This time last year, Penn sprint football was preparing for coach Bill Wagner’s 50th and final season. The locker room was packed with a team ready to send Wagner off with a successful season.
One year later that same locker room is quiet. There are no practices happening, and there is no season for the team to prepare for.
In July, the Collegiate Sprint Football League announced that the fall season would be canceled as a result of COVID-19.
The pandemic has altered the lives and careers of many in the sports world, including new sprint football head coach Jerry McConnell. After 12 years as the Quakers’ offensive coordinator, McConnell was tasked with replacing Wagner as coach. The task is made even more difficult with the postponement of their season. However, McConnell is remaining positive for the team’s future.
“As I told my kids, it was a gift. They could’ve just canceled us outright, and have no opportunity, but there’s hope that we can play in the spring,” McConnell said.
At this point, the team has not been on the field together in almost a year and is bound to need to work out some kinks and re-establish chemistry on the field.
The team is coming of a respectable 5-2 season last year, but a couple of critical losses kept them out of championship contention, where McConnell will hope to lead them.
Since joining Penn in 2007, the Quakers’ offense under McConnell has produced three CSFL MVPs, three CSFL leading rushers and has had 112 offensive players receive All-CSFL selections.
“I’m very honored to be following Wags. Wags has done such an incredible job of building this program, and they’re big shoes to fill,” McConnell said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to lead the program, and continue on the things that Wags has built over his 50 years.”
Being able to spend time around Wagner and coach with him, McConnell will be able to take his experiences over the past 12 years and apply them as he takes over. One of the most valuable lessons that McConnell has taken from Wagner is not one that can be drawn out on a whiteboard. Instead, it’s the way in which Wagner developed his relationship with players.
“I’ve seen the relationships that [Wagner] built with the players and how special they were,” McConnell said. “I tell our kids that sprint football isn’t a four-year commitment; it’s a lifetime commitment.”
While McConnell will be following in the footsteps of Wagner and building on the foundation he set, he is also committed to blazing his own trail and creating his own coaching style.
“We want to be better today than we were yesterday,” McConnell said. “We’re going to demand our kids to be the best they can be in all facets: academically, in the community, and on the field.”
While this will be McConnell’s first stint as head coach, he is not the only member of the his family with coaching experience. Almost all of his children are heavily involved with coaching college athletics. Last year, his son, Frank McConnell, completed his first year as Penn sprint football’s offensive line coach.
“Being on the field with [Frank], I couldn’t put it into words what it meant to me,” McConnell said. “When my kids were playing, I was coaching and missed a lot of games and to have [Frank] here everyday with me, really meant the world to me.”
McConnell’s other son, Tim, is the special teams graduate assistant at Rice University, and one of his daughters, Katie, is the head coach of women’s lacrosse at Lafayette University. While his other daughter, Jeannie, is not an athletic coach, she can still be called a coach in her own right, raising triplet sons and a daughter. When the family gets together, they cherish the quality time and enjoy each other’s company, but they do get the chance to break out the whiteboard and pick each other’s brains.
“When Frank, Timmy and I are together, there’s a lot of conversation on schemes and things like that," McConnell said. "When Katie’s with us, I get the opportunity to talk to Katie and pick her brain because she’s been so successful at being a head coach.”
With sprint football’s season postponed, McConnell will have to wait a few more months before taking to the sidelines as head coach. When McConnell does coach his first game, he’ll have his 12 years of coaching experience and Wagner’s foundation to rely on.