Steve Donahue is safe, and Penn won’t be sorry

Steve Donahue won three Ivy championships at Cornell. Few coaches share such a rich Ancient Eight pedigree. (Reuters)
Steve Donahue won three Ivy championships as head coach at Cornell from 2008 to 2010. Few coaches share such a rich Ancient Eight pedigree. (Reuters)

“You are better safe than sorry,” Penn Athletic Director Grace Calhoun said at her Tuesday press conference … in an alternate universe.

But that’s what most people are thinking: Steve Donahue was the safe hire. The safest of safe hires. For those people, Calhoun may as well have introduced him as he sat encased in bubble wrap.

But does safe mean it’s the wrong hire? If you think so, I’ll just refer you to the aphorism in my lede.

Calhoun could have gone for the “home run” hire. Messages boards drooled at the ideas of Ben Howland, Seth Greenberg or some other former long-time power five conference coach falling into Penn’s lap and rivaling Tommy Amaker’s Harvard dynasty from day one. But message boards do not a coaching hire make.

Howland, Greenberg, these guys would have cost Penn a pretty penny, which isn’t so trivial when you just paid Jerome Allen $625,000 to go away. So let’s throw those possibilities out the window.

What about Yanni Hufnagel? The man has been renowned by some in the media as a recruiting guru with plenty of Ivy examples to point to after his success as Amaker’s recruiting coordinator. He has assistant coaching experience, going from Harvard from 2009-13 to Vanderbilt and Cal.

But he also hasn’t been the man in charge and being the head coach involves a ton more than recruiting. To assume that role, you need to be able to game plan, adjust midgame, know the X’s and O’s like the back of your hand, all while balancing administrative tasks and coaxing money out of wealthy alumni. So the “better safe than sorry” mantra truly comes into play when considering the 32-year-old Hufnagel, who is a question mark in those categories, despite many indications that he will make a good coach at some point.

Then there are the wealth of mid-major head coaches that Penn could have considered.

Former Penn guard Andy Toole is only 34 years old and is already making his first NCAA tournament appearance at Robert Morris. Jim Engles has somehow turned NJIT into a winner. Matt Langel is another former Penn player and also has Colgate trending upward.

But none of them have the resume of Donahue. 30 years of coaching experience with 10 at Penn and 10 more at Cornell. He’s built a program before, but not just any program: an Ivy program!

On top of that, to get someone with that resume, you can’t wait around. The news broke about the hiring just six days after Penn’s final game because Calhoun knew exactly what she wanted in a new coach and was ambitious in finding the right person to fit the role.

“You want to do it as quickly as you can to get the right person but obviously knowing we need this to be a long-term fit so you’ve got to do enough due diligence to know it’s the right one,” Calhoun said at the actual press conference at the Palestra Tuesday.

Granted, I’m not sure Penn fans will be quite as excited if it takes Donahue eight seasons to win an Ivy title like he did at Cornell, but he also has the resources (Read: Palestra and strong alumni backing) to build things a little quicker along with an athletic director committed to the program.

“Certainly, having [the Palestra] as a facility with great history and tradition, we’ve had competitive advantages for a number of years,” Calhoun said. “But it’s clear that thinking about how we fund the program, what type of schedule we build, what types of trips we take, all of the support pieces around the program like strength and conditioning, athletic training, sports and nutrition, we have to rethink how we do all of that.”

And it’s not like Donahue is building from scratch. Tony Hicks. Darien Nelson-Henry. Antonio Woods. Sam Jones. Mike Auger. I could go on, but you get the picture. There’s talent in University City to begin with and Donahue has the mind to do something with it. It doesn’t hurt that he’ll have current assistant coach Nat Graham – assuming he chooses to keep his former top assistant aboard – to ease the transition with his ‘tremendous’ personality.

In reality, the safest move Calhoun could have made was to keep Allen at the helm for another year. Penn would be paying him regardless, and the 2014-15 campaign showed signs of improvement towards the end of the year.

But it isn’t like Calhoun was risking the farm when going with Donahue. She went with someone who will help give the program what former Quaker Miles Jackson-Cartwright believes is a fresh start, even if Donahue is hardly a ‘fresh’ face in Penn circles.

So sure, you can label Donahue the safe hire all you want. But with Amaker’s current upperclassmen like Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi graduating this spring, the Ivy League will be up for grabs sooner rather than later.

And Penn will be safe, not sorry.

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