For the next three weeks, there will be no shortage of people calling for Jerome Allen to be fired and replaced as Penn basketball’s head coach. The reasoning is simple: With Allen at the helm over the past five and a half seasons, the Quakers have gone 63-99 and appear on their way to another below .500 season along with a third straight bottom half of the Ivy League finish.
But no matter the reasons his many detractors will provide for his ouster, there are definitely reasons to keep Allen aboard for next season. The following isn’t an opinion piece advocating for Allen but simply lays out the main factors Athletic Director Grace Calhoun will have to look into before making her final decision after the season.
Freshman Class: Every year — no matter what program you follow — the coaching staff will rave about the freshman class even if those freshmen are destined to stay on the back of the bench for the beginning of their career. When people began reporting that Penn basketball was excited about its new group of freshman for the 2014-15 season, it was easy to be skeptical. After all, the freshman class before this produced very little in their first year with arguably highest profile recruit leaving the program due to legal issues.
But this year’s class has lived up to its top billing with four players that are legitimate contributors to a Quakers squad in desperate need of depth. Sam Jones has made his name as a sharpshooter, draining three-pointers in bulk and helping create instant offense off the bench. Mike Auger brings a strong affinity for grabbing rebounds while adding a few highlight dunks and firm post play in his freshman campaign. Darnell Foreman brings energy and good on-ball defense while soaking up minutes at point guard.
While those three have impressed at times, guard Antonio Woods has been the gem of the bunch, moving into the starting lineup a few weeks ago. He brings an athleticism to his game that few freshmen have had in recent Penn classes and shows the ability to be a long-term solution at point guard.
All four of Penn’s top freshmen have been inconsistent — they are freshmen after all — but all of this shows that Allen and his assistants finally got recruiting right. This class lays a foundation for future teams with clear pieces to the puzzle on board.
Recruiting Class: While this year’s class has had success (at least relative to other classes), next year’s class is Allen’s best by all accounts. Point guard Jake Silpe, small forward Jule Brown, sharp shooting guard Jackson Donahue, forward Colin McManus and guard Tyler Hamilton bring a lot to the table and fill some major needs for the Red and Blue. Silpe appears to be the sure-handed guard to take over the point, which would allow Penn to utilize Woods and junior Tony Hicks off the ball within the Quakers’ three-guard offense. The other four also come in with a level of talent that surpasses most of Allen’s previous classes.
All of this comes to the point that, by all appearances, Allen has finally gotten recruiting right. No more of the me-first prospects that flame out early. No more of the first-year guys with attitude issues that break apart the locker room. Being around the current squad, the atmosphere is legitimately better and lighter even if the wins aren’t more plentiful. Adding in a new class of team-first guys that fit Allen’s system can only help advance the Quakers further towards their goals while replenishing the depth the squad lost when over 10 players left last year due to graduation or off-the-court issues.
The freshmen aren’t the only ones progressing: Despite the current 2-5 Ivy record and three-game Ivy losing streak, there have been some signs of improvement from the current roster from certain individuals. Jones and Woods were detailed above but a couple non-freshmen are also progressing in ways that bode well for the future.
Sophomore guard Matt Howard lost a crucial portion of his freshman year with a leg injury. As Allen is apt to point out, the sophomore is essentially a freshman in terms of basketball development. With inconsistency from other key scorers, Howard has taken on a role in recent weeks of go-to scorer, finally pairing his athleticism with the killer instinct to drive and create that Allen and his staff have tried to coax out of him. Howard is looking like a piece of the future, a shooting guard who can not only make shots but also drive the ball and make things happen off the dribble. If you add a point guard like Silpe to the picture, you have a rotation of guys like Hicks, Woods and Howard that can be more efficiently utilized in Penn’s scheme.
Outside of Howard, there is senior Greg Louis, who has become a factor in recent weeks in the post. I know what you’re thinking: “Louis isn’t coming back next year since he’s a senior.” Not necessarily. Louis missed his entire freshman year and is eligible to return for another season if he so desires. Another year of development (Allen has pointed out many times that Louis, despite being a senior leader on the team, had played fewer than 40 games in his college career before this year) would do wonders for him since he is finally flashing the potential that drew him to the program.
This is not your parent’s Penn basketball/Stop comparing Penn to Harvard: I took a Valentine’s Day stroll through Penn basketball’s fact book and uncovered some pretty unseemly stats based on Penn’s recent struggles. (Shameless self-promotion here.) It’s hard to avoid: Penn is at a low point compared to nearly any era of the program in recent memory.
But at the same time, this isn’t Steve Bilsky’s or Tony Price’s Penn basketball. Heck, this isn’t even the same Penn basketball with which Jerome Allen starred on the court. The program now has a lot more competitors other than Princeton and has to deal with a changing NCAA basketball climate. Harvard used to be two easy wins for Penn during the Quakers’ best seasons and now the Crimson are top competitors with a top-notch program. Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia and Cornell all used to be schools that Penn could simply walk all over and beat nine times out of 10. But with each of the programs improving and some, notably Columbia, playing its best in decades, the Ivy League’s overall level of play is much higher than it has been historically.
People say Penn should be Harvard, but Penn does not have Tommy Amaker. In the recent past (look at the last two coaching hires), the Red and Blue have not been willing to shell out the money needed to bring home a coach with an extensive track record like Amaker and have settled on cheaper and younger hires. Younger and cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean worse (Fran Dunphy was just an assistant coach without head coaching experience prior to 1989).
This isn’t to say that the recent losing should become the norm. It absolutely cannot because with the facilities that Penn has along with the history and location of the program, Penn can be a consistent contender in the right circumstances. It just needs to be said that Penn will not be winning the Ivy League every single season and making it far in the NCAA Tournament, no matter how good a coach you have. Even Harvard has a clear ceiling of the Sweet 16.
Contract: According to most accounts, Allen has two years left on his contract at a non-trivial sum of money per season. If Grace Calhoun is gung-ho about taking out Allen and is dedicated to finding someone else to turn the program around, she still has to navigate through a large buyout.
Face it, money doesn’t grow on trees and if Penn wants someone else to take over the program, it will not only need to pay Allen to leave but also need to prove to a new coach (who will also get a nice contract) that Allen’s buyout wouldn’t handicap the resources available to men’s basketball moving forward.
Yes, there will be alumni who will help foot the bill. But these are the same alums that are counted on to donate in other areas and may be less likely to do so after helping with a buyout. In other words, this money isn’t going to come out of nowhere. If you buy out Jerome Allen, you will likely be taking money out of Penn Athletics in general in a non-superficial way.
The athletic department is reliant on gifts from alums (it doesn’t get as much money from the University as it used to) and allocating your resources efficiently is essential to keeping the department afloat. Calhoun may determine that she wants a new coach but simply doesn’t have the resources to make a change, sign someone new and not make insufferable cuts elsewhere.
Alternatives: If you are going to fire Jerome Allen, you are going to need to replace him with someone who is going to return the program to your desired level of success. You can’t whiff on three straight coaching hires and expect sustained interest in the program. While many fans don’t like Allen, he may be better than the alternative.
There are a plethora of potential coaching candidates thrown out on Twitter and message boards all the time, from California assistant Yanni Hufnagel to former Cornell head coach/Penn assistant coach Steve Donahue to Penn alum and Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole. Each of those guys have their strengths and flaws, enough that you could go on for another 1,000 words. Each of them also have their salaries they want and the possibility of other schools approaching them.
So another major step will be evaluating which, if any, of these potential hires would be better than Allen. Tying back to Allen’s contract, some of Penn’s possible targets may be out of the Quakers’ price range, especially once you factor in a buyout.
Conclusion: If you looked at Twitter and message boards exclusively, you would believe that Allen’s firing is a foregone conclusion. But it isn’t. This is a complex decision with a myriad of factors that even go beyond this 1,800-word piece. When the buzzer sounds after Penn’s season-ending matchup with Princeton, the pressure will be on Calhoun to make this crucial decision. When you look at the full picture, it is easier to see how both sides make sense and how Allen could be the coach come November 2015.