A letter to Grace Calhoun

Car RadioDear Dr. Calhoun,

I have seen a lot of Penn Basketball over my lifetime. Thus I must say Dave Zeitlin’s great piece in the Pennsylvania Gazette about the 2005 Penn-Princeton game, filled me with much wistful melancholy.

First, a confession: I was more than 100 miles away from the Palestra on game day.  Instead of being in the stands, I was sitting in my car on that cold, rainy night in Rockaway Beach Queens near JFK Airport listening to the Princeton broadcast as it faded in and out across my car radio. Unimpeded by the tall buildings of Manhattan and beamed over a frigid New York Bay, I knew from years of experience that this secluded landmark could adequately receive a reasonable but faint signal from the New Jersey hinterlands. To get to my vantage point I took a 20-mile detour on my way home from work.  If that’s not fandom I don’t know what is.

Today, the idea of not being able to instantly punch up the score or even watch the game on my phone seems almost quaint, but the first generation iPhone, with all its app power, was then still more than two years away.   As I strained to listen, I heard the Princeton student broadcasters convulse with delight, as the favored Tigers buried Penn before halftime. Disgusted, and angry at myself for driving so far afield to listen to a basketball game, I turned the ignition key and headed back to Gotham. It wasn’t until the next morning when I heard what actually transpired.

There is no need for me to recap the details. Mr. Zeitlin has done an excellent job of chronicling the outcome of the game for the interested reader. Yet, after watching the video clips of screaming fans and reading the interviews with the former players of that wondrous comeback, I felt strangely sullen and empty.  After some reflection,

I realized what was bothering me was the prior relevance the Quaker hoops program has had for generations of students and alumni.  For over forty years, this “Pennstitution” has always been an irreplaceable source of pride and, to many, an essential part of our college experience.  However, given the pathetic state of the current varsity team, I assure you this relevance has all but disappeared.  A mostly empty Palestra on game days is all you need to see that I am correct.  Even this week’s Daily Pennsylvanian unabashedly agrees. Through a series of poor decisions by your predecessors, the Penn Basketball “brand” has been severely damaged, perhaps irreparably so.  Still the sport, more than any other on campus, continues to be a significant part of our lives both during and after college.  Crazy, pensive, disillusioned hoop fan hyperbole you say? Here is the link to the Ivy League Basketball Message Board. Notice that Penn fans have left over 56,000 messages on over 4,300 topics. This is almost six times the number of messages left by the next closest schools. Translation: There are legions of people who still care deeply about what happens each winter inside The Cathedral–but for how long?

Every few weeks, I receive a “Penn Basketball Memories” email from the Athletic Department.  In it, as I’m sure you are aware, are the musings of former players and students as they recount glorious moments in Quaker basketball history.  It is a fitting title since there is no longer anything to see or root for.  The Ivy League schedule has abundantly shown that this team is no longer competitive within its own conference. Embarrassing blowouts to frontrunning Harvard and Yale as well as a disheartening loss to a recently depleted Brown squad, all at home, is ample proof.  The level of play, which used to be so elegant, now sometimes rivals that of a high school team; not one that is one of the most accomplished in NCAA history.  Since our last championship in 2007, the team has mostly maintained its status quo of poor play. Along the way there has been discernible dysfunction, insubordination, puzzling season-ending injuries and several players of poor moral fiber. There has also been no discernible growth in skill and many, including me, would say that this season there has even been some regression. The coaching staff has managed to lose in the exact same fashion with players conscripted by the former coach as well as those that they have recruited themselves.

In short, the names and faces all change, but unfortunately the disappointing, and often disastrous, results remain the same.  What’s more, we have forever lost two entire generations of alumni supporters who have never seen Penn win. Is this the type of athletic program you want to represent the University of Pennsylvania?

Please understand that I am not one of those whacked-out fans who achingly yearns for the past and all its glory.  (Personally I’m shocked, yet gratified nonetheless, that the Penn-Princeton duopoly lasted as long as it did). On the contrary, I’ve always made it a point to live in the moment and welcome the challenges of the future. Regardless, times change and every person, enterprise or technology must continue to evolve or risk being left behind. Penn Basketball has already become a car radio in an iPhone world and unless we start evolving,  “Penn Basketball Memories” is all we’ll ever have.

Stay Red and Blue my friends,

The AQ

11 thoughts on “A letter to Grace Calhoun”

  1. One might conclude that the “case” Mr. Tydings attempted to build for the return of Coach Allen failed to convince The AQ. I imagine Ms. Calhoun preferred to give the iconic player another season to turn things around, especially since the lame duck Bilsky took no action after his retirement announcement. A coaching search begun in July might not have produced a long term solution, but might well have resulted in a season of disappointment not much better than the one in which the Quakers find themselves now. The recent behavior of Tony Hicks, at best “unsportsmanlike” and at worst “classless,” is evidence of a program slipping away from the Coach. After last year’s criminal issues is it not fair to expect that the Coach would place particular emphasis on discouraging conduct that might further tarnish the basketball program in the eyes of the Penn community and the League?

  2. Steven did a good job in stating a number of understandable and logical reasons for keeping Coach Allen.

    Unfortunately, the game-by-game and season-by-season results along with the limited in-season and between-season growth of the players make for a situation that continues to anger and frustrate large portions of the loyal alumni fan base on the message board while leaving many non-message board alumni and present students indifferent to the once proud team.

    There have been a number of missed opportunities for this coach and team to build on momentum that it is hard to sell the idea that this year’s class will improve significantly.

    At this point, Penn can only really hope to be the 5th best team in the Ivies over the next few weeks and years. If the team did that by playing inspired consistent basketball, that might be a reason to consider keeping the coach. However, at this moment, Penn is the only team with a downward trend heading into the last three weekends due to blowout losses to Harvard, Columbia, Yale and depleted last-place Brown.

    While several teams will lose important players next year and Penn’s position may rise, it is difficult to think that the coach has the ability to have this team rebound over the long-term since he does not appear to be capable of teaching his players to be disciplined athletes for an entire season.

    The Administration needs to look at the long-term and see that this program is sinking and taking school spirit, and not to mention athletic dontaions, down. Dr. Calhoun needs to make that part of the Univesity aware that there has got to be a coach or assistant coach out there who has the ability to recruit, teach, motivate players, while exciting alumni and students about a proud historic program

  3. I hope she’s an avid reader of Ivy Hoops. All she has to do is see how bad DNH and Hicks have gotten since the season began. Plus, the freshman seemed to have plateaued. It’s like their high school training wore off after a few games and now they’re lost. Maybe you cna give her a call AQ?

    • Sure I’ll call her:

      “Hey GC it’s Q”

      “Yea, yea I know Amy can be a pain that way.”

      “Look, I know you’re busy with the Al Bagnoli Benedict Arnold thing, but are you aware that Penn hoops sucks?”

      “You are?’

      “And…and you’re gonna take care of it?”

      “OK great. Let’s do lunch next week at the White Dog, my treat.”

      “Love to the family.”



  4. With all pun intended, the AQ writes a slam dunk with this piece. It’s heartbreaking for a long-time Penn hoops fan watch the decline of what used to be such a strong and exciting team. The AQ speaks so eloquently for the rest of us with this spot on pieces. Write-on AQ!!!

  5. Penn needs a lot more than a fresh face in the Coach’s office. The Cheaters on the Charles have made an institutional commitment to the hoops program and it is paying huge dividends on many levels. No other Ivy school has done this. Whether any is willing to do what it will take to compete is beyond me. Success on the court has not come at the expense of any other programs, as far as I can tell. Harvard has some built in recruiting advantages that no one is able to challenge. But it should be, at least theoretically, possible to put a winner on the court more easily than in the stadium. You need 2-3 players a year, not 10-15.

  6. Mr. Warrior,

    I agree, but I think that Penn, if it comes to it, will have to hire a proven winner if it is serious about mending its hoops program. A third miss would be even more disastrous. In a way, the Cheaters on the Charles (I love that) have paved the way for “big time” coaching acceptability. Painful, but interesting theater.

    • Far more interesting than painful. A proven winner, preferably one who can attract very athletic players, has some selling points unique to the City of Brotherly Love: the evident resurgence of the Big 5 rivalry (as CBS might put it: “a tradition unlike any other”), the Cathedral of College Basketball in which to play half your games (unlike “the high school gym on the Charles”), and the Ivy League’s version of UNC-Duke just a couple exits up Rte 1. Calhoun has everything to gain and little to lose by making a change after this season. She gave the guy a fair chance. Mr. Tydings’ “case” is, to put this as charitably as I can, HOOEY….Sticking with Allen now would threaten Calhoun’s position as someone who professes a desire to change the culture of Penn hoops. Arm in arm with a new coach she should have the leverage to get what will be be needed to bring about the institutional commitment that we all see must happen. If she can’t get it the responsibility for the failure will not be on her.

  7. I don’t know if she ever “professed” to change the hoops program although that is clearly her responsibility. You can stamp your feet all you want, but The U will do what they think is best for their interests when the time comes. That doesn’t mean that interest will coincide with what we want however. I think Harvard has changed the playing field forever. We’ll just have to wait and see.

  8. mrjames (our Michael) reporting on the Penn message board that Allen has two years on his contract. My understanding of contract extensions is that they are employed to keep an overperforming player (or coach) in the fold. Here, the rationale is turned upside down. The contract extension keeps an employee in place to the detriment of the employer’s best interests. If Penn won’t bite the bullet on this there is little hope for a turn around in less than 5-8 years.


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