Steve Donahue stands on his own as Penn's coach

Even amid the din of shooting drills, Steve Donahue’s trademark whistle echoes with gusto off the painted brick walls that surround Penn’s practice court.

To anyone who has come across Donahue during his coaching career, it’s a familiar sound. Indeed, it’s been heard on 33rd Street for decades, going back to his first year as an assistant to Fran Dunphy in 1990. Maybe even earlier, if the Springfield (Delaware County) or Monsignor Bonner teams he worked for in the 80's ever visited for a game.

But consider this: the last time Donahue coached a game in the Palestra, that practice court didn’t exist. Indeed, the renovations to Hutchinson Gym that created the facility were two and a half years away from starting.

There are any number of ways to say that Penn isn’t what it used to be. Most of them, as is well known, are bad. But there’s a real sense of new energy around the Quakers right now, and Donahue is the biggest reason why.

It’s not just that there’s a new coach in charge. It’s how Donahue is doing the job, bringing sports science and analytics into the conversation in ways that the program has never seen before.

The headline on Mike Jensen’s column in Monday’s Inquirer captured the vibe perfectly: “Steve Donahue changes Penn’s way of thinking.”

Just as important, though, is the fact that Donahue has changed his own way of thinking. He isn’t the same coach that he was at Cornell, or the same coach that he was at Boston College.

This bears emphasizing because echoes still linger of the caucus of Penn fans who wanted Donahue to get the job a decade ago, instead of now. When Fran Dunphy left for Temple, that caucus - led by many of Donahue’s former players - was outraged that the job went to Brown coach Glen Miller instead.

Some of those wounds have faded over time. Yet when Donahue got a new set of keys to the Palestra back in March, that caucus rose again. You can be sure they’ll be in the stands when Penn tips off its season Friday night against Robert Morris (5:30 p.m., ESPN3 and WXPN 88.5-FM).

(It’s a quite unfortunate coincidence that Colonials coach Andy Toole is another of Donahue’s former players - and that a segment of Penn fans wanted Toole not Donahue, to replace Jerome Allen.)

But even if Donahue gets Penn back to winning faster than expected, there won’t be a return to the halcyon days of yesteryear.

For one thing, the once-famous bond between the student body and its basketball program doesn’t exist anymore. Yes, there are signs of a revival, but success will likely come on the court well before it does in the stands.

For another, and more importantly, Donahue isn’t Dunphy. He doesn’t try to be, and he doesn’t want you to think he’s going to be.

“Honestly, in terms of basketball tactically, Fran and I are way different,” Donahue told me in a one-on-one interview Wednesday evening. “He coaches a certain way, and allows the kids certain freedoms that work for him... I kind of allow, probably, certain things, and teach concepts that are dramatically different than what we did here when I was with Fran.”

Consider what Donahue told Inquirer columnist Mike Jensen for a story that ran in Monday’s paper. As Mike wrote, “Donahue spells it out for his players this way: If you don't think you have a 95 percent chance of making it from inside the three-point arc, don't take it.”

Donahue told Jensen that "there are mechanisms in place for you to be successful when you attack the rim not to take that shot." Those "mechanisms" are set up, he added, by emphasizing "where guys are going to be, opposite corner, opposite wing, behind you - and you can always keep the dribble."

It may seem a subtle difference from Dunphy's old adage about the motion offense creating good shots, but it's there. Dunphy’s system offered opportunities, then put the onus on the players to finish them. Donahue's vision puts a particular emphasis on the end product.

That is not in any way a criticism of Dunphy. His teams have always played a brand of basketball that has been both successful and aesthetically pleasing. The resulting track record is why he's respected by not just Penn and Temple fans, but by the entire Big 5 (and Drexel too). I’ve defended him a lot over the years and I’ll continue to, even when a potentially decisive shot in the final minute of an upset bid rims out.

My point - as is Donahue’s - is about expectations.

“I’m not Fran, and he’s not me,” Donahue told me. “That doesn’t make it right or wrong, just dramatically different, and you’re going to see, I think, essentially that.”

So, what specifically will you see when the Quakers take the floor?

“My biggest thing is I want to play the most intelligent game we can on both sides of the ball, and I want to be the toughest team,” Donahue said. “Everything else I would hope you see is good, fundamentally sound basketball.”

Donahue pronounced himself pleased with what he has seen from his players so far.

“Skill has improved, strength and conditioning have improved, mental health has improved,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly how long that all would take, but I think we’re all in a good place and we’re ready for the season.”

I asked Donahue what has surprised him most in preseason. He pointed to the quality of the defense he’s seen.

“I thought they had the potential to be a good defensive team, and it’s much more solid than I thought,” he said. “They move laterally well, there’s good physicality, there’s good size... Compared with my teams at Cornell, in terms of defense, this group’s as solid as any one I’ve ever had.”

Donahue may have meant that as a compliment, but it unfortunately wasn’t much of one. For as great as Donahue’s teams have been on offense, they’ve never been known for playing great defense.

Just once in his 14 seasons as a head coach has he led a team with a 100 ranking in defensive efficiency: Cornell was No. 93 in 2009. (His 2010 team that went to the Sweet 16 finished at No. 118.) In four years at Boston College, Donahue’s teams twice finished in the high 200s and twice finished in the 300s.

Of course, Penn hasn’t done much better in recent years. If Donahue can get his first Quakers team into the low-to-mid 100s, that will be a great sign of where the program can go in the future.

And if the offense’s style is anywhere near what Donahue has shown he’s capable of installing, it will likely deliver some wins on its own. The final score is the simplest stat of all, but it has mattered plenty often in the eight years since Penn’s last Ivy League title.

“At times, their ability to pick up the offense has been really impressive, getting the right shot most possessions,” Donahue told me. He especially praised senior center Darien Nelson-Henry, who is blessed with immense natural talent but hasn’t always had the mentality to match it.

“Darien has taken so many strides since I’ve been here and from what I saw previously in his career,” Donahue said. “First, he’s very healthy, he’s in great shape. I think the offense really fits his strengths, and he’s been really poised on both sides of the ball. He’s not fouling on the defensive end; he’s playing good, strong, solid defense; and he’s really making good decisions on the low block.”

In the backcourt, Donahue will throw freshman point guard Jake Silpe right into the fire. The Cherry Hill native will start the season opener, and a good performance will only add to the hype that has been building all summer.

“From the moment he got here, he competed as well as anyone if not better,” Donahue said of Silpe. “He understands how hard you have to play, how smart you have to be with the ball. Now, he’s not going to be perfect, but he’s a great competitor, and that jumped out at me.”

Donahue isn’t going to be perfect out of the gate either. But it’s impossible to miss how happy he is.

“I was out of it a year and I didn’t realize how much I missed the other stuff besides the two hours here - being around young people, being on campus, getting excited about the basketball team,” he said. “The main objective that we’re here for is to enhance the rest of the students’ experience, to make it fun and something the can get excited for, and I think we’re doing that.”

Of course, there’s another objective too. As Donahue stood on that practice court - which he called “ACC-nice” and “light years different” from when he left Penn 15 years ago - he left no doubt about what his ultimate objective is.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to win,” he said. “We’ve got to play an exciting brand of basketball while we do it, and we’ve got to have people that feel invested in our program.”

In the eight months since Donahue was hired, he has started to put the second and third of those pieces are coming together. Now it’s time to see whether he can take care of the first.