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Former St. Frances coach Biff Poggi relishing Michigan’s run to College Football Playoff: ‘You don’t get moments like this’

When Biff Poggi departed St. Frances to coach at Michigan in July, he called it “a chance to go one last time on a really big stage, to a legendary program.” Optimistic as he was, he could not know how large that stage would become in a matter of months, as Michigan rocketed from unranked punching bag to national championship contender.
When Biff Poggi departed St. Frances to coach at Michigan in July, he called it “a chance to go one last time on a really big stage, to a legendary program.” Optimistic as he was, he could not know how large that stage would become in a matter of months, as Michigan rocketed from unranked punching bag to national championship contender. (Univ. of Michigan Photography / HANDOUT)

Biff Poggi watched the swarm of happy bodies envelop his boss, Jim Harbaugh. It was all he could do to advance far enough to shake hands with Ohio State’s coaches as the Michigan faithful danced off years’ worth of frustrations.

More than 111,000 people had just watched the Wolverines slaughter their greatest albatross, the dreaded Buckeyes, and every one of them, it seemed, wanted to celebrate on the turf at “The Big House.” Poggi, Michigan’s associate head coach, had enjoyed many exultant moments in his football life, from his college days playing with Dan Marino at Pittsburgh to his prep coaching triumphs at Gilman and St. Frances.

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He knew this memory would stick.

“You don’t get moments like this,” he said during a phone interview from South Florida, where the Wolverines were completing preparations for Friday night’s Orange Bowl. “If God blesses me and I live long enough to be some old guy sitting around, I’m going to look at a picture of that game and it’s going to take me back to one of the great times of my life.”

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When the 61-year-old Poggi departed St. Frances Academy for Michigan in July, he called it “a chance to go one last time on a really big stage, to a legendary program.”

Optimistic as he was, he could not know how large that stage would become in a matter of months, as Michigan rocketed from unranked punching bag to 12-1 juggernaut. The Wolverines, fresh off demolitions of archrival Ohio State and Iowa in the Big Ten championship game, will play Georgia in a College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve.

“This is one of those teams and situations that comes along very rarely in your career,” Poggi said, reflecting on the six-month whirlwind that carried him from his longtime perch atop the Baltimore high school scene to the cusp of a national championship.

On a smaller level, Michigan’s success has served as a celebration of what Poggi built at St. Frances. Two Wolverines, running back Blake Corum and linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green, played for him at the Baltimore Catholic school, which became the dominant football power in the area thanks to the talent Poggi assembled and the financial support he offered. The Panthers also lived in the eye of a public storm after Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association opponents refused to play them, citing safety concerns because of St. Frances’ overwhelming advantages in speed and size.

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“This is one of those teams and situations that comes along very rarely in your career,” said Michigan associated head coach Biff Poggi, right, reflecting on the six-month whirlwind that carried him from his longtime perch atop the Baltimore prep scene to the cusp of a national championship.
“This is one of those teams and situations that comes along very rarely in your career,” said Michigan associated head coach Biff Poggi, right, reflecting on the six-month whirlwind that carried him from his longtime perch atop the Baltimore prep scene to the cusp of a national championship. (Univ. of Michigan Photography / HANDOUT)

“It has been great,” Hill-Green told MLive.com of his reunion with Poggi. “It was surprising for him to come. He has been like a life analyst for us here. That has been great. He always brings great energy and enthusiasm into the building.”

Corum used a familiar phrase, “iron sharpens iron,” to illustrate the benefits of playing for Poggi at St. Frances.

“There really wasn’t a difference from going to St. Frances to college,” he said. “You were playing the best players in the nation. We played [Heisman Trophy winner] Bryce Young, we played the competition that we needed to, so there really wasn’t a difference. My [offensive line] in high school is just as big as my [offensive line] in college. The only difference is the game picked up a little bit. Some players are faster, but man, it helped me a lot.”

Poggi has watched Corum and Hill-Green thrive as players and students at Michigan. Every so often, he might nudge a fellow coach and say, “Hey, where did those kids go to high school?”

He has cherished their matchups with other former St. Frances players, who appear on rosters around the country. Georgia, for example, features freshman linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson.

“Every week’s a little bit like a reunion,” Poggi said.

Michigan was not ranked at the start of the year after going 2-4 in a pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season. Harbaugh, touted as a savior when he returned to his alma mater in 2015, was under the gun from a demanding fan base and from outside critics who wielded his 0-5 record against Ohio State as a cudgel.

Poggi saw none of this perceived rot when he got to Ann Arbor in July. There were few holdovers on Harbaugh’s staff from the last time Poggi worked at Michigan, during the 2016 season, but he encountered sharp, mostly young coaches with fresh ideas about how to unlock players’ potential. He met athletes focused on what they could do rather than what they had not done.

When the Wolverines had to prove they were for real, down a field goal with seven minutes to go at Nebraska or needing to answer a fourth-quarter rally from Penn State, they did not fold. By the time they got to Ohio State, their longtime nemesis, they all believed.

“This has been an unbelievable testament to when people don’t listen to outside naysayers,” Poggi said. “They know who they are. They know what they’re capable of doing. And they’ve worked really hard to do it, both coaches and players. So this has all been surprising to some but not that surprising to us, quite frankly.”

He dismissed Harbaugh’s outside critics as “idiots, quite frankly.”

Biff Poggi, pictured on Aug. 31, 2018, left St. Frances in July to join Jim Harbaugh and his staff at Michigan.
Biff Poggi, pictured on Aug. 31, 2018, left St. Frances in July to join Jim Harbaugh and his staff at Michigan. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The two coaches formed a bond when Poggi’s son, Henry, played fullback at Michigan. “We have spent a lot of time talking about a lot of things besides football — our families, our faith, things that are going on in the world,” Poggi said. “We’re very similar people. And then, as far as football goes, we’re very similar there too. We both believe in the old-fashioned way that teams are built; they’re built through hard work and the concept of team rather than a bunch of individualism and trick-you stuff. It’s all about stopping the run on defense and running the football, being really good in the special-teams game. Both of us are from that same tree.”

He admired Harbaugh’s work this year, the way he molded the culture of the program at the same time he taught details.

“I think he’s had his very best year coaching; this has been a maestro-like performance,” Poggi said, high praise considering that Harbaugh led the San Francisco 49ers to three straight NFC championship games and a Super Bowl matchup with the Ravens and his brother, John.

Poggi floated between staff rooms in his capacity as associate head coach but worked most directly with Michigan’s offensive line, offering his analysis to line coach and co-offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore. The Wolverines averaged 223.8 rushing yards per game and won the Joe Moore Award honoring the top offensive line in college football.

Poggi fell in love with veteran, dry-wit hosses such as right tackle Andrew Stueber and center Andrew Vastardis. But he gushed just as readily about players on the other side of the ball, notably defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy. “If he’s not the first draft pick, then I officially don’t know anything about the game of football, because he’s ridiculous,” he said.

He felt he was watching a masterpiece come together, the same sensation he had more than 40 years ago when he saw a young Marino lead Pittsburgh to the Fiesta Bowl. As a bonus, he has shared the experience with his daughter, Mary, a Roland Park Country School graduate and freshman at Michigan. She can diagram an “Okie” defense better than many players, loves to critique her dad’s work and considers Harbaugh, the Michigan legend, a buddy.

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Poggi kept using the word “magnificent” to describe this whole run. As he spoke days before the College Football Playoff semifinal, he could not wait for Friday night. He wanted to see what the Wolverines would do next.

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College Football Playoff semifinal

NO. 2 MICHIGAN vs. NO. 3 GEORGIA

Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN Line: Georgia by 7 ½

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