The Penn football players had only been in preseason camp for less than a week when their new head coach called in a favor.
After eating the same cafeteria food every day, they were greeted to a pleasant surprise when Ray Priore had one of Penn’s dining halls essentially turned into a private restaurant for the football team.
Steak and shrimp was on the menu.
“We killed that,” sophomore wide receiver Justin Watson said. “I think I gained three pounds just from that.”
Then, more importantly, the receiver added: “Little things like that really show he’s on our side and makes us want to play for a guy like that.”
Such was the general sentiment during Penn football’s media day Tuesday from Penn Park -- Priore’s first as head coach.
Replacing a legend like Al Bagnoli, who led the Quakers to nine outright Ivy League championships in 23 years, was never going to be easy for Priore. Making things even more difficult is the fact that he now has to coach against that legend every year as Bagnoli took the head coaching job at Columbia after retiring from Penn and passing the torch to Priore, his longtime defensive coordinator.
But through spring practices and now during the start of preseason camp, Priore has not only been doing all the “little things” to make the transition smoother but also bringing a new level of energy not always seen during Bagnoli’s reign.
“There’s a lot more energy,” quarterback Alek Torgersen said. “Last year we were pretty flat when we came to camp. … As a team, we’ve definitely gotten a lot better and that starts with the energy we bring to practice and the attitude we bring to practice. I think that’s the biggest change from last year.”
Torgersen, who ranked third in the nation in completions and amassed the third highest passing yards total in school history last season, is one of the big reasons why the Quakers can turn it around after an ugly 2-8 campaign last year.
And he wasn’t the only player Monday to use the word “energy” when asked to describe what Priore has done to help usher such a daunting turnaround for a Quakers team that was uncharacteristically picked to finish sixth in the preseason Ivy poll.
"You know what Coach Priore is about," said senior defensive end Tyler Drake, a captain and preseason All-American. "You know his style. High energy -- I mean, that would be the best way to describe him. On the field, he’s really making sure we’re on our game and that everything’s perfect.
"There wasn’t even a transition, really. We hit the ground running."
That said, there have been some challenges for Priore as he shifts his role from a coordinator to head coach. Now, he’s trying to do his best to oversee the work that his new coaches are doing, including offensive coordinator John Reagan and defensive coordinator Bob Benson, and not always jump in like he has in the past.
He also said that managing his time and being as efficient as possible are some of the things he’s been focusing on leading into Penn’s first game against Lehigh on Sept. 19.
“I learned a great lesson from the women’s basketball coach, Mike McLaughlin,” Priore told reporters Tuesday. “He said that when you want to step in, take two steps back. And that’s what I’ve been doing since the spring time. I have all the faith [in my coordinators]. … You’ve got to let your coaches coach.”
But that doesn’t mean the head coach isn’t keeping the communication lines open with his coaches and his players.
“Coach Priore is really personable” said sophomore running back Tre Solomon, who’s recovering from a season-ending knee injury he suffered last year. “He knows us all by name, he knows what we’re all like. He’s a funny dude too, walking around, punking us sometimes.”
The players have seemed to respond well to that gregarious style mixed with moments of high intensity.
And they’re ready to try to erase the bad memories during Bagnoli’s final two years in charge and get back to the winning ways that defined most of the former coach’s tenure -- with a new man in charge.
“I believe that maybe our styles are different than in the past but I think our kids came in really, really hungry,” Priore said. “We have a proud tradition. They walk up to the office every single day and see the championship pictures on the walk up the office -- and their goal is to get on that wall.”