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St. Frances Co-Head Football Coach Henry Russell Defends Program

June 6, 2018
St. Frances Academy co-head football coach Henry Russell defended his program on the Fantasy and Reality Football Show with Ken Zalis and The NFL Chick June 3 after other programs in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association "A" conference announced they wouldn't play the Panthers next fall.

Mount St. Joseph, Calvert Hall, and McDonogh will forfeit its contests with St. Frances, which has won the past two MIAA "A" conference titles and was ranked No. 3 nationally by USA Today's experts in 2017. Loyola Blakefield's football team exited the MIAA entirely -- at least for this coming year -- after not winning a game for the second straight season in 2017.

Mount St. Joe, Calvert Hall and McDonogh all stated that safety is a concern for its players when playing St. Frances. Russell disputed that there should be any added concern, pointing out that the Gaels will face off against Good Counsel (Olney, Md.) and DeMatha Catholic High (Hyattsville, Md.), two highly regarded programs nationally that compete in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC).

"You're going to take a risk stepping on the football field, that's reality," Russell said. "St. Joe's, they're playing Good Counsel this year, who is a top 25 team in the country. They're loaded. They have big, strong kids on that team. They're scrimmaging DeMatha. If you lined up DeMatha and St. Frances' roster, you'd have a tough time telling which team is which or whose kids go to DeMatha or which kids go to St. Frances. I mean, DeMatha's a super impressive football team, and St. Joe is scrimmaging them. 

"I don't know how they can determine that playing St. Frances is more dangerous than playing Good Counsel or scrimmaging DeMatha. It just doesn't add up to me."

St. Frances will now try to fill its schedule with three new open dates; the program was able to account for Loyola's departure since it was announced months ago. Russell said that while St. Frances plays out-of-state opponents -- Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) and Bishop Sullivan (Va.) last year, and St. Joseph's Prep (Pa.) this year -- it isn't feasible to play a full national schedule. 

Every nationally regarded program aside from IMG Academy (Fla.) plays in a conference, according to Russell, who added that a national conference consisting of schools from the mid-Atlantic region doesn't exist. 

"IMG has a lot more money than St. Frances. They're traveling to California back-to-back weeks, they're traveling to Vegas, they're all over the place," Russell said. "St. Frances does not have the means to do that. If we were able to play an independent schedule and it made sense for everybody involved, including the MIAA, definitely would explore it. 

"But did Gilman outgrow the MIAA? That's the other question. Did they outgrow it? Gilman played national games. Gilman ended Don Bosco's 47-game winning streak that was the longest active winning streak in the country, and we still played in the MIAA. With scheduling, it's not just as simple as going independent and being able to get games."

Biff Poggi, Russell's co-head coach at St. Frances, won 13 "A" conference championships during 19 seasons as the head man at Gilman. Poggi and his staff, including Russell, left Gilman after the 2015 season; Poggi spent the following year as a special advisor to Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, while the rest of Poggi's staff took over St. Frances, which was struggling in the "A" conference. Poggi re-joined his staff ahead of the 2017 season.

Poggi is a hedge fund manager who is paying the scholarships for more than 40 players, while out of town players are "housed, fed and supervised in two rowhomes in nearby Canton," according to Russell allowed that the program has kids from Virginia and Wilmington, Del., but said the program's focus has been to create opportunity.

Russell mentioned that his program is sending kids to highly acclaimed academic schools. Defensive tackle Ben Amadi is heading to Georgetown, while offensive tackle Peace Addo is going to Duke.

"The cool thing about St. Frances is the mission of the school has always been to help kids get an education who may not have been afforded a private school education or a Catholic education," Russell said. "We are able to do that with a lot of kids from the area, the Baltimore area. We're able to do that with kids from [Prince Georges] County who don't have much; from Anne Arundel County, we have some kids. We do have some kids from out of state that truthfully don't have much. St. Frances is really helping change their lives."

In addition to safety concerns, rivals have also pointed to St. Frances' use of transfers on the football team. In a letter to the "Mount St. Joseph football family," Gaels head coach Rich Holzer wrote that Mount St. Joe feels "the spirit of the league Constitution, which discourages transfers for athletic purposes, is what we uphold as incongruent with other member schools." Russell disagreed.

"I just don't think that that is a fair argument to say we've been doing anything different than St. Frances has done over the past several years," Russell said. "Everybody in the league takes transfers. McDonogh's quarterback was a transfer from a school in Virginia. Calvert Hall's quarterback when they won the championship was a transfer from Good Counsel who was living Frederick, [Md.]. You can say a lot of different things, but transfers are nothing new for St. Frances."

St. Frances principal Deacon Curtis Turner implied in a Facebook post that race and class were the underlying factors leading other football programs to remove St. Frances from their schedules. 

"With the exception of our social-economic demographic, we resemble any other private school in Baltimore," Turner wrote. "But it is that difference that is driving the current dynamic in the league." 

Meanwhile, Russell tweeted "we live in a world of cowards, who teach kids to run from their problems rather than face them." 

"The tweet wasn't really directed at anybody in particular," Russell said. "I think it was kind of just at society in general and kind of the whole way this thing has played out. I really wish this was not being discussed publicly, and I think it's something that should've been discussed behind closed doors with the schools involved and the conference. It was just really kind of disappointing how everything has played out."

To hear more from Russell, listen to the full interview here.