Biff Poggi, Gilman School/St. Frances Academy
by Nelson Coffin
Despite his success as a coach, or perhaps because of it, Biff Poggi has been an enormously polarizing figure among prep football fans in and around the Baltimore metro area.
That said, even his most dedicated detractors would admit that the dynasties he built first at Gilman School and later at St. Frances Academy have changed the talent level of high school football in the Charm City and how the sport is perceived outside the region.
That alone, not to mention a combined 85-13 record, five outright championships and one shared title in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference from 2010 through the 2019 seasons, make the Gilman alumnus VSN’s Football Coach of the Decade.
“I’m honored,” he said. “There are a lot of coaches you could have picked.”
Yet Poggi stands above the rest due to his ability to dominate local and national opponents alike.
“His résumé speaks for itself,” Calvert Hall College High School coach Josh Ward said about Poggi.
While most private school teams recruit to one degree or another, Poggi admittedly took his efforts to a different level that paid off with unparalleled success.
“We did some things that other people were already doing,” he said. “They just weren’t doing them quite as well as we were. We’re really good at recruiting. We’d go out and get four of five guys who would really make a difference.”
Poggi used the talent at he lured to Gilman to show that Baltimore-area football teams could compete with the big boys from other areas as well.
“We’d go out and play teams like DeMatha (Catholic High School, the perennial Washington Catholic Athletic Conference kingpins) and Don Bosco (Preparatory High School, from New Jersey),” said Poggi, who went 135-43 as Greyhound coach. “We never did beat Don Bosco, but playing those teams let us know what we needed to do better. We just weren’t afraid to lose to those teams.”
While giving his teams a national profile by expanding the schedule, Poggi lured better players to his programs.
Being a successful hedge fund manager with a great amount of financial wherewithal, Poggi was able to defray tuition costs for some of his recruits, and that, critics argued, gave his programs an unfair competitive advantage.
Regardless, there is a strong argument to be made that by bringing in elite players, many of whom went on to play at the highest collegiate level — and several even to the National Football League — Poggi’s efforts to elevate his squads also challenged other local teams to follow suit or be left behind.
The notion that, as the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” might be the best way to describe the impact Poggi’s philosophy had on some of his colleagues and how they responded to the challenge.
“We were doing that when others weren’t,” Poggi said. “And that helped to attract other kids to our program.”
It started at Gilman, where he guided the Greyhounds to 13 MIAA A Conference crowns in 19 seasons — four of which were earned in the first half of the last decade — before he departed after the 2015 season to take an associate head coaching position at the University of Michigan.
“Look, he’s been winning for a long time,” said Ward, who played for the Cardinals against Poggi’s Gilman teams in the early 2000s. “He’s always had some of the best players, and his teams really work hard, too.”
Ward, who coached at St. Frances while Poggi was at Michigan, said that the Panthers adhered to Poggi’s faith-based coaching style.
“He’s in the business of building young men,” Ward added. “He truly cares about his players.”
Ellison Jordan, a former Gilman standout recruited by Penn State University and now at Bowie State, said that playing for Poggi was one of the best decisions of his life.
“He is one of the main reasons why I was successful at Gilman,” Jordan said. “He taught me how to know my worth as a person.”
Jordan said that end-of-the-year banquets under Poggi were not about garnering awards.
“It would just be a moment where we would all get together and just reminisce on the season we had without giving out trophies. I always respected him for that. You don’t need a trophy or anything to know your worth as a player and, most importantly, as a person.”
Jordan’s affinity for his coach is still strong.
“He was very motivating when we would go to battle,” he said. “He would treat everyone the same no matter how big of a role you played on the team, and he always respected and helped people out, including me and my family. I love him and his family.”
After leaving Michigan, Poggi returned to Baltimore to become co-coach at St. Frances, winning titles in 2017 and 2018 until the East Baltimore school’s football program was separated from the A Conference amid some tumult and controversy prior to the 2019 campaign.
Playing a daunting national schedule that fall, Poggi still led the Panthers to an 11-1 record while beating opponents from Florida (Miami Central, Venice, IMG Academy), Connecticut (St. Thomas More School) and New Jersey (St. Joseph Regional School), which boasted a combined record of 39-13.
Their lone setback that year was to California powerhouse Mater Dei, 34-18, and the Panthers traveled to Los Angeles for that battle.
Still, with all that success, perhaps his favorite year came in 2012 when the Greyhounds captured the A Conference banner in his son Henry’s senior year.
That squad featured Henry Poggi’s fellow defensive lineman Melvin Keihn (University of Richmond), hard-hitting linebacker Micah Kiser (University of Virginia, Los Angeles Rams) and bruising smash-mouth quarterback Shane Cockerille (University of Maryland).
“That was just a great group of kids,” he said. “I knew most of them when they were growing up with Henry, and that made it even more special.”
The talent level at Gilman and St. Frances extended to the coaching staffs that included former Baltimore Colts Joe Ehrmann and Stan White, former and now current DeMatha coach Bill McGregor and Henry Russell, a former player and longtime assistant at Gilman, who shares head coaching duties with Poggi at St. Frances.
Poggi’s aggressive recruiting and subsidizing of talented players, especially at St. Frances (34-1 in three seasons), has made him the subject of glowing accounts in major national publications and in the HBO documentary “The Cost of Winning.”
And while some naysayers point out that part of his agenda in building such a juggernaut is geared more toward feeding a voracious ego, the fact remains that his largesse has helped a number of his athletes to rise well above impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds.
He said that his legacy, if there is such a thing, is that he has taught his players “how to use football for a more constructive way to make a positive impact on other people, and how to be a better husband and father.”