It had to go off perfectly.
The hiring of Steve Donahue as Penn’s next head coach was the second major decision that M. Grace Calhoun had to make since coming on as Penn’s athletic director, and it will prove to be – for better or worse – the defining decision of her tenure. And thus, everything had to be perfect.
After all, people had their doubts. Former coach Jerome Allen had left the fan base with a bad taste in its mouth, from his questionable hiring by former athletic director Steve Bilsky, to the questionable manner in which he was dismissed by Calhoun just weeks ago.
In the same way that people surrounding the program feared that the administration had done its due diligence, those same people had a wealth of questions about Donahue. To the naysayers, the pros – his years as a Penn assistant, his three-year run of Ivy League dominance that included him leading a Cornell team to the Sweet 16 – are overshadowed by the cons.
Donahue’s time at Boston College did not go well, resulting in his firing after four years at the school. And in that time, the Ivy League has changed. Many believe that his Cornell squads would not win the league at this time. The strides made by other programs were immense, and there was a big question mark as to whether he would be able to adjust his idea of what the Ancient Eight truly is, and therein lead Penn to the college basketball promised land yet again.
It had to go off perfectly, and it did (besides the microphone situation, which we’ll get to). Donahue’s introductory press conference took place on the Palestra court, where Harvard had cut down the nets just days before, and where the fans and friends in attendance hoped to see Penn do the same. Calhoun immediately hung a lantern on the thorough process by which Donahue became Penn’s next head coach, including an outside firm vetting at least 19 names, 15 of which were former or current Division I head coaches, as well as a five-and-a-half hour interview between Donahue and Calhoun. She spoke glowingly of Donahue’s traits, not just as a basketball coach, but as a man.
And when Donahue took to the microphone, he said all the right things – words that this committee who selected him knew he would have to say. He spoke of lessons learned from his hard time at Boston College, about how the Ivy League has in fact changed, and how every decision that he plans to make will have only one goal in mind – to better the Penn basketball program.
At the end of the day, none of this should come as a surprise. Again, Calhoun knew she had this decision to make, and she wasn’t going to allow any kinks in the fabric. Donahue has done this rodeo before as well. He is exactly who Calhoun wanted to be the face of Penn basketball.
But what sold me on Donahue, despite having not watched much of his teams’ games since his time at Cornell, were the little things. The microphone that the media was passing around made it hard to hear their questions, so after a few, he told reporters to stop using it, and he restated the questions so that the audience could hear before answering them himself. When the Daily Pennsylvanian’s Riley Steele asked a question, rather than just providing his answer, he had Steele stand up, and Donahue revealed a green tie tucked away in his suit coat, after ultimately deciding on his red and blue one instead. And after the press conference, rather than start doing one-on-one interviews immediately, he asked reporters to wait a moment as he went and gave a hug to a loved one first.
What became clear in those moments is that Donahue is a caring, understanding and loving individual who has his priorities established. And the people and things that he loves are at the top.
Donahue’s most off-the-cuff comment came at the beginning of his press conference, when he took a moment before saying, “I’m going to try not to get emotional, but in this building, looking out at your faces, it’s not going to be easy.”
His reverence for the building and for the Red and Blue was clear in the same way that it was in those other moments of clarity on Tuesday.
Donahue remarked that, even at Boston College, he would always check in on how Penn did on Friday and Saturday nights. Now, he – and Penn – will have to search no longer.