make an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Constantine said. “I don’t think Al sees it or [new Penn coach] Ray Priore or I see it as abandoning Penn. It’s not like he quit the head coaching job to go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton.”
Sources have informed the DP that Bagnoli is set to bring current Yale defensive coordinator Rick Flanders and Union head coach John Audino onto his staff. The reports have yet to be confirmed.
Despite the program’s success under Bagnoli over the past 23 seasons, Penn has struggled over the past two years, finishing a combined 6-14 since the 2012 Ivy championship. That included a nine-game losing streak that bridged the 2013 and 2014 seasons and a defense that allowed over 31 points six times in its past 10 games.
“You had a year to acclimate to the fact that coach Priore will be the one coaching,” Holder said. “I hope the guys in [Penn’s] locker room are totally behind him because he is a great coach and a better man, and he’s going to do all he can to bring Penn football back where it was.”
“To be in one place for 23 years, it’s somewhat unusual, but I’ve loved it, and I’d like to think we’ve had more good moments than bad,” Bagnoli said before his final home game against Harvard in November. “We’re all caretakers to a program that is over 130 years old, and the seniors and I are happy to pass it on to the next guys who will get it all back on track.”
Although Bagnoli intended to enter the 2015 season as part of Penn Athletics, it’s clear that those close to him are supportive of the decision.
“Al told me that Mary Ellen, his wife, said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’ll shoot you if you don’t take it,’” Constantine said. “I think it’s all good. I think Penn should applaud it from a league competitive standpoint and applaud this next role for him.
“There’s no downside from [Penn’s] standpoint.”Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.