It's all about the Benjamins for Penn Basketball


Ben Franklin AQ 2One of the most august positions in world economics is held by Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin.  This is because besides being the consummate Penn Man —philosopher, humorist, inventor, publisher, Ambassador to France, politician, author, scientist and, of course, whoremaster — Big Ben’s portrait graces the front of the $100 bill.  As the Ivy basketball season winds down with Pennsylvania”s once equally august hoops program firmly in the cellar, Penn President Amy Gutmann should reach into her $9.6 billion endowment, pull out a hundy, and take note.

With the recent hiring of  “Benedict” Al Bagnoli to Columbia (I jest, Coach.  Good luck, thanks for everything. You will be missed.), and less recently Tommy “Darth” Amaker to Harvard, these two universities have both clearly put forth very stern institutional mandates to improve their football and basketball programs respectively.  The Crimson, for their part, have obviously succeeded and are now perennially regarded as the de facto Ivy hoops champions each year as early as April.  Not even Penn or Princeton in their primes had this kind of pedigree. The dividends have also been plentiful: the unending national attention and slobbering press only serve to build up Harvard’s already outsized mystique to even more ungainly proportions.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen what will happen in Morningside Heights (besides the occasional vicious mugging). Still the Lions have begun their hopeful turnaround with a former head coach who has 23 years of intimate knowledge of what it takes to win on the Ancient Eight gridiron.

What is true of both these stories is more than the usual amount of resources was utilized to secure these two accomplished men. (In Al’s case, it appears a big paycheck was perhaps secondary to his wife Maryellen’s threat to “shoot” him if he didn’t take the New York job.   Clearly as any married man knows, the uxorial edict, more than money or disfiguring maxillofacial injury, is probably the world’s most powerful motivator.  Thus it is humbling to see this great and powerful leader on men was forced, like so many before him, to humbly obey the Mrs.)

It appears now that if your athletics program is in free fall, as Quaker basketball obviously is, gone are the days of spinning the wheel of fortune and promoting an eager assistant coach on the cheap to help elevate your formerly moribund team. (With the exception of Amaker and Paul Cormier, all of the Ivy basketball coaches initially advanced to the top seat in this very fashion.) Now it appears that you need to go out and snag a proven winner, or in Harvard’s case, an arguably overqualified guy who will give your school instant credibility and help attract better recruits.

At the moment, I unfortunately see too many parallels between Quaker basketball and Lions football.  First, they both continuously lose by such lopsided scores that they are not competitive within their own conference. Second, the opposition is far more afraid to play against them for the possible humiliation it would engender should they somehow manage to lose.   The satisfaction they would get for beating such a downtrodden team appears to be more of an afterthought. And finally, both squads as of late are rife with personnel problems, disciplinary issues and general overall organizational dysfunction.

Recently, I have become acquainted with several current Columbia football players and most agree that they are as talented as the rest of the players in the league. (The same could probably be said for the Jerome Allen’s squad.) The main difference, they believe, has been an abject dearth of team unity and an occasionally bizarre coaching ethic.  Whether the Quakers are like this internally, only the players know for sure. Still, both teams continue to embarrass the elite institutions they represent. The only real difference, as far as I can tell, is that Columbia hasn’t won a title since Manhattan was called New Amsterdam and Henry Hudson used the dock at 116th St. to give his sea-weary Half Moon crew a pee break. Yet, all of this might indeed change very shortly now that Lee Bollinger, like former Quaker Drew Faust, has decided to make winning a casino online priority.

Despite all of my experience with advanced mathematics, it is idiotically obvious that winning in collegiate athletics, in general, comes down to one simple equation: $=Success.

Columbia’s new AD, Peter Pilling, (who I thought was excellent hire by CU even before he scored Big Al) realized Columbia’s problem literally within hours of taking the job.  According to the Spectator, he believed, “Columbia’s history of losing comes largely from a lack of money and that additional financial resources must come before winning. Specifically, he commented on the role of fundraising to adequately compensate the coaches for the cost of living in New York City and for the operating funds of the football program.” He added further, “Money has been the root of a lot of Columbia”s evils.”

Whether Coach Bagnoli eventually succeeds or fails (as far as I can tell he has nothing to lose) Columbia, like Harvard, has nevertheless demonstrated that they are serious about winning by their “increased (football) budget.”

As for Amy Gutmann, it is unclear to me where she believes Penn Athletics, and Penn Basketball in particular, should be.  Two years ago, she gave the Princeton football team potent bulletin board fodder by asking, “Would you trade for Princeton’s football team? I don’t think so.”  By the way, that statement so infuriated Tigers coach Surace that he rallied his team around it on their way to an Ivy championship. So it appears that Gutmann indeed likes to win. However, she later said in the same interview:

“I am a very competitive person and I want to play by the rules and win by the rules. But the real deep and important purpose of our athletics is not to win more than everybody else. It’s the experience of teamwork, of strong competition, of discipline. It’s the education and creating of character as well. If all we wanted to do was have the most winning teams, we wouldn’t be part of the Ivy League.”

A fair point, but who says you can’t do both? What’s more, it has now become clear that the Ivy League is no longer playing by her rules. Thanks to Harvard, the Ancient Eight has finally joined the “win now” mentality that is endemic throughout the rest of college sports. The question now for Penn fans is, will the Red and Blue be left behind?

In terms of winter spectator sports, six other Ivy schools have ice hockey. Men’s basketball has always been “our” winter sport.  A watershed moment is therefore approaching that will effect Penn basketball for almost the next quarter-century.  Whenever Jerome Allen is relieved of his coaching duties (I think this is now a reasonable assumption), Amy Gutmann and Grace Calhoun can make a Columbia-like “statement” and hire the very best, proven coach available if they, like Lee Bollinger, are genuinely serious about resuscitating the former “crown jewel” of the Penn athletics program.  Or they can continue to live in what is arguably the league’s past and go “cheap.”  If they need a reminder of what it will take to make Penn basketball relevant again, all they have to do is look toward the statue in front of College Hall.

Stay Red and Blue my friends,

The AQ

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