Q&A with Al Bagnoli

Coach Al Bagnoli is a winner. The George A. Munger Head Coach of Football at Penn, he is the winningest active coach in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the winningest coach in Ivy League history and the winningest coach in Penn football history.

Al Bagnoli

Peter Tobia

Since arriving on campus in 1992, he has led the Quakers to eight outright Ivy League titles, including undefeated seasons in 1993, 1994 and 2003.
From Nov. 30, 1992 to Sept. 30, 1995, the Quakers won an FCS record 24 straight games, and Bagnoli’s .729 winning percentage against Ivy opponents stands as the best in conference history. He has an even more impressive record, 71-25 (.740), at Franklin Field.

Bagnoli came to Penn from Union College. He was a winner there, too. During his first season as head coach of the Dutchmen, he captained the team to an 8-1 record, their first winning season in 12 years. During his decade leading the Schenectady, N.Y. school, Union reached six NCAA playoffs and stockpiled 10 consecutive winning seasons. In 1989, the team reached the NCAA Division III National Championship Game before falling to the Dayton Flyers.

A former defensive back for the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils, Bagnoli fashions himself as “a little bit of a football historian.” He says the foundation of American football today was laid in the Ivy League.

“We are very fortunate to be caretakers of this kind of institution,” he says. “We’re certainly appreciative of the 134 years before us and the great players and great coaches and great venues, and the success the program has had. We’re just trying to do our part to keep it up there.”

The Current recently sat down with Bagnoli to discuss winning, his coaching mentors, recruiting without an athletic scholarship program and how the defending Ivy League champions are looking for next season.

Q. How did you get into coaching? 
 It was almost by accident. It wasn’t a very well-thought-out, coherent career path. I graduated from Central Connecticut; I was unsure about what I wanted to do. I could have chosen a couple different career paths, but nothing really seemed to appeal to me. My college roommate at the time applied for a graduate assistantship at the University of Albany, which allowed you to get a master’s degree and, in exchange, you would be coaching sports. I thought that was a good way to buy another year to try to figure out what I wanted to do, so I also applied. We both got it, and I jumped right from playing college football to coaching college football. I never coached high school football. My first year there, we coached football and baseball. My second year there, I only coached football because I was elevated and was able to take on more responsibility. And I was able to get a master’s degree, which was useful as well. We worked under a guy by the name of Bob Ford, who’s actually still the coach there. Bob has had a fabulous career at the University of Albany and has probably triggered 200 to 300 coaches getting their start in the process. It was a wonderful experience.

Q. Am I correct that you were promoted to defensive coordinator at Albany after only one season as a graduate assistant? 
 Yes. In fact, that first year I was there, in addition to me, the staff had a guy named Jack Siedlecki, who is the head coach at Yale; it had Walt Hameline, who is now the head coach and athletic director at Wagner University; it had Mike Welch, who is now the head coach at Ithaca College; it had Cliff Schwenke, who retired as our linebackers coach last year; it had John Audino, who is now the head coach at Union College; it had Mike Donnelly; Mike’s the head coach at Muhlenberg. We were all on the same staff and we were all 22 years old. We stumbled onto some pretty good people.

Q. Aside from Coach Ford, who were your other mentors? 
When I first got to Union from Albany, my first boss was a guy by the name of Tom Cahill. Tom was a long-time coach at West Point. He was actually the 1966 National Coach of the Year at West Point. He was a guy who gave you a lot of responsibility, who allowed you to grow, allowed you to make some mistakes. When he retired, there was a guy by the name of Joe Wirth who came in. Joe was so far ahead of his time, football-wise. He was doing things that you’re seeing today back in the 1980s. Every time you had a conversation with Joe, you knew how much you still had to learn because he was just so far ahead of the curve. He was a tremendous guy to be around, and to just sponge off of in terms of how to attack offenses and zone blitz principles. He was a brilliant defensive guy. Those are people you build your foundation off of. Coach Ford was meticulous in his organization, just very, very structured, very organized, and really had a nice way of treating people, interacting with people. When you combine all three of those guys, it’s a pretty good balance between football Xs and Os, the ability to let people grow on the job and not be threatened by them, and some organizational and structural things that they combine.

Q. Did you play little league football in your youth? 
No, I never played Pop Warner. Actually, I don’t even know if our town had Pop Warner. It was kind of like we played football, then we played baseball or basketball. There were only like three sports back then. I ran track but there was no lacrosse, there was no swimming. I played on the junior high football team, which maybe was the equivalent to Pop Warner, and then played in high school and in college.

Q. Football coaches are often described as being either offensive-minded or defensive-minded. How do you describe yourself?
My background is more on defense but I’ve actually coached every position on the collegiate level, with the exception of offensive line and defensive line. I’ve coached quarterbacks, I’ve coached running backs, I’ve coached receivers. I’m more geared towards defense. My philosophical approach starts with that, but by nature of being a Division III head coach, you have to do a lot of things. The staff is not quite as structured as it would be at a [Football Bowl Subdivision school], where you have 10 assistants that are full time. You have to balance the staff out every year depending on who you can hire on a part-time basis. Some years we had more depth and experience on defense, and I would coach offense. Other years we had more depth and experience on offense, and I would coach defense. It depended on the particular dynamic of the staff that year.

Q. So does offense win championships or does defense win championships?
I think you have to be good at everything. If we were really going to be philosophical and get down to grass roots, most people you talk to will say you start off with a foundation of defense, you are very sound in your kicking game, and then you have to have dynamic playmakers at quarterback, tailback and wide receiver. If you have those ingredients, you have a chance to be pretty good. Being a Northeast school, the weather patterns are a little volatile. That’s where I think you have to be really good on defense because you’re going to get into weather games where you can’t throw the ball 50 times. I think every coach will say kicking decides a lot of games just because of the magnitude of field position. Offensively, it’s all about matchups. If you have a dynamic quarterback, a dynamic tailback and a dynamic wide receiver, you can do some things and create some favorable matchups. We try not to shortchange any of them. If you look at this past year, we were the highest-scoring team in the league, we gave up the fewest points and we were very good in the kick game. We didn’t have returned kicks for touchdowns, we didn’t have block punts, we didn’t have an abundance of missed extra points or field goals or anything else. We were a pretty solid football team.

Q. You have had only one losing season in your almost two decades at Penn. What are some of your keys to victory?
The school has a lot of assets. I think you have to start there. The school, the city, the tradition, the backing of the administration, the quality of coaches, I think these all play a role in how consistently you can win anywhere. We’re very fortunate that we have enough of those things in place. We’re very fortunate to have one of the great urban campuses in the United States. We’re very fortunate to be in a great city. We’re very fortunate to have excellent facilities, and kids get a chance to play on Franklin Field; they get a chance to use the George Weiss Pavilion weight room; they’ll have a chance to do additional things coming down the line. We’ve had 134 years of football at Penn. We were the first school to play 1,300 games. We were, I think, the eighth school ever to reach 800 victories. There’s tremendous tradition and heritage, and it has been a very positive part of the institution. These are all things that I think you need if you’re going to try to win on a consistent basis. It still requires a lot of hard work; it still requires you to make good judgments and evaluations. You can never rest on your laurels.

Q. Since you have had so much success, is it hard to find new challenges?
No, because the beauty of college football is the cast changes all the time. You graduate kids. You go from having an area of strength one year, to an area of concern the next year because those kids graduated. Every team has a different personality because there are different sets of kids. The winning never gets old. Winning championships never gets old. The issues and concerns change from year to year. For example, if you go back to last year at this time, I had very little concern over our offensive line. We returned our top seven guys. Fast forward to this year, four out of those seven graduate; now I have huge concerns about who’s going to be able to take that next step. Last year, we had huge concerns about who was going to be the quarterback if the starter got hurt. This year, we come back with two kids who have three years of eligibility left and it’s not a big concern for us anymore. So the nature of graduations changes the emphasis, concerns, every year.

Q. Is there any difference in recruiting when you can’t offer an athletic scholarship?
When you look at our kids, they have to do three different things that very few people in the United States have to deal with. First and foremost for us is, can they help us win a championship? Then the second part of it is they obviously have to be an accomplished student, and can they handle the workload and help you win a championship? Finally, the affordability issue pops up. Is this an affordable proposition for people? Because of those variables, it forces our entire league to be national recruiters. If you look at everybody’s roster in our league, they have kids from all over the United States. Penn probably has kids from 30 different states just playing football. You can’t find that combination of athletic ability, academics and affordability within a local area; there just aren’t enough kids. It forces you to travel all over the place to find that combination.

Q. This may be like asking a father to choose his favorite child, but do you have a favorite championship team?
Again, all championships are to be savored. They’re all huge accomplishments. When you factor in what our kids went through last year with the loss of [longtime football assistant Dan “Coach Lake” Staffieri and player Owen Thomas], that makes things, I think, a little bit different than your routine championship. Every year is a struggle to win a championship, every year requires a tremendous amount of work, every year requires a tremendous amount of preparation, but I think they were two huge obstacles last spring that confronted this team that didn’t confront any other championship team that we’ve had. Because of that, I think you have to admire these kids as much as you have to admire anybody we’ve ever had.

Q. The Ivy League currently does not allow postseason play for football.
That’s always been the case. It’s not a very logical approach. It’s been that way since I’ve been in this league. I’m still trying to figure out what a very coherent, logical answer is to the question of why 33 out of 34 sports can go on [to postseason play] and one can’t. I haven’t heard a logical explanation, so that’s about as far as I can take it. We’ll keep asking the questions though and at some point maybe we’ll get some traction on it.

Q. I believe their argument is that they don’t want an extended football season to interfere with academics. 
We miss the least amount of classes of any fall sport. That’s the first issue. And we’re only talking about one team. It would only be the Ivy League champion that would advance, the other seven schools would be on a regular schedule. And if you take a look at the basketball tournaments, or the swimming competitions, or the wrestling finals, or the lacrosse competitions, they miss so many more classes than we would ever dream of missing, and it extends through finals, through spring, through everything else, so I’m not sure that’s a coherent, logical argument.

Q. With your success, I presume you have been approached by larger programs. What has kept you at Penn all these years?
 Everybody has to have a comfort level of where they feel good about the kinds of kids that you deal with and the environment and your philosophical approach to scholar-athletes and everything else. I’ve been treated very well here. I haven’t had any huge reason to look elsewhere. If I had pursued some high-risk jobs, I probably would have had a reasonable chance to get them, but I’m not sure I want to get into too many high-risk jobs. We deal with great kids here. I enjoy living in this area, so it’s been good.

Q. Is working with student-athletes the most enjoyable part of coaching college football?
 Dealing with the kids is the highlight of my day. Unfortunately, when you’re the head coach, that’s where you spend the least amount of time because you have all these other issues to deal with. I’m excited when 3 o’clock rolls around and I can get out there and actually spend some time with the kids and coach.

Q. How is the new Weiss Pavilion? 
It’s tremendous. What a great facility. It’s really been a tremendous resource for our recruitment. I think when we finish the entire project this summer—with the fields and everything behind Franklin Field—our facilities will be second to none. This is a great time to be looking at Penn; it’s a great time to be working at Penn and I think it’s a terrific reflection of the generosity of our alums, the support of our administration, both on campus and our athletic administration, Steve Bilsky [director of athletics] and that crew. It’s really an exciting time for Penn. I think you’re going to see the entire Penn Athletics Department benefit tremendously from all these enhancements. I’ve already seen it with the weight room.

Q. This past season, the NFL had a heightened awareness about concussions and blows to the head. How do you approach these concerns as a football coach? Football is a violent game and always will be.
Whatever is an emphasis point in the NFL eventually trickles down to become an emphasis point in college, eventually trickles down to become an emphasis point in high school, eventually trickles down to become an emphasis point in Pop Warner. Right now, we’re feeling the effects of the NFL, this being an issue that’s front and center. We’ve been proactive long before the NFL put this thing on the front burner. All of our kids, for I believe the last four years, have had to take a neurological test before they ever start playing football. If they have symptoms of a concussion, they have to retest to get to the baseline, neurologically, where they were before they started, before they’re ever allowed to play. So we’ve had a way to make sure that the kid was ready to return so it’s not a guessing game between the kid and the doctor. We’ve been a little bit ahead of it, but safety is always going to be an issue in football, and this is just an extension of all the safety rules. You see it with how officials call the game now. You see it with the potential of having suspensions in college if there is a blatant illegal hit as opposed to fines in the NFL. I see it as an emphasis on how you teach tackling and not leading with your helmet. All of this is a byproduct of some of the safety issues that everybody is trying to address in our league, across the country and across football.

Q. Do you think part of the problem is a lack of fundamentals? 
 It’s a complex issue. You have to really try to reinforce not using the crown of your helmet to tackle because that’s dangerous for everybody. But it becomes difficult when there’s a 235-pound running back coming at a 165-pound defensive back. People are moving faster than they’ve ever moved, and there are split-second collisions. It’s a complex issue because the game continually gets faster, players get bigger and the field hasn’t expanded. You’re going to have collisions; it’s now how can you best position yourself so when you do have collisions, there’s not a needless catastrophic result of those collisions.

Q. How are the defending Ivy League champions looking for next season? 
Our kids are working hard. We have some areas of concern because we graduate a large class—33 kids. But we think we have enough talent in place to be a pretty competitive team. A lot of it is going to depend on how well we can fill in some of those areas of concern: the offensive line, where we graduate a lot of kids; the defensive line, where we graduate some kids; the kicker, he graduates. If we can fill in those positions to the degree that we need to fill them in, we have some good players back. We’d like to think we’re going to remain competitive. How well we can prepare and how lucky we get with not having catastrophic injuries will determine our fate. But I think we’re positioned pretty well, so we’ll see.

Originally published on March 24, 2011