Skip to main content

Facing a fall without football, Al Bagnoli says the toughest part for players won't be missing games or practices

It's been half a century since Al Bagnoli spent a fall without college football. The Connecticut native played at Central Connecticut State from 1972-74, then went straight into coaching as a graduate assistant at Albany in '75. He was the defensive coordinator a year later, and his career took off from there -- head coach at Union College in New York by 1982, and head coach at Penn by 1992, where he spent 23 seasons.

The 67-year-old is now the head coach at Columbia, and his 257 career wins stand as the most of any active coach at any level in college football. Only College Football Hall of Famer Carmen Cozza owns more Ivy League wins and titles.

Bagnoli won't gain on Cozza this fall, as the Ivy League will sit out the fall season in hopes of playing in the spring.

As part of our series speaking with coaches facing a football-less fall, we talked about how he's managing his time, what it will take for a spring season, what his players miss the most about the season, and why football coaches will be crucial this fall even without games to coach.

FootballScoop: What was your reaction when the Ivy League officially shut you down?
Bagnoli: I was not surprised. I was cautiously optimistic about a month ago, and then when they started reopening the country and I saw the numbers starting to climb, I suspected that this was going to be problematic. I don't think any of the eight coaches in our league were surprised that the fall season got canceled.

FootballScoop: How confident are you that the spring season actually happens?
Bagnoli: They haven't given us specifics. I'm the chair for the Ivy League coaches this year, coincidentally, and nobody has given us a specific metric. But obviously if there's progress on a vaccination, if the numbers improve significantly, I think it's every institution's desire to reopen fully for the spring if it's safe to do so. If they can reopen safely and include all four classes, then you have a possibility of a spring Ivy League-only season. It's going to take some improvement, whether it's in the cure or in the infection rate that we currently have now.

It's been different. Every school in our league has kind of approached reopening and the number of students on campus differently. For us, basically the plan was to get freshmen, sophomores and any transfers on campus in the fall semester, and then get the juniors and seniors in the spring. Our time will be two-fold. One, they've allowed us to work out the kids, which is great. We'll be spending time getting those freshmen and sophomores acclimated to college, lifting programs, workouts, and it's going to be gradual because when they report the first thing they're going to have to do is quarantine for 14 days. Come Thanksgiving, the entire league is sending the student body home and they're not coming back. You really only have about a 9-10 week window. We're going to try to maximize it within the structure of what New York state is saying, what New York City is saying, what the people on campus are saying, what the CDC is saying. So there's a lot of layers.

It's all going to be predicated upon the medical metrics moving forward.

FootballScoop: When was the last time your team did any football-related activity together?
Bagnoli: Our last offseason workout was in March. We have been remotely since probably the middle of March. It's been quite a while. Spring football was canceled, as all the spring sports were. The last time the kids were doing football wasn't until November of 2019, which is kind of a concern when you try to start the season at some point.

FootballScoop: How do you keep your kids' eye on the ball when there's no season in sight?
Bagnoli: I think that's the challenge everybody is having and we've had to adapt all of our lifting programs because when they were sent home, kids fell into three different types of environment. One is the kid had full access to lifting apparel -- a neighbor had a full gym in the garage or whatever. Part of the kids just had partial, they might have had a bench but they didn't have a squat rack. And then a majority of our kids had zero access to lifting because all the gyms were shut down, so our strength coaches had to send out three different programs.

It started with that. As we were preparing for the potential of the fall season, we had to incorporate a lot more of the cardiovascular to make sure we were conditioned, and then as this thing shut down we had to backtrack and say, Okay the cardiovascular is not as important anymore. Every week we have an updated list of kids who have access to training facilities that has to be altered based on where they live. It's been a long time for our kids. Our mantra's always been, "Control the things you can control, don't worry about the things you can't control." We're in this unprecedented time, everybody's adapting to it the best they can, keep looking forward and eventually we're going to play a season. Once that happens, it's important for coaches, players and support staff to be fully prepared.

FootballScoop: How have your players handled all this emotionally?
Bagnoli: I think that's tough because they miss their teammates. I think that's the hardest part. There's a camaraderie among teammates that everybody is missing. I have not seen a player in person since March. I've seen them via Zoom, I've spoken to them numerous times, but have not had an in-person conversation with any of our players since March. With kids being spread out all over the country in this league, that's the toughest part.

FootballScoop: It'll be easy enough to continue recruiting the 2021 kids you were already after. But how are you going to identify 2022s and 2023s without camps or, possibly, a season to evaluate?
Bagnoli: That's the challenge we're all going to have. In a normal recruiting year you not only have recruiting services that provide you with information, you spend a lot of time with Junior Days, camps, and then we also go to other places. We'd have staff representation at Northwestern, for example, to handle the Midwestern kids. Staff down at Duke to handle the South, at Trinity to handle Texas, Stanford to handle the West Coast kids. You don't have any of those resources anymore. It's really establishing a base based on recruiting services, outreach and hopefully you can try to qualify kids the best you can without physically working with them or physically seeing them in person.

FootballScoop: Have you found yourself more or less busy this summer?
Bagnoli: It varies because as you kind of zero in, we're trying to do Zoom home visits with kids. As opposed to kids coming to campus, going to their high school, whatever. That's taken a lot of time because I'm involved with virtually all of these. At this point it's getting busier and busier because we need to push recruiting forward and soliciting some commits for this year's recruiting class. We were doing -- I wouldn't call it busy work -- but we had to make as many contingency plans as we could because we didn't know what the season was going to look like. If we had a fall season, we could do it as seamlessly and safely as we could. Now we really have jumped in with both feet in doing Zoom visits with kids we had an interest in. We're trying to do it not only with them, but also with their parents. That means you're doing a lot more nighttime (calls) over the summer, which historically you hadn't done. I'm doing a 6:45 Zoom home visit tonight with a kid out of North Carolina, for example.

FootballScoop: Have you given any thought to how you'll fill your Saturdays this fall?
Bagnoli: It's interesting. I was trying to think back, and it's been 50-plus years between playing and coaching since I've had a fall off.

FootballScoop: That's a lifetime.
Bagnoli: Yeah, pretty much. This is going to be all new. I've never experienced this and it's going to seem strange that the third Saturday in September rolls around and we don't have a game. That's something that has never occurred in a long, long time for me. We'll try to make the best of it, and we'll try to do some things that we haven't done as a family.

FootballScoop: Unpleasant question, but I have to ask. Has the school given you any indication this will turn into a permanent cut for the program?
Bagnoli: I hope not. We've had no indication of that happening. Again, we're fortunate because the second they allow student-athletes back on campus, then our roles become really valuable. We've always had the recruiting side of things, but the moment they allow the freshmen and sophomore class back, those kids need more mentoring, more guidance than any of the previous classes we've ever had. I think it's going to establish a very valuable role for coaches.