It is ironic that Steve Donahue has become our new head coach.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with the choice. After all, this has to be his dream job. A Philly guy with Quaker DNA who has a deep respect, if not love, for the hoop traditions of the city, returns as leader to the campus that once nurtured his coaching skills as a young assistant. In fact, he was so enamored with his new position that in his introductory press conference he said, “This place is one that has everything I ever wanted in an institution. I am a Big 5 coach. There are only five of us. To imagine that I am one of them, at this institution, is just incredible.”
A man with big time ACC head coaching experience has in effect taken a step “backwards” from a power conference (some would even say “the” power hoops conference) to the Ivy League. A move, until Tommy Amaker’s shift to Cambridge from the Big 10, was heretofore unthinkable. His less than stellar stint at Boston College notwithstanding, Donahue has nevertheless proven over the course of his career that that he can effectively recruit, mentor and build a program from the bottom up to become a powerhouse.
What’s more, he pulled off this magic trick in a frigid, isolated town at a school that previously had virtually no significant basketball success. Some say that his great achievements at Cornell were merely a fluke, but you can’t fluke your way to the Sweet Sixteen with poor leadership and hastily assembled parts. The coach using lessons he learned on the Palestra sidelines thus silenced decades of skeptics by demonstrating that you could indeed build a consistent winner in the Ivy League that didn’t begin with a “P.”
Thus it is now somewhat paradoxical then that this very talent for success helped topple the powerful Penn-Princeton duopoly and eventually lead to the rise of Crimson basketball. (“Hey, if those fools in Ithaca can do it, why can’t we?”) Now our new coach has been tasked with resurrecting the very program that he inadvertently helped deconstruct. The question of course for Penn fans is can he do it?
Personally, I think he can.
Penn basketball has been badly damaged to the point of irrelevance. Our championship banners hang from the Cathedral’s rafters like the sad monuments of a now extinct civilization. The misguided experiments with the prior two coaching regimes were abject failures. During this time of turmoil in Philly, the league and its balance of power has since shifted north. It is no longer the same place, in terms of both talent and parity, which Donahue left behind several years ago.
Fortunately, the Palestra locker room has not been left bare. The Quakers return almost all of their experienced players, plus a substantial, if not reasonably talented, freshman class. There is size and depth at just about every position. The backcourt of Antonio Woods, Darnell Foreman, Matt Howard along with heralded freshman Jake Silpe, could be the deepest in the league. True the sudden departure of Tony Hicks (which I cannot possibly speculate on) will hurt, but I think Donahue knows what he wants and Tony probably isn’t his kind of guy anyway. The senior’s absence will definitely be of benefit down the road as it will free up important minutes for the freshmen – the true future of Penn hoops. Thus I see a Hicks-less backcourt as a valuable investment in experience, not a short-term deficiency.
The frontcourt is also loaded with a healthy Darien Nelson-Henry, sophomore forward Mike “the Manimal” Auger, freshmen Max Rothschild and Collin McManus as well as a substantial bench. Still, we’ve all seen this before, most notably during Jerome Allen’s second full year as head coach. Despite having many potent pieces to work with, the team somehow horribly underachieved. Can they protect they ball? Have they learned not to foul on every defensive possession? Will they get into a 15- point hole five minutes into the game? It will therefore require a lot more than pure talent to begin restoring Penn basketball to its former glory. This is where Steve Donahue’s 25 years of experience as a seasoned D1 coach will finally give the Quakers what they have desperately needed these past eight years—an identity.
Every good business knows exactly who they are. It’s their brand. The same is true for Ivy hoops. Harvard? They’re consistently loaded with talented, athletic role players and a deep bench occasionally obtained by dubious recruiting tactics. Yale? Top half finishes for the last 150 years but still no cigar. Columbia? Annually scares the shit out of high major programs on national television as a nimble German Kraftwerk fan shoots the lights out from behind a variety of screens designed by a Texas bred offensive guru. Princeton? Follicularly challenged coach draws up soporific backdoor cuts in the quixotic hope of lulling the opposition into advanced states of catatonia. Cornell? Bad basketball. Voila.
We too used to know who we were: run and gun, disciplined ball handling, stanch defense. This winning pedigree has somehow devolved over the past few years into dysfunctional roundball chaos: incessant turnovers, lack of discipline both on and off the court, mind numbing decisions, endless fouls. “I don’t know who we are,” Jerome Allen was heard to say at more than one press conference. I liked Jerome, but I always found this honest and forthright comment to be particularly distressing. This is because if he doesn’t know what his team is, how can his players possibly know? Therefore, more than anything else, a mature, healing and stabilizing personality is now desperately needed in West Philadelphia.
To my recollection, beyond stellar basketball, the most salient thing that consistently emerged during those giddy championship years in Ithaca was the sense of family those Big Red teams emanated. The players lived together, ate together and spent their free time together. (Yes, winning does indeed cure all but, unless you’re Kentucky or Louisville, you cannot possibly win without first having togetherness.) Since arriving at Penn, Steve has been a constant presence on campus and has said and done all of the “right things.”
In September, he had his team help move in the freshmen. He regularly cheers on any and all Quaker teams that are competing from football to woman’s field hockey and he has been completely “hands on” in actively changing the overall culture of Quaker hoops. This staff has therefore enlisted the quants from the Wharton School to analyze shot selection, implemented sport science into both player nutrition and workouts, returned (a la Fran Dunphy) to recruiting aggressively in the Philadelphia-New Jersey metro area and, along with new Athletic Director Grace Calhoun, has begun rebranding the team’s uniforms. (He even personally signed my annual donation “Thank you” letter this year. Something, regrettably, Jerome never did. In fact, he never even sent one.) Most importantly, the players look visibly much more relaxed than in years past. The question now is when will all of these positive changes eventually translate into titles?
This year, most people are picking Penn to finish somewhere in the middle-bottom of the pack. Considering the Cialis-infused Crimson are having a down year and no one else looks completely dominant, I think most Penn fans were originally hoping for a .500 record. However, now with Tony Hicks gone that appears somewhat unlikely. How our new coach handles this initial adversity also could be very telling. Regardless, it will be fun to watch the team evolve. Although few Quaker loyalists would probably admit it, when the 2010 Big Red and Jerome’s erstwhile squad were rapidly heading in opposite directions several years ago, many looked longingly towards Steve Donahue as “the one that got away.” Well, he’s here now and it’s finally time for him to begin using all of his prodigious reconstructive powers to make his dream job our championship reality.
I believe in Steve.
Stay Red & Blue my friends,