Can too much charity be a bad thing? The Baltimore prep sports scene seems to be on the verge of unraveling with the emergence of a parochial powerhouse, funded by a head coach with apparently massive financial means and the desire to make schoolboy football the focus of his philanthropy.
On Tuesday, administrators at Mount Saint Joseph High School announced the school was dropping intracity rival St. Frances Academy (SFA) from next season’s football schedule. Kraig Loovis, the Mount Saint Joseph athletic director, and football coach Rich Holzer released a woeful and rather whiny statement saying their school could no longer compete with SFA.
“After much deliberation, there is significant agreement that St. Frances has moved their program to a level that we are not interested in competing at or with,” read the Mount Saint Joseph statement. “If their goal is to be a national power competing against like schools, we wish them success, but that is not our goal nor our mission in athletics.”
Last season, St. Frances went 13-0 and outscored opponents 534-61 while finishing as the No. 4 ranked team in national polls, No. 1 in Baltimore and the state of Maryland rankings, and winning the MIAA A Conference championship. The closest game SFA had all year came in a 37-22 win over Mount Saint Joseph in October.
Mount Saint Joseph isn’t the first league school rattled by SFA’s greatness. After SFA whupped rival Loyola Blakefield, 65-0, Loyola announced it was leaving the conference. SFA wasn’t named in Loyola’s goodbye letter, but might as well have been.
“As the talent pool continues to rapidly expand within the MIAA ‘A’ Conference, we have carefully considered how this affects our student-athletes in a variety of ways — most importantly, their safety,” read the announcement from Anthony Day, Loyola’s president.
SFA’s rise to national prominence came in the school’s first season under head coach and Baltimore prep football legend Biff Poggi.
Poggi did more than merely coach the St. Frances football team, however; he also bankrolled it.
Poggi owns a financial service firm based in the city, Samuel James LTD. A report in the February issue of the Catholic Review, a newsletter of the Baltimore Archdiocese, identified him as a “hedge fund manager” and said that he personally pays for “more than 40 football players” to attend SFA. The piece put the school’s entire enrollment at 172 students, and said “out of town” players are given room and board in rowhouses in Baltimore’s trendy Canton neighborhood.
Asked why he chose to turn St. Frances into a national football juggernaut, Poggi told the Review: “It educates children, some of whom are virtually homeless, aren’t eating properly, or living in areas where there is great danger. Let’s take the game they love, and the game we love, and be really good at it.”
The Catholic school charges about $10,000 per year per student (tuition is $9,150, plus fees of $700-$950), meaning he’s in for nearly half a million bucks per year, even before we get to the players’ housing and meals.
Poggi had been a Baltimore version of Buddy Garrity, the car dealer/high school football benefactor from the Friday Night Lights TV series, for years before coming to SFA. Poggi had also self-funded the football program at another old line Baltimore prep, Gilman School, winning 13 league titles in 19 years, and gotten godly amounts of attention for his deeds there: The program he built at Gilman, a school founded in 1898, was the focus of a 2004 bestseller, Season of Life, from author Jeffrey Marx (disclosure: Marx is a longtime friend).
But things had turned sour by 2015, when Poggi, who was a himself a Gilman alum and had played football at the school, left his coaching job there amid a rumored dispute with administrators over the prominence the team had acquired on campus. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun after his departure from Gilman, Poggi admitted there was “some tension” with the folks who ran his former school, and likened his relationship with the headmaster to that of an NFL coach and a team owner.
Poggi spent the 2016 football season as a special teams assistant on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at the University of Michigan—where his son, Henry Poggi, was a running back—then returned to his hometown in 2017 to resume high school coaching at St. Frances. The school is old, founded in 1828 as the Saint Frances School for Colored Girls, intended by the Catholic church as a place where the children of slaves could get an education, and has always had a focus on minority students. Football is relatively new, however: There wasn’t even a SFA football team until 2008, and the program only got started then because Poggi, even while coaching Gilman, donated $60,000 to SFA specifically for football. When Poggi left Gilman in 2016, he shifted his entire staff to SFA to watch things over while he spent a year in Ann Arbor. So upon his return to Baltimore he had what was essentially a turn-key football operation waiting for him. SFA played Gilman early in the season; Poggi’s new team whupped his old one, 50-0. SFA and Gilman had a rematch in the MIAA A championship game in November; Poggi’s new team whupped his old one again, 47-7.
While bowing out of the 2018 game with SFA, Mount St. Joseph’s athletic director and head football coach cited Poggi’s reliance on “transfers for athletic purposes,” a practice which the Mount Saint Joseph brass described as violating the “spirit of the league constitution.” Poggi’s habits, given his instant success at SFA, aren’t expected to change. So there’s a feeling among schools in the area that SFA will have trouble finding any opponents in Baltimore.
St. Frances coaches have told people ESPN is producing a movie based on the football program’s ascension under Poggi, and ESPN confirmed that an E:60 piece on SFA is in the works.
I spoke with an administrator from one Maryland school that as of now is still scheduled to play SFA next season. He told me that he thinks pretty soon only similarly deep-pocketed nationally acclaimed programs—such as St. John’s College High School, a Washington, D.C., prep that is subsidized by alum and Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, and IMG Academy of Bradenton, Fla.—will agree to play SFA. (St. Frances and IMG were supposed to meet last season in a game scheduled for broadcast on ESPN, but the contest was canceled because of Hurricane Irma.) And though the administrator allowed that “there are worse ways to spend money than helping kids,” he admitted being tired of hearing about Poggi’s do-gooding.
“It just so happens,” he said, “that all the kids who need help happen to be 6-foot-5, 280 pounds and play football.”