The scene was bleak.
It was supposed to be a night for saluting a Penn basketball legend’s attempt to rescue his alma mater from the historical depths to which it had fallen.
It was supposed to be a night to acknowledge that while Jerome Allen couldn’t get the job done, that was no reflection on the personal qualities that made him so beloved by so many fans.
When Allen took the floor during pregame warmups, he was showered with applause. When his name was read during the starting lineups, he received a standing ovation.
If it was surprising to see Penn’s players wearing navy blue t-shirts with Allen’s old number 53 on them before tipoff, it came as no surprise to see Allen wearing his old red-and-blue varsity sweater. For all he lacked in coaching acumen, Allen’s love of Penn and what it meant for his life on and off the court was never in doubt.
Some fans brought in signs and banners to express their sentiments.
Longtime team advisor Dr. Harriet Joseph holds up a banner in support of Jerome Allen: pic.twitter.com/pEqJukNNHm
— Jonathan Tannenwald (@pretzel_logic) March 10, 2015
Many of Allen’s old Penn teammates were in attendance, including Scott Kegler, Andy Barratta and Shawn Trice. So was Vince Curran, of course, working the TV broadcast for CBS Sports Network.
Fran Dunphy and Dave Duke were there, taking time from Temple’s prep for the AAC tournament to recognize a player who helped make their careers. Matt Bloom, a Penn alum currently on La Salle’s staff, came by on the eve of the Explorers’ trip to Brooklyn.
When Penn jumped out to a 10-4 lead in the first seven minutes of the game, there was energy and excitement in the Palestra. It looked like the Quakers could send Allen off with a three-game winning streak.
But even then, if you looked up, you saw the reality of the Penn basketball program. There were 6,388 empty seats on a night which used to leave none to spare. When the final buzzer sounded, Penn lost by a 73-52 margin - the most lopsided home defeat to its perennial arch-rival in program history.
It was Allen’s 10th loss to Princeton in 12 matchups over six seasons. His year-by-year records in Ivy League play were 5-9, 7-7, 11-3, 6-8, 5-9 and ultimately 4-10. They're in last place at the end of an Ancient Eight campaign for the first time ever.
Allen walked off the floor trailed by a phalanx of photographers and TV cameras. He was gone from view even before his players could finish the handshake line.
But despite the scores and stats, Allen left with his dignity intact. The Penn community has so much respect for him that they won’t let his failure as a coach cloud his success as a player.
It’s clear that Allen gets that message. His final postgame press conference was a series of soliloquies thanking the many people who’ve helped him over the years, sprinkled with expressions of hope for the program’s future.
Here are some highlights from Allen’s remarks.
On what it meant to see his team wear those t-shirts in pregame warmups with his old number:
I was pissed. I guess I shouldn’t say that. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. But, you know, I try to do everything so it’s not about me. I really appreciate the gesture. And it got to me. Because I didn’t know. I don’t think anyone on our staff knew.
I tried to deflect everything I possibly could about my experience, because it was my last game coaching here, so forth and so on. I just wanted them to focus in on the game, and that was it. But you know I love the guys. I really appreciate them making that gesture, but if I would have known, or if I had my choice, I definitely would not have let them wear those shirts.
On whose idea it was:
The ring leader? I think they told me it was Darnell Foreman’s idea. And if someone told me to guess whose idea it was, I definitely would have guessed Darnell.
On what the night as a whole was like for him.
It’s disappointing, because ultimately, I think we prepared these guys to win every game. So I won’t lose sight of that and allow myself not to be disappointed with not necessarily our approach, but our inability to close out the season on a winning note. And I’ll definitely watch the film and break it down, and I’ll pretend like I’m talking to the guys when I’m breaking it down, and taking notes and all that stuff.
But at the end of the day, it’s an opportunity for me to get better, and an opportunity for me to try to evaluate what I could have done, first and foremost, to make the result is different the next time.
On the promise of his young players, and how much he’ll miss getting to coach them:
That’s the hard part. I truly believe that the core of the group is young. I get it: we finally put together a solid weekend defensively this past weekend, and then we got a quick turnaround and I’m trying to trying to hold these guys to the same standard. So I don’t necessarily want to blame it on fatigue, or the lack thereof - playing three games in four nights - per se.
But those guys, they’re going to be really good. I’m not lobbying, but in my opinion I think Antonio Woods played the best out of any freshman this season. Sam Jones if is not the best, then one of the best shooters in this league. Darnell fights. Mike Auger fights.
With that being said, they’re on their way. At the end of the day, I said we always challenge ourselves to leave it better than we found it. And not to throw anybody under the bus, or name names, but I changed the culture. I changed the culture.
I wish it would reflect the number of wins and losses that I want to see. I played here at this university. But I know that they’re on their way. I told the story about Vince Curran and Paul Chambers being seniors my freshman year. They didn’t win an Ivy Leauge title per se, but they were the main reasons why we won Ivy titles three consecutive years, because they set the standard for my class.
This group that we have of young guys, they’re on their way. Couple that with some of the talent that’s coming in next year - the sky’s the limit for them.
On things that he’ll take away from his time as Penn’s head coach:
I truly feel like I’m a better coach today than I was when I first started. The experience - it’s funny. This season, my testimony, my faith in God was the only thing that allowed me to keep my peace, and keep me smiling, and keep my posture right, and keep me believing.
I think this was the perfect opportunity for a leadership moment. How do you walk, how do you look, how do you act when things aren’t going the way you hope? And every day I came to work with a smile, encouraged, excited, enthused.
So while the chatter, whether it be from the message boards or the newspapers or the alumni or the administration, the chatter outside of the 94-by-52 that I control, I didn’t allow it to affect my posture or my belief. And I get it. I knew what was being said, what was going on.
But I wouldn’t allow that to not make me try to prepare these guys the right way. So what I take from this experience, and more so what I hope the guys I was able to coach would take from this experience this year, is that it’s easy to lead when things are going right - when you’re up, when you’re winning or when you’re feeling good - but how do you lead when you’re facing adversity or challenges?
You can say, alright, how are you going to go about your job today when you have to start four freshmen, for example? The same way I would go about my day if I was starting four seniors: executing the details and making it about the game, one possession at a time. I had a number of guys that I spoke with, that reached out, and a number of players that reached out as well.
If you think about my time here, we’ve had a young man who won the Spoon Award, which is probably the highest award you can win at this university; we had a young man who was the commencement speaker at graduation; and we’re probably going to have a young man win Ivy rookie of the year. We had a young man that was Ivy and Big 5 player of the year.
Those are things that I’ll hold my hat on - the signs of excellence outside of the wins and losses, which we all know you’re ultimately judged by. But that being said, I have no complaints. I’ve been blessed. I had a tremendous opportunity. I thank Steve Bilsky so much, because he gave me an opportunity. And I always to say to everyone, “You know what? Disney couldn’t have wrote this script.”
I’m just thankful to God that I had an opportunity to be a part of the story. But you know what? I truly believe that I’m just being pushed into the next season of my life, and wherever I’m coaching at, I know that Penn has helped me prepare for the next opportunity.
This place has been great for my family. Penn has changed the trajectory of my entire family. Our sense of standard is such that not only is this a viable option in terms of this academic institution, but my five-year-old son, all he wants to do is wear the same Penn shirt every day. You’d be surprised what exchanges will embed memories in someone’s mind for the rest of their time on this Earth.
I have no complaints. I can tell you a million stories. This has been awesome. I’m excited - I’m smiling because I’m excited about the next opportunity. I know this opportunity has prepared me for it.
On where he keeps the varsity sweater:
You wouldn't believe me if I told you. So, my wife told me that it was too small, and she made me give it to her. I forgot I gave it to her and I was looking around the house for it, couldn't find it, and I asked her if she saw it. She said, "Well, you gave it to me, it's mine." So, under my breath, I said, "But you weren't an athlete, you didn't earn it, right?" And she didn't hear me, of course.
So she let me borrow it, and I have to return it tonight. I was hoping I didn't perspire too much, because if I did, she was definitely going to make me put it in the cleaners.
On what it has meant to receive the support that he has from Penn fans and alumni ever since he got the job:
I can give you a list of names of people that if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have been able to do my job.
I always tell this story about Vince Curran. When I first got the job, I asked him to come on and be the non-paid assistant. You would be surprised - you'll find out who's truly your friend and it costs them something to help you.
He has way more money than I'll probably ever see in my life if I lived 20 times, but I knew that the three- or four-month run was costing him money every day. To be at practice, to be on the road, to talk the game that day, to help me reach out to the alumni and everything. I'm forever grateful for that.
[Deputy athletic director] Alanna Shanahan, despite the fact that we're both Episcopal Academy grads, every day she gave me the right type of conversation, the right type of resources to not only bring the kids in, but how she helped me wrap my head around everything that I may have struggled with from an administrative standpoint. And she would talk trash about the game, or my coaching style, a little bit.
But with that said, everything starts, I think with Steve Bilsky, and [executive vice president] Craig Carnaroli and [provost] Vincent Price. And I can't forget [dean of admissions] Eric Furda, who ultimately let these guys in the school.
There are a number of people that I could go down the list and thank, but I think more so than anything, my wife is awesome. She has supported me. I dragged her halfway around world for 11 years. Then to finally come back home, and she thought that I would be more stable, and I'm on the road recruiting - I'm in Vancouver one day and Hartford, Connecticut, the next, and then oh by the way I've got to go to Georgia tomorrow, and I've got to go to Vegas for three days.
And she had a newborn when I first started. I'm still paying for that. Trust me, she hasn't let me live it down.
Just the overall support I got from my family. My mother used to come to away games on the bus with us, and our twins were on campus. We just, as a staff, made this a family environment, and that's the one thing that I'm always going to be about.
I could name a million people that helped me in terms of this journey, but more so than anybody, I'd like to thank Steve Bilsky, because it all started with him. Although we didn't see eye-to-eye a lot about the game - and I mean that seriously - I'm forever in debt for the opportunity he gave me.
He believed in a guy who had three months of college coaching experience. It's amazing when someone tells you what they see in you, and you don't see it in yourself at first. He knew I could coach and he knew I could lead, and he knew how passionate I was about the program.
The story's not over. Every time, no matter where I go or whatever opportunities I get, it's always going to start with the opportunity he gave me. He will always be a part of the story.
So I just wish that I would have been able to get the results that I think not only he, but so many other people desired for this program to have. But I do believe they are on their way. They have some good talent, and those kids, despite the score tonight, those kids are on their way.
On what he told his players after the game:
I just thanked them for allowing me to sow into them, and allowing me, through my imperfections, to still hold them to a certain standard. Just allowing me to be part of their story.
This is a privilege. I don't take it for granted. I'm not that arrogant to the point where - you just think about all the moving parts: you've got to recruit kids and families that fit you, not only your academic profile but, oh by the way, tell your parents that they have to pay for school as well. I have a great appreciation for that, not only because I'm paying tuition now for two kids and a wife to attend Penn, but just more that it's not an easy sell.
So I just told the players that whatever they need from me, I'm here. I'm part of the same fraternity that they're in, and it's not going to change because I no longer have the title as the coach of the University of Pennsylvania. Because they all know what I do is not who I am, and I will forever walk like that.
On what advice he would give Penn's next coach:
First and foremost, it's not about who is the next coach. I think everything starts with the individual.
Hold yourself accountable. And always believe that you can have a direct impact on how the group goes forward - whether you play one minute, or whether you play 40 minutes, or whether you don't play at all.
There's value and there's dignity in every man's work, from the managers to the trainers to the equipment staff to the people that turn the lights on in this building. Everyone is important.
Make sure, because you're viewed in such a light that's different from the normal student, make sure you realize that your platform is stronger than you may think it appears to be. The power of it can really be life-changing. Because at the end of the day, I truly believe life isn't about me, you or whoever, life is always about somebody else.
Over the next few days and weeks, we’ll hear a lot about Allen’s potential successor.
There will be a caucus that backs Yanni Hufnagel’s youth and recruiting savvy at Harvard, Vanderbilt and Cal. They’ll hope he can bring that same energy to a program that the Crimson knocked off the Ivy League’s highest perch during Hufnagel’s tenure in Boston.
But he’ll have to overcome questions about his lack of head coaching experience, which could easily sink him with Penn power brokers who will demand it. That doesn’t mean it’s a requirement, but it’s going to be on the table.
There will be a caucus that backs Andy Toole, and they got a big boost last night when Robert Morris won the Northeast Conference tournament. It gave Toole his first ticket to the Big Dance as a coach, after he got there three times as Penn a player. Word on the street is a fair few of Toole’s old teammates were at St. Francis’ gym in Brooklyn last night for the Colonials’ triumph.
But he’ll have to overcome questions about ties to Mike Rice’s hot-headed regime at Robert Morris, which set the stage for an even bigger furore at Rutgers.
There will be a caucus that backs Steve Donahue, as Inquirer columnist Mike Jensen does, and for very valid reasons. Donahue’s bona fides as a bench tactician are beyond reproach. his deep roots in the Philadelphia region.
But he’ll have to overcome questions about how much the Ivy League has changed since his glory days at Cornell and Penn.
And his backers among Penn alumni will have to overcome questions about what their true motive is. Do they truly believe he can win an Ivy League title, given how high Harvard has raised the bar? Do they see a Donahue hire as making good to their guy for his having been passed over in 2006, when Steve Bilsky hired Glen Miller?
There will be a caucus that backs Matt Langel, and sees his potential as a leader. Langel has shown some of that at Colgate, raising the Red Raiders to second in the Patriot League this season.
But he’ll have to overcome questions about whether he’s ready for the spotlight and scrutiny that come with taking the helm of his alma mater, and whether he’s a better candidate right now than Toole.
There will be a caucus that backs a true outsider, such as Seth Greenberg, Anthony Grant and Brian Gregory. And there will surely be such applicants. Between the Palestra’s legacy and the allure of Philadelphia basketball, Calhoun will have no lack of recognized names sending résumés to her office.
But they’ll have to overcome questions about whether they can navigate the treacherous roadblocks that are built into Ivy League recruiting. If they take three candidates for admission to College Hall and all three are rejected, how will they react?
The standard is the same as it has ever been, whether in Allen’s era or Langel’s or Toole’s: you win the Ivy League or you don’t. It’s been eight years now since Penn’s last title, and it would stand to reason that 2017 is the soonest they’ll have a shot at ending the drought. That would be a full decade.
You don’t ultimately know whether the coach you hire turns out to be the right one until there are results on the board. A candidate who looks great on paper, or who sounds great in an interview, could turn out to be a disaster.
On top of that, getting the decision right doesn’t just mean simply reversing fortunes on the court. It means reversing the tide of Penn student apathy that swept across Locust Walk in the final years of Bilsky’s tenure. The two aren’t necessarily related. Bilsky mistakenly believed that they are; Calhoun, to her credit, does not.
As Jensen wrote, there’s a huge amount of pressure now on Calhoun. She knows it, and from the conversations I’ve had with her, she’s ready for it.
There are a lot of questions to ask. But ultimately, there will only be one answer.