Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quick Turnaround

Al Bagnoli turned a cellar-dwellar into an undefeated champ in less than 2 years

In 1991, Penn football hit bottom. After going 9-1 and tying Cornell for the title in 1988, Gary Steele took over as head coach and promptly "led" the team to three straight losing seasons, including a 2-8 1991 campaign that included, gulp, a loss to Columbia. (20-14 and the game shouldn't have been that close).

Out Steele went and in came Al Bagnoli. His first season was your basic shakedown cruise... oh wait, it wasn't. Bagnoli magically took that 2-8 team and turned it into a 7-3 powerhouse with losses to only league champ Dartmouth, Keith Elias and the Princeton Tigers and Colonial League power William and Mary.

The next season, Penn went 10-0 and won each game by an average of about 18 points.

To call that a quick turnaround is an understatement, and trying to figure out how Penn and Bagnoli did it remains the biggest unsolved mystery for me in the 25 years or so that I've been closely watching Ivy League football.

For Columbia fans, who have been waiting for years to turn it around, the speed in which Penn came off the mat is definitely something that makes us envious, and maybe a little irrationally suspicious.

The Quakers' dominance lasted well beyond 1993. 1994 was another 10-0 season. 1995 was 7-3 and second place. 1998 was an 8-2 championship year. 2000, 2002, and 2003 were also title years, with 2003 being another 10-0 campaign.

Penn President Amy Gutmann (CREDIT:

But 2003 was the last time Penn won the football title. And that's also when current Penn president Amy Gutmann came on the scene.

Could the two incidents be related? When I asked Bagnoli last year if he felt he was getting enough support from the administration, he mostly shrugged. I get the feeling he had more to say... but couldn't.

Gutmann is the 2000's version of a power woman in a power couple. Her husband is an endowed law professor at Columbia. Her daughter and son-in-law are rising star professors at Princeton.

For all I know, Gutmann is supporting athletics more than anyone at Penn, but the time parallels here are pretty clear. This is not only the longest championship draught for Bagnoli, his Quaker teams have had three straight losing Ivy seasons! And basketball fell off a cliff in 2007-08 for the first time in... forever.

But another head-scratcher for me is Bagnoli's continued belief in QB Robert Irvin. I'm sure he's a fine human being, but he just doesn't seem like he can lead Penn to a title. In the past, that was a recipe for a transfer QB like Gavin Hoffman or Matt Rader, who came from Northwestern and Duke respectively to lead Penn to happy days in Bagnoli's past.

Is the Penn administration hamstringing Bagnoli on transfers and other recruiting options? Again I don't know and don't pretend to know. All I'm saying is that since the new regime came in at Penn, the Quakers haven't won a football title and seem to be getting further from the top every year. That hasn't stopped them from maintaining a 10-year winning streak on the Lions, but everyone else seems to be taking more advantage of the Quakers these days.

That could surely change this season. Penn played well in losses to very good Villanova and Lafayette teams and beat Dartmouth and Georgetown going away. They will be favored to beat Columbia Saturday on the backs of their stronger than expected defense. Harvard and Yale don't look as good as they did in preseason and we all know Brown and Princeton are vulnerable.

But the institutional decline for Penn football is a big mystery for me. Bagnoli doesn't look burned out like Harvard's Joe Restic was years ago and he's not really "getting too old" like Yale's Carm Cozza became after 1990.

So, I'm at a loss and I hope I get more clarification at Saturday's game, (hopefully a nice win for Columbia). You never know.


At Fri Oct 17, 12:08:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In paragraph two, you say that, in 1992, Penn went 7-3 with losses only to Dartmouth and William & Mary.

With three losses, are you saying that the Quakers lost to both William and to Mary?

At Fri Oct 17, 12:48:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that our old friend and ex-CU DOAdmissions Eric Furda, who was an extremely helpful ally to the football program in years past is now the new Dean of Admissions at his old alma mater, Penn. I would look for Penn football to be in the thick of it for years to come..

At Fri Oct 17, 03:46:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

Well, Mary did have a great defense.

I fixed it above... they also lost to Keith Elias and Princeton that year.

At Fri Oct 17, 07:02:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You just can't disregard the devastating effect of the suicide of Kyle Ambrogi in 2005. The team understanably disintegrated afterwards and I believe it lingered into last season.
Your Old Pal foehi

At Fri Oct 17, 07:28:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have to agree with foehi on this one. Our son was being recruited by Penn just after this happened and it definitely cast a shadow over everything.


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