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Ex-Penn coach Bagnoli up for challenge at underachieving Columbia

Al Bagnoli was ready to head into retirement after 23 years, but decided he wanted to get back on the field with a new challenge.

Columbia head football coach Al Bagnoli speaks during a press conference at Columbia University on February 24, 2015 in New York.
Columbia head football coach Al Bagnoli speaks during a press conference at Columbia University on February 24, 2015 in New York.Read more

WHEN AL BAGNOLI decided to step down as coach after 23 seasons at Penn, where his teams won a record nine outright Ivy League football titles, he simply thought the time was right.

It took him only 3 months to figure out he had miscalculated.

"I still wanted something to do that was meaningful," he told the Daily News.

Working in administration at Penn apparently wasn't cutting it. So now, he's opted to make another change, though cirumstances dictated that this one came about much more hastily.

Yesterday afternoon in New York, Bagnoli was formally introduced as the new guy in charge at Columbia, which has lost its last 21 games, hasn't had a winning season since 1996, and got its one Ivy title in 1961. The move will surprise many, and is one he hadn't even contemplated until several weeks ago, when Columbia reached out to him about the opportunity. Yet it's a move he thought he had to pursue.

"You know how goofy this has been?" Bagnoli said. "I was offered the job last Thursday, and, this weekend, I had to actually apply online. That's how fast it all happened.

"Everything just kind of lined up and fell in place.

"[His new work at Penn] just wasn't as challening as I thought it would be. I was like, 'Hey, this isn't the career path for me.' The good news is, I had a chance to experience it. Whether or not you want to argue that, it wasn't enough of a trial run, it wasn't what I wanted to do with my future. I still wanted to work. It wasn't like I was going to play golf 5 days a week or lay on the beach. I needed to be challenged."

Then he's certainly picked the right place. But Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger told incoming athletic director Peter Pilling - an associate AD at Villanova in the late 1990s and early 2000s - to find the right man to turn things around.

"They've done a really good job up there of correcting some of the ills - from a staffing perspective to a budgetary persepctive to a housing perspective - to eliminate some of those hurdles past coaches have had," Bagnoli said. "They want to get this thing right, and they're willing to put enough resources in place to allow a guy to come in and try to do it the right way. I should be able to surround myself with some good people who will help get it fixed. It won't happen overnight. I don't think anybody expects that. But we can certainly make some inroads in the next 2 or 3 years."

In December, Pete Mangurian resigned as coach after three seaons, amid allegations by players that he was abusive toward them.

Penn went 2-8 last season, after losing its last four in 2013 to finish 4-6. The Quakers won their last four in 2012 to get Bagnoli his last ring.

He left in part so that assistant Ray Priore, who actually was at Penn before he arrived, could finally get his chance to run the team.

Interesting, to use one of Bagnoli's favorite expressions, how the world spins sometimes.

"I found out that, when you're at a place for 23 years, sometimes things have a tendency to be redundant," said Bagnoli, who turned 62 last month. "These 3 months allowed me to have a different appreciation of what I had. I could step back a little bit and reflect and say, 'That was better.' It's almost like I took a semester off, a sabbatical.

"I've got nothing but really good memories. I can't tell you how many [Penn] people have reached out to me to wish me the best. It's going to be weird, though, coaching against them [this year's game is in New York]. Trying to maintain a program is every bit as challenging as trying to develop one. If I wasn't convinced it made sense . . . I know what we're getting into.

"But I didn't consciously go out and say, 'OK, I'm going to to look at this job.' It was just a combination of things."

He and his wife have family in their native Connecticut. They have a son who lives in North Jersey, another in Providence, R.I., and a daughter still in Philly. They're keeping their South Jersey home and getting an apartment in New York. So it works for them logistically. And if it doesn't pan out out on the field, the last thing he's worried about is what this chapter could mean to his legacy.

"I know people have mentioned it, but you don't get into coaching for that," Bagnoli said. "I didn't like administration. So, short of getting a real job, this is what motivates you. I know it's going to take a while. I've been trying to maintain a program that's been consistently at the top. Those are two different issues. Both are hard. Now, success will be measured in other ways. At least at first. We're not going to come in and wave a wand and go 5-5 the first year.

"When you get a new job, you're excited, apprehensive, every emotion known to man. I don't think I've slept through the night the last 10 days, trying to think of everything that needed to get done. I'm starting over. The AD is new, too. So neither of us knows anything [yet] about Columbia. It's temporarily comical.

"I want it to be a win-win. I want Penn to continue to do great. And we'll try to do our best to resurrect this program."

That's why he's supposedly getting the big bucks. So what's the downside?

"I'm not crazy about those [school] colors," Bagnoli said, laughing. "It's hard to be rough and tough and everything else in that light, powder-blue outfit.

"I might have to fool around a little bit with that."

The restart has to begin somewhere.

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