For so long, Penn head football coach Al Bagnoli had tried his best to deflect questions about his impending retirement. He didn’t want to take focus away from his players or preparations for the next game, he’d say. He was the ultimate coach’s coach – always wanting to take about that third-down read, never about his own accomplishments.
But on Wednesday, it came spilling out. All of the emotions that he had been trying to keep out of sight bubbled to the surface when other coaches from Penn’s sports team surprised him at the weekly football luncheon.
“Well, that was a pleasant surprise,” Bagnoli told the assembled football coaches and reporters after Penn volleyball coach Kerry Carr thanked him for being a mentor to everyone at Penn and saluted him with a toast. “Thank you, thank you and thank you.”
The thanking part is nothing new. Bagnoli has been doing that since April when he first announced his retirement at the conclusion of the 2014 football season. He’s thanked his players, his assistants, his rivals and Penn’s administrators for allowing him to be, as he called it, the “caretaker” of an athletic program steeped in so much tradition.
It’s the part when other people tried to thank him for all that he did for Penn – nine outright Ivy League championships in 23 years and unparalleled success in so many other regards – where Bagnoli would often try to change the subject. Before the season began, he told the Gazette that he was happy when all of the people he touched over the years stopped sending him well wishes and congratulatory messages. Even after Saturday’s game against Harvard – his final time coaching at Franklin Field – Bagnoli said he felt bad for the seniors because he was getting all the attention (which included a framed jersey presentation and video tributes throughout the afternoon).
But on Wednesday at Penn, in the weekly media luncheon he’s been going to for decades, with so many of his coaching peers by his side, it all caught up to Bagnoli, who said, with tears peeking through his hardened eyes, “I think the finality of everything has finally hit.”
How could it not? Penn plays its final game of the season Saturday at Cornell. And when the game ends, he will no longer be the Quakers’ head football coach. When the bus returns from Ithaca, he will no longer begin looking ahead to recruiting trips up and down the East Coast. He no longer will have to answer questions about his final season because his final season will be over.
That’s a lot for anyone to take. Even him.
“I’ve been very blessed in many ways,” Bagnoli said at the luncheon, pausing often to keep his composure. “I tried to do it right. I tried to do it with a little bit of class.”
Being a college football coach is not easy. You’re responsible for so many athletes and staff members, and perhaps that’s one reason Bagnoli’s emotions never seemed to come to the surface. As assistant coach Mark Fabish told me for a feature I wrote for Penn’s gameday program, “Behind the scenes, he’s human. But he’s able to be a rock for the kids. He knows the kids need that rock.”
It’s not that he’s emotionless; it’s just that he knows he needs to be unwavering and calm, even in the most trying times. Almost unfathomably, two players have committed suicide during Bagnoli’s tenure – Kyle Ambrogi in 2005 and Owen Thomas in 2009. As the face of the program – and what his assistants like to call the “CEO” – he had no choice but to stay strong. For the kids. For his staff. For everybody.
“In the times you think are going to be the hardest to keep it together,” longtime assistant Jim Schaefer said for the same feature, “that’s when he always kept it together the best.”
Bagnoli may not have worn his heart on his sleeve like others in the sports world, and those in the media probably never got to see the full scope of who he is a person. He kept it hidden for a reason. And that’s fine.
You can hardly blame a person for wanting the push the spotlight away from himself and onto his players. But as much as he might not like it, he deserves that spotlight. He deserved all of the tributes thrown his way at Franklin Field on Saturday and he deserved to get a toast from his fellow coaches on Wednesday – even if it did push him closer to crying than most people had ever seen before.
“Thanks to everybody,” Bagnoli concluded at his final weekly press conference. “This is a little bit overwhelming, so thanks.”
And with that, he walked off the podium without taking any questions, those tears dangerously close to bursting through after so many years.
– Dave Zeitlin C’03