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Biff Poggi responds to critics of St. Frances football

Biff Poggi, the larger-than-life high school football coach, responded Wednesday to critics who say that the “Poggi Way” is little more than an ego-driven obsession with winning on the backs of talented, young athletes from outside Maryland, giving his team at St. Frances Academy a crushing advantage over opponents in the Baltimore region.

Several readers who responded to my Wednesday column had harsh words for Poggi and his defenders, saying the coach’s development of the St. Frances football team into a national powerhouse has more to do with winning championships and gaining fame — and perhaps a college coaching job — than with the “transformative coaching” that improves the lives of disadvantaged boys.

“We get accused of all kinds of things all the time,” Poggi says, acknowledging familiarity with the criticisms that swirled in social media after three schools in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association announced they would not play his St. Frances Panthers this fall. Those schools cited player safety concerns and, in one case, differences in “vision,” as Poggi’s program dominated MIAA opponents and set sights on a national ranking.

Poggi acknowledged having critics from his time as head football coach at Gilman School. After 19 years at Gilman, he moved to St. Frances, the predominantly African-American Catholic high school in East Baltimore.

Poggi had established a relationship with St. Frances several years earlier. He was a member of the school’s board and, in 2008, while still coaching at Gilman, he donated $60,000 to establish the St. Frances football program. “St. Frances Academy seemed to be a place that was making a big impact in the lives of a good number of kids who didn’t have much,” Poggi told the Catholic Review. “It educates children, some of whom are virtually homeless, aren’t eating properly, or living in areas where there is great danger.”

During a conversation Wednesday night, after St. Frances announced that it would move to a national schedule, essentially ending the recent controversy, I relayed the criticisms that arrived via email from Sun readers. Here are some of Poggi’s responses.

On player safety: During the many seasons Poggi coached Gilman to national prominence, players were injured in games, and he cited a handful of examples. But, he says, no team complained to the MIAA about the threat of injury because of a physical imbalance between Poggi’s Gilman players, some of whom went on to play in college and the National Football League, and opponents. No team refused to play Gilman, he says, and none were willing to forfeit conference games. In a statement issued Wednesday, the MIAA said decisions by the Mount Saint Joseph, Calvert Hall and McDonogh football programs to not play St. Frances represented “the first time that any member school has announced an intent to forfeit a game before the season starts.”

On recruitment: Poggi acknowledges that some of his players come from out of state — Virginia and Delaware, for instance. “We had six last year and nine this year,” Poggi says. “That’s out of a roster of 80.” The recruitment of players from outside Maryland violates no MIAA rule, Poggi says.

» Any St. Frances roster that people see on the internet this spring is probably inaccurate, Poggi says. The St. Frances team experiences “a lot of turnover” every year. Players who are students in the spring might not return in the fall. “These are disadvantaged kids with lots of issues,” Poggi says. “The little things that come up ... they are little things to us, but they are potentially unraveling to them. Over two seasons at St. Frances, we had 17 players who had family members or friends who had been shot. I had a player, a [defensive back] for us, who started weeping in my car. Of the five men in his family, four of them had been shot to death.” Recently, Poggi says, a shooting erupted near the East Baltimore field where his players were working out. “There are so many things about the lives of these kids that I didn’t understand that I understand a lot better now,” he says. “I am learning every day what it is like for these children — and that is what they are — to be poor and forgotten and racially hated.”

» Poggi says St. Frances football has created a buzz for the school, from squeegee kids in downtown Baltimore to families in other states. Some recruitment of players has been by word of mouth. “We have people contact us,” Poggi says. “We had the father of a kid from Richmond, a quarterback. He said, ‘I want my son to go to school here.’ And then we have the others — moms who call and say, ‘My son is in trouble, would you be willing to take him on?’ We get calls from Wilmington, D.C., Philly, Prince George’s County. We had grandparents who brought us a boy, very troubled. His mom left him. He never knew his father. His grandparents said, ‘We can’t control him, can you help?’ And then there’s the question: ‘What happens if we don’t take him? What then?’ And it’s a challenge. He skipped classes, he lied to us. But [St. Frances] has a lot of really good people who know how to get to kids like this.” That young man will be going to a junior college in California. “He is a long shot,” Poggi says, “but I believe in him.”

» Part of the appeal of St. Frances is the uniqueness of the school — a historically African-American Catholic high school. There simply are not many of those. Black athletes who might be recruited by private or parochial schools to play football now have St. Frances as an option, and Poggi has used his own money to finance accommodations for several of the players during the academic year and summer school.

» To critics of his recruitment of players from outside the city, Poggi notes that most of the students at St. Frances are from Baltimore. A bad environment is a bad environment, no matter where it is, he says. “What are we good at? We’re good at football,” Poggi says. “What do these kids care about? They care about football. What if we take those kids, bring them in and immerse them in a good education, make them feel good about themselves, to go to school every day, go to class and sit in the front row? And what if they drop back with a college degree to the bad area they came from? Can they make a difference? Can they go back there and be an example?”

On his drive to win: Some critics say everything Poggi does is about winning and not about the kind of “transformational coaching” I described in Wednesday’s column. “Yeah, I want to win,” he says. “But the reason is, our kids lose every day. They lose in nutrition, they lose in housing, they lose in post-traumatic stress from violence in their families, they lose from stereotypical hatred and institutional racism. Yeah, I want to win.”

On academics: One of Poggi’s goals is to help players improve their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the standardized exam widely used for college admissions. Dr. Curtis Turner, the St. Frances principal, says Poggi funded the hiring of an SAT specialist who works with not only football players but students throughout the school. Poggi says one of his players has scored high enough on the SAT to be a candidate for possible admission to an Ivy League university next year. Another boy, he said, was able to improve his combined scores by 260 points, a significant leap that impressed a college that provided him with financial aid.

» All 18 seniors from the 2017 team have been accepted to colleges, on the heels of 14 seniors from the 2016 team. Poggi says representatives of 120 colleges and universities visited St. Frances during the NCAA’s spring recruiting period.

» Poggi says St. Frances has been able to hire seven new teachers, and two graduates of Gilman School who played for Poggi will join the faculty at the school in the coming academic year.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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