St. Frances football coach Biff Poggi will leave the Baltimore Catholic school to rejoin Jim Harbaugh’s staff at the University of Michigan, he said Saturday.
Poggi said that at age 61, he sees this as a last chance to learn and make a name for himself at the college level after more than two decades of leading the most successful high school programs in the Baltimore area. He said he’ll serve as an associate head coach, helping Harbaugh mentor younger assistants and working hands-on with the team’s offensive linemen.
“It’s a younger man’s game,” he said. “This was a chance to go one last time on a really big stage, to a legendary program.”
Poggi said the staff at St. Frances, which under his leadership became the most dominant team in the Baltimore area and a national powerhouse, will remain intact otherwise, with Messay Hailemariam becoming head coach.
Hailemariam, who previously served as head coach at St. Frances from 2011 to 2015 and worked on Poggi’s staff the past four years, said the program’s mission will remain just as ambitious. Coming off a pandemic-abbreviated season, the Panthers will return to playing a national schedule in the fall.
“He’s left it better than he found it, but the goal is not to be dependent on one person,” Hailemariam said. “I’m very confident in what I know and what I’ve learned with Biff. … It’s a shock to the kids in terms of Coach not being around. They’re going to miss him, of course, but they’re excited for the opportunity to go back on the road and feel what it’s like to compete.”
Poggi was more than a coach at St. Frances; he used his personal fortune to build the program, assembled a staff of coaches he had worked with in his earlier stint at Gilman and recruited players from all over Maryland with the promise that he would get them to college and improve their circumstances.
With immense success came controversy as Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association opponents refused to play St. Frances, citing safety concerns because of the Panthers’ crushing size and speed advantages. Supporters of Poggi’s program, including St. Frances principal Dr. Curtis Turner, saw racial bias in these decisions as traditional prep powers refused to take on an upstart program stocked with gifted Black student-athletes. St. Frances left the MIAA behind in 2018 to play a national schedule.
With that saga as a backdrop, the St. Frances program became the subject of an ESPN feature and an HBO documentary called “The Cost of Winning.”
“It didn’t wear me out; it disappointed me,” Poggi said of the MIAA controversy. “I thought the reasons given by the MIAA and the member schools were disingenuous at best.”
Poggi said that to meet NCAA requirements for his job at Michigan, he will cut all ties with St. Frances. He said Michigan has agreed not to recruit any St. Frances players for the next two years.
Poggi said he’s not worried that St. Frances will be destabilized by his departure and the removal of his financial support. “We’ve put a program in place,” he said. “In the beginning, a lot of it was on me. Now, it’s not. It’s spread way out.”
“He stabilized the program,” Hailemariam said. “He’s been a seed that has really helped us. But the idea of just one person being able to sustain that level of support, it’s close to impossible. We look forward to the challenge of doing it, but it also is better long-term, if it’s not just one or two people.”
Before he built the program at St. Frances, Poggi coached for 19 years at his alma mater, Gilman, and spent 2016 as an associate head coach and special adviser on Harbaugh’s staff. He went to Michigan the first time in part to be close to his son, Henry, who played fullback for the Wolverines. He’s again moving with family motivation; his youngest child, Mary, will start at Michigan in the fall.
“I was very happy at St. Frances; it was a highly competitive national program that we built from nothing,” he said. “But this is the last chance my wife and I will have to be with her.”
A spokesperson for Michigan football did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Poggi said he had “serious” discussions with another college program about becoming head coach and said it’s not out of the question that he could seek a college head coaching opportunity if circumstances change at Michigan.
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“I’m going to Michigan with the idea that I’m going to be there until I finish coaching,” he said. “I’ll be there, I hope, as long as Jim is there and wants me to stay there. … If he goes someplace else or doesn’t want me to stay, then I’d look at other opportunities.”