Now that the interim tag has been removed from Penn basketball coach Jerome Allen’s title, it’s time to look at the tasks that Allen faces.
The obvious one is to get the Quakers winning again. The task isn’t necessarily easy, but it is relatively straightforward. Find good players, sell them on the Palestra and Wharton, run a system in which they can thrive. It’s not that hard to win the Ivy League in basketball, frankly.
Believe me, there’s not a coach in the Ancient Eight who doesn’t think Penn will come back to prominence very soon. That includes Steve Donahue, whose Cornell squad’s lone Ancient Eight loss was at the Palestra. Yeah, it was a freakish night for both teams, but it happened, and Jerome Allen got his players to believe they could beat the Big Red.
Looking at things now, Princeton is the favorite to win the title next year. That will become even more the case if Tommy Amaker leaves a talented but inconsistent Harvard team for greener pastures. Cornell still has some talent, but its biggest stars are seniors, and Donahue will never get a better chance to move up than he has right now.
After that, 2012 will be Zack Rosen’s senior year, and the reportedly strong recruiting class Penn has coming in will be sophomores. If the recruits are as good as advertised - and I tend to be skeptical of recruiting news no matter the high school or college team - then the Quakers will be quite good two years from now.
If Allen can get a few more Ivy titles in the rafters, then he can step his recruiting another level, and go for the kind of player who can bring Penn back in the Big 5. I’m sure Allen already has the sales pitch ready - just tell kids how Fran Dunphy brought him from Episcopal to the Palestra in 1990.
Allen’s second task will be harder. It’s one thing to bring the Penn basketball program back, but he will have to bring the Palestra back as well.
The one remark I’ve heard more than any other over the last few years about Penn basketball is how empty the Palestra has been for games there. I’ve heard it not only from Penn fans, but fans of all five of the other schools too. And I’ve heard it from people who go to the Palestra just to be there, no matter who’s playing.
It says something that people like that exist despite the Quakers’ struggles. The Palestra captures the imagination of a lot of people across the college basketball landscape, and when Penn is strong the arena gets even more attention.
Winning games will bring back a lot of the fans who stayed away from 33rd Street during Glen Miller’s tenure, but I can’t help thinking that it will only account for three sides of the stands. The fourth is the student section, which has been the most vacant of all over the last two seasons. Allen has to get Penn’s student body to care about basketball again, and that could well be the hardest of his tasks.
Yes, having a good team will help. But when you go to the other schools in the region, the basketball team is woven into the campus culture. I think especially about Drexel, whose student section is really well-organized, and of course St. Joe’s and Villanova.
Fran Dunphy has brought the student section back at Temple, and if La Salle gets good again you know Tom Gola Arena will be packed too. But it’s not just about success on the court. All those athletic departments work really hard to cultivate student interest.
Now I will say something that I suspect might get me in some trouble at Penn. But it needs to be said, and I’ve discussed it with a lot of Quakers fans, and they’ve all told me it’s true. From where I’ve been sitting for the last few seasons, Penn’s athletic department as a whole has not done enough over the last few years to get its students to care about basketball.
The apathy on campus was never more clear than at Glen Miller's last home game in charge. When Penn played Albany on December 8, there were maybe 1,000 people in the building. Twenty-four hours later, St. Joe's and Villanova played before a full house and a Hawks student section that filled the entire west side.
Here's another example. The attendance at the Temple-Penn game was 6,393. When I walked into the press room after the game ended, a couple of reporters for the Penn student paper were talking about how it was one of the best atmospheres they'd seen at the Palestra. The building wasn't close to full.
I’m sure there are plenty of people on the Penn campus who care more about the school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking or the size of its endowment than the basketball team’s record. You would expect nothing less from an Ivy League institution.
But few programs anywhere in college basketball have the kind of history that Penn does. To diminish its importance does a disservice not only to the past but to the present as well. So having a coach who really cares about that history, and who wants others to appreciate it as much as he does, can only be a good thing.
I will always believe that Glen Miller was the right person for Penn to hire at the time when the decision was made. But it was clear that while Miller was quite happy to be at Penn, and wasn’t against doing the off-the-court things that he had to do, he never fully embraced it all.
There are plenty of programs in Division I where community relations don’t matter so much. It’s known that coaches come through, pay their dues at a low-major or mid-major level, then move up to bigger and better things.
Perhaps what the last few years have taught us, in case we weren’t sure, is that Penn is not one of those programs. In that context, giving Jerome Allen get the job full time is clearly the right decision.
I would think, given the circumstances, that choosing Jerome Allen was an easy decision for Penn to make - especially once Fran McCaffery moved to Iowa. It’s also been reported that Steve Donahue turned Penn down over the weekend, though a lot of people I’ve heard from preferred Allen to Donahue.
So the easy stuff is done. Now it’s time for the hard stuff. And not for the first time, the ball is in Jerome Allen’s hands.