In its first Ivy League game of the year, Penn football took on Dartmouth, a team that shared the conference title with the Quakers in 2015. Penn won, and it wasn’t particularly close.
In the week between then and this Saturday’s matchup with a perennially disappointing (or maybe in more accurate terms, terrible) Columbia squad, the narrative from here to Robert K. Kraft Field at the tip of Manhattan surrounded Lions coach Al Bagnoli returning to Penn to coach his first game from the away team’s sideline.
I understand the fascination with his return, I really do. He coached the Red and Blue from 1992 to 2014, racking up an amazing nine Ancient Eight titles. After his historic career here, he left to take a job at a conference rival that praised his hire as the savior of a cursed program. Columbia doesn’t win much on the gridiron. For every game he does win at Columbia, they should throw him a parade on 116th Street.
And on Saturday, Columbia didn’t win. The Quakers triumphed, 35-10, and as I watched the game, I was frustrated that it was even that close. Only up by a touchdown, the Red and Blue stalled on offense and had a punt blocked in their own half. Against a more evenly matched team, those mistakes translate to losses. But if it isn’t clear, Columbia isn’t as good as Penn. The Quakers were able to blow it open later in the fourth.
All the questions after the game for Bagnoli were focused on his return. Was it strange to be back? What was it like to see everyone he had known for so long?
He mentioned that he had the chance to see old friends leading up to game time. He reunited with school administrators, Penn football alumni and Franklin Field staff. But there’s one group of people he didn’t mention, his former players.
And there’s a reason for this. Most players on the current Penn squad either weren’t in college yet and didn’t play for Bagnoli, or were young players without much of a role. Out of the three members of the Red and Blue that appeared in the postgame press conference, two had never met Bagnoli and the third, starting running back (and beast) Tre Solomon, said he never had to opportunity to develop much of a relationship with the man.
What does all this mean?
It means that this is the first and last time we should discuss the return of Bagnoli like he’s a messiah returning to Franklin Field to save the Columbia football souls and crush his former followers. This is a new era of Penn football.
We should never forget the time Bagnoli coached here. The titles and the winning percentage cannot be discounted. But today, Bagnoli is trying to build a program that has been irrelevant, or worse, for decades. On the other hand, the Quakers are, and should be, expected to win every game they line up for.
Columbia right now is not even at the same level as Penn and may not be for quite some time. This is Priore’s team now. This is the defending Ivy champion, and a favorite to contend again.
Bagnoli himself discussed the narrative becoming tiresome, (so tiresome, in fact, he stopped taking interview requests on Thursday before the game), and that his return to Philadelphia felt like any other game by opening kickoff.
Those questions, now that his homecoming has passed, should be retired for good.
He wants the narrative to be focused on his team and the building of Columbia’s program, and the same should be here.
From now on, when Penn plays Columbia, the focus must not be on welcoming Bagnoli back home. It should be about the Quakers taking care of business against an inferior opponent. It should be about the expectation, that despite who is donning the headset on the opposite sideline, the Red and Blue will take care of business.
On Saturday, they spoiled Bagnoli’s homecoming, just as they should every time that program arrives inside the confines Franklin Field for a while to come.
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