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Biff Poggi, football coach and funder, departing St Frances Academy

The coach of one of the best football programs in the country—which he personally funded at a Black Catholic high school in Baltimore—is returning to the college ranks.

Biff Poggi, the high-powered head football coach at St Frances Academy in Baltimore, is leaving the school after four years.

He will return to an associate head coach position at the University of Michigan under Jim Harbaugh, a position he held for a year in 2016 just before his arrival at the Oblate Sisters of Providence flagship.

“This was a chance to go one last time on a really big stage, to a legendary program,” the 61-year-old Poggi told the Baltimore Sun on Saturday, adding that he desires to be closer to his daughter Mary (who will start school at UM this fall).

He will be succeeded as the Panthers’ head coach by his assistant Messay Hailemariam, who had served as head coach for several years before Poggi’s arrival.

A millionaire hedge fund manager, Poggi helped start the football program at SFA in 2008, when he served as a board member for the school and donated $60,000. (At the time, he was head coach across town at the predominantly-White Gilman School, his alma mater.)

After arriving at SFA in 2017, he poured funds into football and education alike—paying the salaries of his handpicked staff, supplementing the salaries of several teachers, and underwriting tuition and housing for dozens of student-athletes.

Poggi's program quickly became a nationally-ranked powerhouse, dominating the competition to the point that local schools, including Gilman, refused to play them, occasioning accusations of racism—SFA’s student body is ~90% Black—and forcing SFA into a more national schedule (which Poggi also helped fund).

COVID-19 interrupted the football program’s operations, which were documented by ESPN in 2018 and in an HBO docuseries in late 2020, and Poggi’s exit comes as the school approaches a return to normalcy.

Hailemariam is not phased, however.

“He’s left it better than he found it, but the goal is not to be dependent on one person,” Hailemariam told the Sun.

“I’m very confident in what I know and what I’ve learned with Biff.”

Similarly, the transition has also raised questions about funding, as Poggi’s new post requires him to “cut all ties” with SFA—including financial support.

Concerning the football program, the school provided a short statement to BCM:

“The football program at SFA is very stable and will continue to receive support from a variety of donors. We congratulate Coach Biff Poggi who will be greatly missed. The Poggi family will always hold a special place in the heart of our school community! We are sincerely grateful for all that they have done for us. We also congratulate Coach Messay Hailemariam and we look forward to watching the team grow under his leadership and direction.”

Interested parties can donate to the school here.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, in priesthood formation with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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