How a football coach saved a program while losing his opponents
THE COACH’S NAME is Biff Poggi. He made a generational fortune, almost by accident, as an investment fund manager. He has his own jet, a conga line of business investments and a sprawling estate in one of Baltimore’s most lovely suburbs. Ask who’s having a better financial year, him or his former boss, Jim Harbaugh (who earned a reported $7 million last year), and the 57-year-old Poggi will laugh and respond without hesitation, “Me, of course.”
Poggi doesn’t have to work another day in his life. He doesn’t have to coach. And he certainly doesn’t have to coach at St. Frances Academy, a dilapidated oasis of hope surrounded by the desolation and despair of East Baltimore.
“No human being I have ever heard of has escaped death,” he says. “We’re all going to the same place. And at some time, all of us are going to have ask ourselves the question: ‘What difference did we make for the least of them?’ … I decided I did not want to water-ski behind yachts. I wanted to do something else.”
Despite the daily, often hourly, soul-crushing obstacles his players face — poverty, neglect, violence and racism — Poggi is building a national football powerhouse, largely by spending more than $2.5 million of his own money.
But he says his bigger goal is to provide a foundation for the players who are part of his program.
“I am so sick of going to dinner parties and enduring the chin-wagging from people who say, ‘Oh, my god, what’s happening in our country? Why are the jails full of African-American men? They don’t value what we value.’ … Stop. I’m not listening to that nonsense anymore,” Poggi says.
“I see St. Frances as a drop of dye in the bucket of Baltimore, and it’s going to spread, and we’re going to do it one kid at a time, one year at a time, one team at a time. We’re going to level the playing field. We’re going to send them to college, they’re going to get their degrees and then they’re going to come back and make a difference.”
Poggi calls St. Frances “Baltimore’s team — I mean, real Baltimore.” The Panthers have no home stadium; they play in a public park. They have no practice field. No blocking sleds. When they run in the streets of East Baltimore, it isn’t uncommon for row house residents to come out and cheer.
Despite where they come from, many of Poggi’s players are finding hope. Nineteen starters from 2017 received college scholarships to such programs as Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Indiana, Duke, Georgetown and at least one school in the Ivy League. The scholarship total is only slightly less than the 26 St. Frances players on the 2017 team who say they’ve lost immediate and extended family members to Baltimore’s violence. Poggi mourns when they mourn. He lives his life through their lives. Together they finished the 2017 season with a 13-0 record, with a No. 4 national ranking in the USA Today poll and outscored their Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association conference opponents 342-50.
That’s nice, says Poggi, but at the moment he’s trying to help a player whose mother has resorted to breaking the law to support herself. And, oh, by the way, he and his coaching staff are scrambling to assemble a 2018 schedule after most of his MIAA opponents announced they will forfeit this season’s games against St. Frances rather than play the Panthers.
They cited issues of player safety, saying Poggi has assembled an all-star team of transfer players from as far away as Florida, a team of college-caliber athletes. Their success has been deemed unhealthy, even unfair. His program, say the most outraged of the critics, is simply too good.
Meanwhile, St. Frances supporters hear excuses and racially coded language, and they wonder why there were no such objections when the Panthers not so long ago were getting crushed by the same schools boycotting them now.