By Dave Zeitlin
Through 135 years of blissful existence, Penn’s football program has won 808 games. It captured seven unofficial national championships around the turn of the 20th century and 15 Ivy League titles since the conference’s formation in 1956. It’s produced gridiron legends such as John Heisman L1892, Bert Bell C’20, and Chuck Bednarik Ed’49, and once went 24 straight games without losing, which remains a record for teams that compete at the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) level.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying this: It’s difficult to make history here, within the storied walls of Franklin Field, where so many men in helmets and pads have made history before. And yet, as the 2011 football season approaches, a new group of Quakers are looking to accomplish something unprecedented.
The feat? Finishing three straight seasons without an Ivy League loss.
For Al Bagnoli, who in 19 years at the helm has coached the Quakers to 131 of the program’s 808 victories, just winning the Ivy League championship is far more important than doing so without losing a conference game. Regardless, the veteran head coach understands how magnified expectations can become when perfection is on the line—and how teams can crumble under that weight. The only other times the Quakers went into a season going for their third straight perfect Ivy League record—in 1995 and 2004—they failed to win a title. And not since the mid-1980s—when it reeled off a record five straight league crowns—has Penn ever pulled off a successful “threepeat,” undefeated or otherwise.
“It’s a nice position to be in,” Bagnoli said from his office on an early August afternoon as preparations for the 2011 campaign began heating up. “But we have to be careful we don’t get ultra-conservative. I think we have to caution against paralysis. We still have to make it fun for the kids. We have to make things new and different.”
Here’s one thing that won’t be new and different: Penn’s talent level. Fueled by the senior captain triumvirate of linebacker Erik Rask, tight end Luke Nawrocki, and offensive lineman Greg Van Roten, as well as a loaded junior class that includes quarterback Billy Ragone, tailback Brandon Colavita, and defensive lineman Brandon Copeland, the Quakers certainly have enough firepower to earn the program’s third straight title and 16th overall.
And make no mistake: this talented group is mindful of Penn’s football history, and eager to make some more of it.
“There’s a lot of buzz,” said Copeland, a preseason All-American who finished fifth in the league last season with 10 tackles for a loss. “Everyone is excited for the possibilities, and the opportunity to accomplish something pretty special. The seniors this year always talk about how the guys in our year don’t know what it feels like to lose, and they’re a little afraid of that. But we pride ourselves on not having lost an Ivy League game, and we want to keep that up.”
Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than beating the seven other teams in the Ivy League in back-to-back seasons was what the Quakers had to go through emotionally on their way to that feat. In the spring of 2010, lineman Owen Thomas W’11 and 85-year-old “spirit coach” Dan “Lake” Stafierri died within three weeks of each other, casting a dark shadow over the 2010 campaign. The indefatigable Stafierri, known for his quirky clothing and spirited chants, had been like a grandfather to many of his players during 33 memorable years on the sidelines, and Thomas was one of the rocks of the program before his suicide shocked and devastated friends and teammates.
But instead of recoiling in the face of tragedy, the Quakers used it as a form of motivation. “Whenever we got our backs up against the wall and other teams scored,” Copeland said, “it was always like, ‘OK, let’s man up right now. We’re doing this for Owen. We’re doing this for Coach Lake. They’re looking at us right now.’”
Astounded by that kind of resiliency, Bagnoli would call the 2010 championship the most special of the eight that he’s won. Now, the winningest coach in Ivy League history is looking for title No. 9, a quest he knows will come with a whole new set of challenges, albeit on a smaller scale. One of them is finding a way to replace 33 graduating seniors, including program stalwarts such as kicker Andrew Samson W’11, center Joe D’Orazio W’11, and linebacker Zach Heller W’11. “You get used to seeing Joe D’Orazio play center,” Bagnoli said. “You get used to Andrew Samson kicking field goals; it’s like he’s been running out there forever. It will be incumbent on the young kids—maybe guys not everyone’s heard of—to play at the level they’re capable of playing. And the kids from last year have to take that next step.”
Many Penn players have already proved capable of taking the proverbial next step. Just take a look at Ragone and Colavita, both of whom enjoyed breakout campaigns as sophomores in 2010. A dual threat at QB, Ragone threw for more than 800 yards, ran for more than 500 yards, and scored 13 touchdowns, while Colavita emerged as the key cog in Penn’s crowded backfield to amass 728 rushing yards on 125 carries. That averaged out to 5.8 yards per carry—the second best single-season total in school history—and caused Bagnoli to say that Colavita’s huge year was the “biggest surprise we had.”
The Penn coach is hoping for more pleasant surprises when the 2011 season opens with a September 17 contest against Lafayette at Franklin Field. Later, the schedule heats up with three nationally televised games on VERSUS—against Ivy rivals Columbia, Yale, and Harvard—as well as a showdown with up-and-comer Dartmouth in the first-ever night game at the Big Green’s Memorial Field. “I think any time you have a national telecast that involves our league, it’s good,” Bagnoli said. “It showcases a talent level that may surprise some people that are watching from afar.”
By now, no one should be surprised at the talent level on the Penn football team—or, for that matter, on the school’s other teams. In 2010, Penn captured four league championships in the fall—in football, sprint football, women’s soccer, and volleyball—and the men’s soccer team, despite falling short in the Ivies, advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. According to the Penn sports information office, those four titles last fall was a seasonal school record, which of course goes to show that making history is not exclusive to Penn’s storied football program. “That’s healthy for the school,” Bagnoli said. “I think it shows all of the recruits, in any sport, the support and opportunities that are out there.”
Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s sports blog.