If you can’t beat ‘em, blackball ‘em. That’s among the morals of the story of the dissolution of Baltimore’s prep football scene, which is now complete: St. Frances Academy, a historically non-athletic and financially strapped institution which is suddenly among the best football schools in the country and fiscally flush thanks to a huge cash windfall from the new head coach’s personal coffers, announced that it is pulling the squad out of the local Catholic league. The move, which came under great duress, was first reported by the Baltimore Sun.
The SFA announcement comes a day after administrators from a league rival, Archbishop Spalding High School, announced they would no longer play St. Frances. Spalding was the fifth scheduled 2018 opponent to publicly declared it was bailing on St. Frances
The East Baltimore school was founded in 1828 as the Saint Frances School for Colored Girls and originally intended for the children of slaves, and has always had a minority-heavy enrollment. Football success, and the related financial excess, is brand new, however: SFA had no football team until 2008, when the program was started with an earmarked $60,000 donation from a Baltimore schoolboy football legend named Biff Poggi. At the time of the donation, Poggi was coaching the then-dominant football team at Gilman School, an old-money, blue-blood magnet where he won league titles in 13 of his 19 years.
Poggi left Gilman after the 2015 season admitting he had a falling out with Gilman brass, a dispute which sources with ties to the school say came over his desire to turn the football program into one with national prominence. According to those sources, Poggi volunteered to use his own money to bring in outside-the-Beltway talent to Gilman in hopes of getting the added renown, but the school’s community preferred that he take his youth football fantasies and big bucks elsewhere.
St. Frances welcomed Poggi as head coach last year, and the new school let him unleash his financial faculties unfettered. Poggi was identified in a profile by the Catholic Review, a newsletter of the Baltimore Archdiocese, as a hedge fund manager. In that piece, SFA officials said Poggi personally paid for the tuition of “more than 40” football players, at around $10,000 a year, and also reported that “out of town” athletes were given room and board in rowhouses in the city’s wholly enviable Canton neighborhood. St. Frances went 13-0 and outscored opponents 534-61 while winning the Catholic league title and finishing the season ranked No. 1 in Baltimore and the state of Maryland, and No. 4 in the country according to USA Today.
Teams who found themselves on the business end of the 2017 carnage have been dropping off future SFA schedules ever since. First, Loyola Blakefield, whupped 65-0 by SFA, announced it was leaving the conference because it was no longer competitive. Other Catholic schools, who SFA had clearly put the fear of god into with similar gridiron trouncings, followed Loyola’s lead, generally citing “safety” concerns as an excuse. Last week, SFA fought back. SFA’s co-head coach Henry Russell tweeted that the Baltimore bailers were “cowards, who teach kids to run from their problems rather than face them.” Then SFA’s principal, Deacon Curtis Turner, went on Facebook to assert that everybody who’d dropped off the schedule was part of a racist conspiracy to “destroy” his school.
Their tirades didn’t curtail the fleeing, however. Spalding bailed on Wednesday, with its president, Kathleen Mahar, issuing an unintentionally hilarious statement to the Sun saying her school, which got whupped 42-7 by SFA last season, would no longer play the burgeoning powerhouse for “logistical reasons only.” Ostensibly, Mahar considers picking up the pieces after getting the crap beaten out of you a logistical matter.
So now SFA’s whole next season is up in the air. Maxpreps, a clearinghouse for schoolboy football information, had a full 11-game 2018 schedule listed for SFA only last week, including Florida’s perennial national powerhouse IMG. According to a source with ties to SFA football, none of those opponents—in or out of town—remain confirmed as of today.
The Sun story outlining the latest school to join the mass fleeing did not mention Poggi’s bountiful and bizarre financial backing of the SFA program he heads up, or that he now recruits nationally and even internationally—he’ll have a 6-foot-5, 285-pound defensive tackle from France on his team next year. Aggressive recruiting has been a staple of the pretty much all Catholic league’s athletic programs forever, but Poggi’s pushed things beyond anything SFA’s rivals have ever seen. As one Maryland schoolboy football source put it, something had to be done because, “Biff’s crossed an imaginary line!”
Poggi went on Baltimore radio station WBAL and discussed coming up with a plan to just schedule teams from outside his city. He didn’t accuse anybody of cowardice or racism, but politely made it clear that his hometown’s not a pleasant place for his team right now.
“We’re going to play an independent schedule this year and we’re going to continue to play an independent schedule after that, because that’s what’s best for our kids and we do appreciate the people in the league,” Poggi said, according to a Sun transcript. “I don’t fully agree with all of it. I agree with some of it.”