AL BAGNOLI never knew any other way to do his job than all in. And he has been doing it as well as anyone for more than 3 decades. But at 61 he wasn't sure he could keep throwing 100 percent of himself into it. So he decided it was finally time for a change.
"I've always been scared to death that I would overstay my welcome," said Bagnoli, who yesterday announced he was stepping down as Penn's football coach at the end of next season. "This isn't a job you can just dip your toes in. It has to be both feet, to be successful. I've always been my own harshest critic. Was I doing everything I can, to keep it the way it should be?"
Well, he's gone 146-72 in 22 seasons in West Philly, which makes him the winningest coach in program history. And, trailing only Yale's Carm Cozza, the second-winningest ever in the Ivy League, where he's the only guy with nine outright titles. Including his 10 seasons at Division II Union, where he lost in the title game twice, he's 232-91. Bagnoli is the winningest active coach in FCS, and one of only six at that level to reach 200 victories.
He'll be succeeded by Ray Priore, who has been on the staff for 28 seasons, the last 16 as defensive coordinator and the last nine as associate head coach.
It should be a seamless transition. On July 1 the university also will have a new athletic director, when M. Grace Calhoun takes over for Steve Bilsky, who is retiring after 2 decades.
Although nothing is official until he has a chance to speak with Calhoun, Bagnoli hopes to continue working at Penn in some capacity, perhaps in the fund-raising world that he's already familiar with.
"You can't go from 100 miles per hour to zero," Bagnoli said. "I want to recapture some of the time you can never recapture as a coach. I can't remember playing a round of golf after practice starts in August. I've never had Labor Day off, or a Sunday in the fall. It's little things, things most people take for granted. It's not something I regret, but I've done it long enough.
"It's obviously bittersweet. This wasn't a spontaneous decision. The last few years we've had this conversation. This felt like as good a time as any. You take a job not knowing how long you're going to be there. So I've been blessed. I have a lot of great memories. And I get to go out on my own terms. I can do some things that most people consider routine. I'm cautiously optimistic [I can handle it]. I'm not a guy who's built solely around football. We've all worked so hard. I feel really fortunate. Ray's a very, very capable guy. So I'm comfortable that it'll be in good hands. The program's much bigger than me or any singular person."
His last game will be Nov. 22 at Cornell. His Franklin Field finale is the week before against Harvard.
"For me, he was something you took for granted," said Bilsky. "The program ran so smoothly, I never had to worry. He did everything you would want, on and off the field.
"I can't think of any better way to send him out than to hold up a trophy in November at Cornell. It's all right if he wants to clinch even sooner."
Priore, who played against Bagnoli's Union team when he was an undergrad at Albany, sounds as grateful as his mentor.
"It's been a great ride," he said. "It's an honor to have the support [of everyone] . . . in this process. Life's all about timing. Al has put me in more and more of a leadership position. Our motto is, 'Win the day.' We aim high, in everything we do. I want to make Penn very, very proud.
"We have very similar philosophies. But like a lot of assistants, you always have your own mindset on how you want to set the table. There's not much we need to do, to stay in place as we keep moving forward to achieve our goals. What a great opportunity. We want it to be business as usual."
Bagnoli's farewell season starts Sept. 20 at Jacksonville, followed by a home game against Villanova and good friend Andy Talley, whom he has yet to beat in 11 tries since 1999. The Quakers have finished first in the Ivies three times in the last 5 years.
"We laid out a plan that I think makes sense for most people," Bagnoli said. "I'm excited for Ray. He's been a valuable member of our staff . . . There's a certain point where it kind of feels right to move on and do something else. Hopefully that will occur. I want to make sure [it's understood] this had nothing to do with the new administration. I basically just thought it was the correct time."
Until then . . .
"I'll continue to work hard at this thing."
For him, it's the only way. Which is why he could never overstay his welcome. And soon, autumn Saturdays will mean something different. That's OK, too. He's surely earned the right to call it a legendary career.