Timing is everything—at least it is if your name is Peter Pilling or Al Bagnoli.
Last winter, both Pilling and Bagnoli were in need of some major help. What began with a mutual friend and a small favor quickly turned into a chain of events that neither could have predicted, allowing both men to provide the other just what he needed.
The outcome was as fortuitous as it was unlikely, leading up to the hiring of Al Bagnoli as the head coach of a backsliding Columbia football program. But the process began long before anyone even considered Bagnoli, who had just retired after a long and successful career at Penn, a serious candidate for the job.
Pilling was among a handful of finalists to replace then-athletic director M. Dianne Murphy. He knew that Columbia’s most urgent need was a serious overhaul of the football program, and that in order to secure the job, he’d have to be able to present the administration with a viable solution—no small task, given the state of the program, currently riding a 21-game losing streak.
Pilling, though an Ivy League outsider, is no stranger to Columbia’s woes.
“We’ve had some challenges historically with the football program,” he said. “And making sure that football was going the right direction and competing in the Ivy League was an important priority.”
Prior to his final interview with the search committee, Pilling reached out to his good friend, Villanova football head coach Andy Talley. The two had become acquainted during Pilling’s tenure, from 1997-2001, as an associate athletic director at that school.
Pilling specifically sought out Talley, who coached at Brown from 1973-78, as a source of Ivy League football wisdom. Despite a 37-year absence from the Ancient Eight, Talley still maintains ties to the conference. Given that experience, Pilling thought that Talley had the insight to help.
“If you don’t understand Ivy League recruiting, if you don’t have a concept of the academics, the culture, the national scope of the University, the programs, and the competition, you have a two-year window to learn all that stuff and then you just get eaten up,” Talley said.
“If you don’t understand Ivy League recruiting, if you don’t have a concept of the academics, the culture, the national scope of the University, the programs, and the competition, you have a two-year window to learn all that stuff and then you just get eaten up”
—Villanova head coach Andy Talley
When Pilling got in touch with his old friend, he asked for guidance, or to be directed to someone who could talk about the unique challenges of navigating the world of Ivy League football. Although Talley had been out of the Ivies for some time, he had just the man to indoctrinate Pilling into the ways of the Ancient Eight.
That man was Al Bagnoli.
Talley has known Bagnoli since his earliest coaching days at Union over three decades ago, but got to know him even better recently, especially since the coaches have battled each other on the field each of the last 12 years. Talley knew that he had been out of the Ancient Eight for some time and could be out of touch, but Bagnoli was the perfect man for the job.
Just a few days later, Pilling called Bagnoli from his home in Provo, Utah. At the time, Bagnoli was working an administrative job at Penn, where he’d only recently retired from coaching the Quakers football team—the team with which he established his legend. According to Bagnoli, Pilling bounced a litany of questions off of him, but he was happy to help his former crosstown rival and friend.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Bagnoli said. “I thought I was doing my friend a favor. Andy wanted me to talk to him, and I was happy to.”
It wasn’t long before Pilling secured the athletic director job, finding himself face-to-face with the coaching vacancy left after the departure of former head coach Pete Mangurian amid allegations of player abuse. That’s when he reached back out to Bagnoli. Days after his hiring was announced, Pilling hopped on a train to Philadelphia to meet with Bagnoli. After that, he never met with any other candidates. He didn’t need to.
“He had that fire in his belly,” Pilling said. “That was one of the things that struck me as a real positive strength.”
But while Pilling prepared to make the pitch to Bagnoli, many wrote off the 62-year-old as a viable candidate for the position. Bagnoli had retired after a 23 successful years at the helm of Penn only three months earlier. There, he had won nine Ivy League Championships and compiled a 148-80 record.
To move from the mountaintop of Ivy success to the reeling Columbia program seemed a risky move to some.
But Bagnoli found the decision to take the head coaching job at Columbia easy.
Since leaving the Quakers’ sideline, Bagnoli had been working as director of special projects for the athletics department, but found himself missing the excitement of coaching. “After just three and a half months, I was like, this isn’t too exciting just doing administrative work,” Bagnoli said.
Talley said that some people in particular have trouble with retirement because one never can know whether or not they are ready until they take that step.
He said he noted signs of that in Bagnoli, and he even thought early on in Bagnoli’s retirement that perhaps the Columbia job would be the ideal fit for his friend.
Talley went as far as to say, given the location and the formidable nature of the task at Columbia, that the gig is perfect for a driven coach with Ivy experience such as Bagnoli.
“Had Al transitioned into a position at Penn where he was playing golf and smoking cigars and kissing babies and shaking hands with people, he might not have taken the job,” Talley said. “But I don’t think that was so. I think he still had that drive.”
“Had Al transitioned into a position at Penn where he was playing golf and smoking cigars and kissing babies and shaking hands with people, he might not have taken the job … But I don’t think that was so. I think he still had that drive.”
—Villanova head coach Andy Talley
For both Pilling and Bagnoli, the timing couldn’t have been better. Amid the tumultuous turns of the program and athletics department—including Murphy’s and Mangurian’s resignations—the hire fell perfectly into place.
After talking to Bagnoli in Philadelphia, Pilling quickly arranged a meeting with University President Lee Bollinger in order to work out the contract details. Then, to the shock and delight of Columbia football fans, Bagnoli was named the new head coach of Columbia Lions football.
“He had a phenomenal, proven track record,” Pilling said. “It was very fortunate on our part that he had made that transition into administration, but he still desired to coach. So, when he was compared to anyone else under consideration, it was obvious that he understood what it took to be a champion in this league.”
Regardless of how it happened, one thing remains clear—the resounding sentiment is that Pilling found the best possible person to dig Columbia football out of its current rut.
“The one thing that I would say is, as a coach who has been in the Ivy League and been an eastern football coach for years and years,” Talley said. “I pretty much know the territory well, and they have chosen the absolute best candidate.”