To improve is to change. To perfect is to change often.
For both Penn and Columbia football, however, change over the past several decades — in various fashions — has happened slowly. Except within the last year.
On Oct. 18, 2014, the Quakers and Lions met at Franklin Field, with Penn coming away with a 31-7 victory. The win allowed the Red and Blue to snap an eight-game losing streak that had bridged the end of the 2013 and beginning of the 2014 seasons. It was also the last time Al Bagnoli would win a home game as Penn's head coach.
The nine-time conference champion completed his final season with the Quakers in November, finishing with a 2-8 record that ended a 23-year reign in which he made Penn the preeminent power in Ivy League. The .200 winning percentage was the worst of his tenure.
But Bagnoli, who had announced seven months earlier that he would accept an administrative role in Penn Athletics upon his retirement, didn't stay off the sidelines for long. In February, the 62 year old accepted the vacant head coaching position at Columbia, a program that went 24 consecutive games without a win until it knocked off Wagner last weekend.
In Philadelphia, former defensive coordinator Ray Priore has helped the Red and Blue buck a trend of their own.
After 104 years without a win against Villanova, Penn took down the then-No. 4 Wildcats on Sept. 24 and followed that up two weeks later with a near upset of No. 13 Fordham on Saturday.
And while both squads sit at 1-3 on the year, a record for Penn that is only one game better than at this point a year ago, it is impossible to deny the positive impact Priore has had on the Quakers since taking the helm. Athletic Director Grace Calhoun acknowledged that the change in leadership has led to a reinvigoration of the program.
"We're certainly going to see some ups and downs this season but, by and large, I see much more accountability than I did last year," Calhoun said. "The level of organization and confidence with which the team operates right now is very different.
"I see the little things being done unlike last year; I always believe the little things make all the difference in how you run a program."
For both Calhoun and Gary Vura, the head of Penn football board, the squad's effort on the field, combined with its unwillingness to quit during games in which it is trailing, is a direct effect of Priore's leadership, along with the coaching staff's other members.
Against Dartmouth two weeks ago, the Quakers found themselves trailing late with the game already out of reach. However, as the Big Green drove down the field to further ice the win, Penn's defense forced a turnover on downs at its five-yard line, one that both Calhoun and Vura take pride in.
"It just showed that there is such a poise and such a confidence," Calhoun said. "We might not win every battle right now, but there's this confidence that we're getting things going, that we're ... doing all the little things right that are going to lead to the repositioning of the program. I didn't see those little things happen last year."
"For many years, Penn football has had a certain standard, and I think Ray has been laser focused on getting the program back to that standard," Vura added.
Beyond seeing their effort improve on the field, the Quakers have benefited from a dearth of distractions off it, in stark contrast to 2014 when Bagnoli's impending retirement took precedent over every contest.
"When Al announced his retirement and his successor was named, I think it brought a lot of questions about," Vura noted. "I think the staff was concerned, and the players may have even felt a tad betrayed, so maybe their minds were on something other than playing championship football. So, I can only say that whatever was going on last year does not seem to be happening this year.
"Anytime you have coaching changes and schematic changes, it takes at least a year to get on board and buy in. I think with Al's retirement and Ray being named successor, I think 2014 was that transition year."
While many suspected that Bagnoli's departure earlier this year might lead to hard feelings from both current and former players, there appears to be no ill will aimed at the winningest coach in Penn history.
"The morning after we beat Villanova, he sent me a text wishing us well," Priore said. "He's been a good friend for 23 years, was a big part of my growth as a coach and helped me tremendously in so many personal things."
"There might be some people that felt betrayed and I think we would have liked for [Bagnoli] to be around after retirement," Vura noted. "But he's done so much for the program, he's got a great legacy, and he has a lot of respect for the Red and Blue."Comments powered by Disqus
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