A year before Bob Benson arrived at Penn as the football team’s new defensive coordinator, his brother Tom temporarily lived a couple of blocks from Franklin Field at the old Penn Tower. Frank was very sick with throat cancer, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Bob said, was one of the only places in the world where he could possibly be saved.
As you can imagine, it was an impossibly trying time for the Benson family. But for the four weeks Tom lived at Penn Tower and was treated at HUP, some of their pain was eased by Penn football coach Ray Priore, who went to Tom’s room on the 16th floor often, packed up his dirty laundry, and brought it to the equipment room at Franklin Field to wash.
Tom ended up passing away not long after his arrival at Penn — but Bob Benson will never forget Priore’s heartfelt gesture to a dying man and his family.
“I just think it speaks volumes to Ray’s caring,” Benson said. “He’s a family guy … just a really kind man. When he offered me the job here, I took it in about 30 seconds.”
Few people know Priore as well as Benson, who worked with him on the coaching staff at the University of Albany when both were getting their start in the mid-1980s and rejoined him at Penn in 2015. And in those three decades in between, he’s seen Priore do so many other things that show how important his family and friends are, remarking that, above all else, “he cares about people.”
In many ways, that’s one of the biggest reasons why Priore has remained at Penn for 30 years, rising through the ranks until he eventually took over as head coach ahead of the 2015 season, when he promptly led the Quakers to a share of the Ivy League championship.
“I had opportunities to leave,” Priore said. “But the folks here at Penn, the alumni are phenomenal. And [thinking about] uprooting my family, I always said, ‘Football’s football — why do you need to go somewhere else? You can still chase a dream here.’ And coaching has been great here.”
Family has certainly always been a constant for Priore at Penn. His daughter Jenna, now a junior in the college, has been going to Quaker games since she was seven months old, serving as a water girl when she was younger and, more recently, as a special assistant to her father, bringing him his headset before every game and helping to run the program’s involvement with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which brought them 5-year-old team captain Vhito DeCapira, an inspiring young cancer patient.
And Priore’s older brother, Chuck, served with him on Penn’s staff from 1992 to 1999 with the two siblings commuting to work every day together from their homes in New Jersey and also sharing the joy of winning three Ivy League championships during that stretch.
So when you look at Priore’s decision to remain at Penn for so long through the lens of family, it makes perfect sense.
“Sometimes people change jobs just to change jobs,” said Chuck Priore, now the head coach at Stony Brook University. “He was comfortable, he enjoyed it, he had success and he continued to get better and took advantage of the opportunity right in house.”
For Ray Priore, having a brother who’s also a college football head coach has been a unique and rewarding experience. Every morning at around 5:30 a.m., when he’s driving across the Ben Franklin Bridge on the way to work and Chuck is riding on the elliptical, they have long chats on the phone about their respective programs.
Of course by now, they’ve been talking about football for more than 40 years — one of the many sports that bound them from childhood into adulthood.
“Most of our family activities revolved around athletics,” Chuck said. “There really wasn’t summer vacations. It was summer baseball, winter hockey, fall football, spring baseball — that’s what we pretty much did as a family.”
Growing up in Long Island, their father was their first football coach in the local Pop Warner league. The two brothers were then part of the same football program at both Maria Regina High School and the University of Albany with Ray a freshman while Chuck was a senior. That made it easier for their dad and younger brother, Frank, to watch them both play. But even as the two eventually went their separate ways, their family members still found a way to go to almost every game.
Last Saturday, for instance, their brother and father managed to go to Franklin Field to watch Penn beat Central Connecticut State 28-16 in the afternoon before driving down to Maryland to cheer on Stony Brook’s 27-20 win over Towson in the evening.
“You can’t get married in the fall in our family,” Ray said. “These are family events. The falls are very, very special.”
Because he’s so close to his family, leaving the comforts of New York to come to Penn in 1987 wasn’t easy. Priore was very young when he took the job as the Quakers’ assistant linebacker coach, moving to Philly and living next to Franklin Field on the top floor of the Dunning Coaches’ Center. He called it a “whole new world” and he never expected to stay at Penn as long as he did.
But Priore grew to love the university and remained with the program even as his bosses changed, first working under Ed Zubrow and then Gary Steele and then finally Al Bagnoli, who returns to Franklin Field for the first time as a visiting coach for Saturday's game vs. Columbia (3 p.m.).
And he learned different things from each one — particularly organization from Zubrow, defensive strategy from Steele and how to effectively delegate responsibility from Bagnoli. Of course, when he finally landed his “dream job” as head coach, he put his own spin on the position, using his determination and family focus to galvanize a program that had fallen on hard times in the two previous seasons and win Ivy League Coach of the Year honors.
Through his first eight Ivy League games, he’s already beaten every conference opponent, becoming the third-fastest coach in Ivy League history to complete the sweep. Only Zubrow (7-0 in 1986) and Yale’s Jordan Olivar (7-0) did it quicker.
“I think Penn made a great choice with Ray,” Benson said. “It’s very rare someone would stay at an institution or place of employment for 30 years. I think it’s a credit to him and his belief in Penn that he stayed here. That’s the story for me — his belief in the University of Pennsylvania. There’s not much of that around. That’s pretty remarkable in my opinion.”
Benson added that one of Priore’s best attributes, aside from his kindness, is his work ethic and drive, pointing out that winning last year’s Ivy championship only made him want more titles. And Chuck said that his brother’s commitment to Penn might just be what keeps the Quakers on top this year and for many more to come.
“You can really tell recruits, ‘This place is an awesome place, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here for 30 years,’” Chuck said. “I think he has a great handle of what Penn can do for a student-athlete.”
Priore certainly takes recruiting seriously, doing his best to create special relationships with everyone he brings into the program, from the time they first step foot into campus to long after they leave. According to Benson, Priore is on the phone or computer “every day” talking to many of the alums who passed through the program over the past 30 years — men who learned about football but even more about life.
“The most important part of coaching in my opinion is that we are teachers and motivators,” Priore said. “We work at a kid’s game but so many life lessons can be taught on the field. I think we all as coaches are very blessed to have that opportunity to impact so many kids’ lives.
“When the kids come in, I say to them, ‘I have one daughter but I have 110 sons.’ You want to treat these kids as if they’re your own.”