Thursday, September 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Loyola Chicago's M. Grace Calhoun named new Penn athletic director

For weeks, Penn has been silent amid many questions about who will replace athletic director Steve Bilsky when he retires on June 30. On Monday, those questions will be answered.

Loyola Chicago's M. Grace Calhoun named new Penn athletic director

(Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
(Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

For weeks, Penn was silent amid many questions about who would replace athletic director Steve Bilsky when he retires on June 30. Now those questions have been answered.

Loyola of Chicago athletic director M. Grace Calhoun has been named as Bilsky's successor.

Bilsky announced back in November that he would retire from his position on June 30. Calhoun will take over on July 1. She will be the first female athletic director in Big 5 history.

Calhoun brings multiple Ivy League ties to Weightman Hall. She was a track and field athlete at Brown, graduating magna cum laude in 1992, and she was an associate athletic director at Dartmouth from 2002 to 2005.

"We set out to find a star, and we did," Penn president Amy Gutmann said in a statement issue by the university. "In addition to her many outstanding professional accomplishments, Dr. Calhoun’s experience as an Ivy League student and athlete gives her a valuable leg up in understanding the culture at Penn that values student-athletes for their impressive combination of academic and athletic talents, skills and virtues."

Before Calhoun took the Loyola-Chicago job, she worked at Indiana from 2005 to 2011. Among her roles was directing compliance and eligilbility. Her tenure in Bloomington included the controversial hiring of Kelvin Sampson as the Hoosiers' men's basketball coach in 2006, and Sampson's subsequent dismissal in 2008 after the NCAA caught him violating recruting rules multiple times.

Sampson was hit with a five-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA. The school was placed on probation for three years, but was not given any concrete sanctions beyond those it imposed on itself.

In 2008, current coach Tom Crean replaced Sampson. Crean has had relatively few problems so far; the most prominent was a secondary rules violation on the recruiting trail in 2011.

Calhoun tenure at at Dartmouth lasted from from 2002 to 2005. Before moving to Hanover, she was the Patriot League's associate athletic director, overseeing governance and compliance matters. She also managed many of the league's sports championships.

Her bio is included in Penn's official press release here.

It will probably not go unnoticed by Penn fans that one of Calhoun's first moves upon taking the Loyola-Chicago job was to fire the men's basketball coach. However, her tenure there began on April 1. Calhoun will not start at Penn until July 1, the day after Bilsky's retirement.

Calhoun was officially introduced to the Penn community in a press conference Monday afternoon at the Palestra. For an event that was only made public with 18 hours or so of advance notice, it drew a healthy crowd of coaches, administrators and staff, as well as a few Penn fans and donors.

I did, however, notice two conspicuous absentees: current athletic director Steve Bilsky and university president Amy Gutmann. It is my understanding that both of them were out of town on fundraising trips, and that the press conference was called in a timespan that was too short for them to change their itineraries and get back to Philadelphia.

I also noticed that men's basketball coach Jerome Allen was not present at the start of the event, but did arrive midway through the proceedings. It is my understanding that he participated in other events involving Calhoun before the press conference.

The state of Allen's program was a major talking point during the press conference, and in breakout sessions afterward with Calhoun and provost Vincent Price. It was impossible to avoid a sense that the seat under Allen is getting rather hot. But it also seemed clear that he is not going anywhere over the course of the transition from Bilsky to Calhoun.

As Calhoun told the Inquirer's Mike Jensen:

"Looking at this historic building again, basketball has been by and large successful for most of this [program's] history... The greater Penn community is going to demand that sort of success, so it's my job to go in and figure out why that's not happening, but giving that a fair opportunity to see if we can do it with current leadership."

Here are some more highlights from Calhoun's remarks, as well as remarks from Price. The quotes from Calhoun are combined from the press conference and later breakout session. Price's are solely from the press conference. I spoke one-on-one with Price after the press conference, and have transcribed that part separately below.

Incoming Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun

From her opening remarks:

Penn has set the bar for state-of-the-art athletics and recreation facilities on an urban campus. I can and will promise a can-do attitude, and a tireless work ethic that will serve the student-athletes, coaches, staff, alumni and the broader Penn community that you have graciously afforded me the opportunity to serve. 

[...]

As I stand in the Palestra, looking at all of this history and tradition, I promise I will never forget how really cool it is to be the director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation at Penn. Wow, what an honor. Penn can and will set the gold standard for combining competitiveness with an educationally sound approach to athletics. No one cares more than I do about winning. I'm a competitor through and through. 

[...]

Participation in athletics must enhance the overall education as we work to develop our young people holistically. The Ivy League model is second to none in its ability to do just that. 

[...]

Now, with all this talk of education, alumni, fans and the broader Penn community might question the commitment to winning. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I stated earlier, no one likes winning more than I do.

Winning is about success and personal development. We aspire to create winners in life. By creating even higher quality experiences going forward, the culture of success in athletics and recreation will continue to flourish.

I look forward to partnering with Penn's coaches to best position them for success. I believe that all teams should be positioned to compete for their respective conference titles on an annual basis, and even higher aspirations where national access and success do not come at the cost of our coveted Ivy ideals.

On the decline in athletics' prominence within the campus community in recent years, and how to restore it to what it has been in the past:

Attendance at sporting events is a national issue. It's not local to the University of Pennsylvania. But I welcome that challenge. I have always believed that it starts from within. Coaches need to support other coaches, student-athletes need to support other student-athletes. And if you can build that energy and that base from within, then you start reaching out and there's an infectious energy that permeates the campus.

I understand that so many great partnerships have been formed. I was hearing over lunch about a sorority tug-of-war contest that happens at halftime of games.* I love involving as many campus groups as possible in our events, and sharing those events to make them their events as well. I would look to ensure that we have one or multiple special events that we are doing around every game, and create those extra draws to bring people in.

There's a lot of competition for students' time these days. Many have grown up in places or at a time when going to athletics was just not part of their culture, part of what they did. So we need to train them that this is fun, that this is community-building, that these will be some of the great moments that they'll take with them for the rest of their lives. And we'll build it collectively as a partnership.

* - That would be Panhel Night at the Palestra. If you are a Penn fan, you know full well about it, so I will only note here that it's at one game, not multiple games.

On her experiences dealing with student apathy towards athletics at Loyola-Chicago:

It was certainly an issue that I was confronted with upon taking the position. We very much tied it to student life. We looked at athletics competitions as opportunities to really promote that sense of community and to get that energized sense of student life on campus.

Certainly, I just know what I have read from the Penn situation, and talking to select individuals. Again, I repeat what I said earlier: this is a national issue, this is nothing that's unique to Penn by any means.

But I think it's how you approach it. Again, starting from within, but really looking for those strong university partnerships, many of which I think you have in place already. How can we expand upon those, what will make things more fun for students.

I always feel like if we can get them into the arena, if we can get them into the Palestra and show them a good time, they're going to keep coming back. So it's all about how we put that together and create those experiences that we want to come out to, and then keep them coming back. It's something that we will absolutely all work together toward.

When you look around this remarkable facility and think about the history and traidtion here, I think that all Penn students need to have part of that experience before they leave here. We'll work hard to do that.

On her philosophy of what the balance of priorities should be between revenue and non-revenue sports in an athletic department:

As an Olympic sport athlete myself, I never thought I was any lesser of a student-athlete because I chose to do an Olympic sport and not a revenue sport. And in fact, there were not a lot of options with revenue sports when I was young. I have felt that all student-athletes should feel like they are treated equivalently. There are certain expectations that they should all have, and that I will do my best to support them all equivalently.

Now, we know that equivalently does not mean equally, and by the nature of what we do, the revenue sports will need some extra accommodations and considerations. But in my mind, that should be done in a way that does not change the high caliber of experience for any student-athlete. That they all feel valued, that they all feel that our investment int their education is comparable.

I get to as many Olympic sport contests as I do revenue sport contests, so they will see me there supporting all of them. With 33 sports, it might take a cycle or two, but I will get out with each of them on a road trip at some point. I've always said that once you spend seven hours on a bus with them, you get to know them pretty well.

On her sense so far of the state of the men's basketball program, and how her experience at Loyola might influence how she handles matters at Penn:

Well, first and foremost, during this transitional period, we have no plans to make any changes.

I believe strongly that I really need to get in and assess the situation firsthand. I believe everyone is entitled to a fair opportunity.

Right now, I certainly can see the records, as everyone does. I can read the blogs, as everyone can. But I really need to understand what's happening there, and I certainly will begin that evaluation and my fact-finding immediately.

I certainly am very committed to a fair and full process with this, and figuring out how I can best support the program going forward.

On the current overall state of the athletic department:

Things are going relatively well. To have some of the best facilities at an urban institution, to have the fundraising accounts be as healthy as they are right now, and so many teams doing so well, it's really looking at what's being done, and figuring out how we get to those higher levels of excellence.

But things are going well here, and I think we need to start by acknowledging that far more is going well than not going well. How do we fine-tune and make those adjustments to achieve the higher levels of success? We certainly don't need the wholesale changes that Loyola did three years ago.

On whether she was approached for the job or whether she made the first overture:

I was called by the search firm. The firm doing the search, Parker, had known of my background,* and I think new that I've been outspoken about the fact that getting back to the Ivy League was certainly an ultimate destination for me.

When I look at the Ivy League jobs, coming to a place like Penn that's got this richness of history and tradition, having roots in the Philadelphia area - my mother and father are from Eastern Pennsylvania. shamokin for my mother and St. Clair for my father. I have an uncle that is now deceased who was in Ambler, family in Newtown Square. So I certainly spent a lot of time as a child going back and forth between my home town in New York and Philadelphia.

* - The same firm that Penn retained to hire Calhoun was retained by Loyola Chicago when it hired her. Last June, USA Today published this lengthy story on Parker's considerable influence in college sports hiring circles.

On whether, given her past experience in the Ivy League, she thinks its football teams should compete in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs; and on whether the Ivy League should award its NCAA basketball tournament bids using a tournament instead of regular-season records:

Some of the conversations, every few years I know they pop back up again. While my information is dated, you're right, I probably have heard many of the debates in the past. I know that for the football championship [playoffs], that's one where the presidents have felt very strongly that they do not want to participate in the postseason.

I went to Brown and was serving as a class officer when Gordon Gee took over the presidency. I remember that being a big controversy, because he was very much in favor of the postseason competition.

There has been a rich debate there. I certainly don't know all the specifics but I do know the presidents have arrived at this stance after much debate and deliberation, so I certainly respect that we are not competing in the postseason for good reason.

As for the [basketball] tournament, there are certainly pros and cons. It's great to have the excitement of a tournament, but the big downside is that you often have conferences that are sending less than their best representative because anyone can get hot for a game or two at the tournament.

So I respect the fact that the Ivies feel that you should win that opportunity based upon the body of your work, and not based upon a tournament. And in fact, I'm surprised that more conferences don't feel the same way.

On what she learned from being part of Indiana University's compliance department when Kelvin Sampson was hired and subsequently fired for NCAA rules violations:

That was a difficult time all around. It certainly solidified for me that when I did coaching searches, starting with high-character individuals who were first and foremost going to be committed to mentoring and teaching was the right approach.

Indiana basketball is the fabric of the institution, and to have problems there was something that was greatly embarrassing to everyone. I'd like to believe that I was part of the solution, in that I took over that area and was really charged with building the systems and individuals who ultimately uncovered the problems.*

We self-reported the problems, and I think the NCAA commended us on the work that we did in making that all happen. As you all know, that legislation was ultimately thrown out for its inability to really be policed, in the sense that the problem was happening nationally.

But [there was] learning [of] lessons, for sure. It really showed what destruction and devastation can occur if things aren't done the right way - and how, as a leader, it's really my responsibility to ensure that all coaches and staff members know that we will not cut corners, and we will not put one toe over the line. We will win, but win ethically.

* - Click here for the audio of a press conference back in 2008 at which Calhoun and then-IU athletic director Rick Greenspan discussed details of how the athletic department handled Sampson's transgressions.

On whether she was involved with the hiring of Sampson and/or Tom Crean:

Not the Sampson hire, but yes, I served on the committee and worked with the athletic director on the Tom Crean hire.

On how she assessed the state of the Loyola-Chicago men's basketball program after taking over there, and decided within just a few weeks to fire then-coach Jim Whitesell, and whether any comparison can be made to the state of Penn's program:

It was a very different situation, in that I learned going into the Loyola situation that the coach was going into the last year of his contract. I've been in college athletics long enough to know that you can't have a coach in the last year of his contract. There's no ability to recruit - it will be negatively used against that individual.

It certainly would not have been my choice to make a change at that time. Personally, it was very difficutl. I was finishing a job, starting a new one, transitioning a family, and I had to do a men's basketball coaching search. So it made for a very difficult time.

But again, knowing that the coach was going into his last year, we came to terms with the fact we either had to be willing to extend, or we had to make a change. Ultimately, we just did not feel comfortable enough that the student-athletes were having that quality experience, and that the winning was there, to extend that coach's contract.

We really had to [make the decision quickly]. There tends to be a narrow window where positions turn over, and we knew that to get a good pool for that position, we had to move quickly. So again, it really was probably within two weeks of being named to the position.

Penn provost Vincent Price during the press conference

From his opening remarks:

Here's what we heard you wanted.

An inspirational director; a role model committed to openness, professionalism, integrity and respect at all levels; a visible and accessible leader; and an educator, committed to the well-rounded development of student-athletes.

A talented manager, and above all a mentor - someone who will support our extraordinary coaches and partner with them to achieve execllence.

A committed university citizen who will weave the recreational and athletic opportunities at Penn into the very fabric of campus life, building strong relationships with faculty administrators, staff, students, alumni, friends and the local community.

A creative and energeic communicator who will continue to bring both recognition and vital resources to support this community.

We believe we have found just such a new leader.

On the decline in athletics' prominence within the campus community in recent years, and how to restore it to what it has been in the past:

We certainly do value the role of Penn athletics in building bridges in the community, and not just the larger community, but the community that is before us: the student body, the faculty and the staff here on campus. One of the reasons that we are so excited about bringing Dr. Calhoun to campus is that she does come with experience at having built that kind of excitement at other programs. We have such a fabulous opportunity to build on such strengths here at Penn that I have every confidence she'll do just that.

Penn provost Vincent Price one-on-one with me

What is your view on what the balance should be between revenue and non-revenue sports in Penn's athletic department? Everyone wants to see all of the athletes have a great experience, but there are those who also look at men's basketball in particular as the flagship sport.

Well, there's no question that certain sports have the ability to draw enthusiasm, interest, community support. We have a deep history and tradition of success in certain sports - men's basketball, football as well. Recently, some of our women's programs have been truly extraordinary.

So I think the challenge for any athletic director is to appropriately allocate resources so that we have not an either-or situation, but a both-and situation. Both 33 outstanding programs, with in each program a bona fide ability to compete for championships; and outstanding signature programs that continue the deep tradition, and in fact establish new traditions going forward.

What would those signature programs be, in your opinion?

Well, certainly basketball, and our football program has a deep history and tradition. This facility here, the Palestra, and Franklin Field. On the women's side, we've had great success just recently in women's basketball and women's lacrosse. There are a variety of sports where Penn is so well-poised, and we want to build on that enthuisasm.

But we don't do that at the expense of our other programs. This is actually one of the great opportunities in the Ivy League, and we don't want to squander that opportunity.

What has Penn president Amy Gutmann's role been in the process of hiring a new athletic director? 

I've been in regular contact with Dr. Gutmann, who is unfortunately traveling out of the state. She was deeply involved in the process, and as in all matters, was well-informed about how our search was progressing, and is as excited as I am about Grace's appointment.

What do you want to see from Dr. Calhoun in terms of how she presents the things that Penn stands for to the Ivy League? That is something Steve Bilsky had a real leadership role in. He espoused some particular values that not everyone in the conference agreed with at all times, but was able to successfully make the case for Penn's point of view on many occasions.

I expect and am confident we will see the same passion that Steve brought to this. The same intense sense of competition, that within the rules and regulations and the general philosophies of the Ivy League, Penn wants to compete aggressively on every court and on every field. Grace has demonstrated over the course of her career that she shares those instincts. She is also a great collaborator. That's often times what it takes within the league context to make sure that our institutional values are represented, and that our institutional needs are met.

So I have every confidence that Grace will pick up right where Steve is leaving off, and that we'll see a nice, continuous presence within Ivy policies and procedures. And that we'll compete as we always have - ideally, better going forward.

There are two particular viewpoints that Steve held that are well known, and I think people might like to know what your take on them is. 

One is being in favor of Ivy League football teams participating in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and the other is being against the league establishing conference basketball tournament to award its NCAA tournament automatic bids. What views would you like to see Dr. Calhoun take on those subjects?

I will leave this to the presidents. The Ivy League is actually a council of presidents - it is not a council of provosts. We'll take those issues as they come up within the context of the Ivy League. As I said before, we fully embrace Ivy philosophies and Ivy procedures, and I will look to Grace to analyze those, understand them and advise me and president Gutmann on best policies going forward.

Lastly, if for any reason there comes a need for changes in personnel between now and July 1, what will Dr. Calhoun's role be in that?

Well, between now and July 1, our athletic director is Steve Bilsky, make no mistake. This will be handeld between now and July 1 by Steve. I'm sure any decisions of large magnitude that Steve makes will be shared, as they should be, as a matter of transition. But let's be clear: we have only one director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation at Penn at a time, and that director is Steve Bilsky.

More coverage
 
WATCH: Mike Kern's college football upset picks
 
VOTE: Should the NCAA ever reinstate Paterno's wins?
 
Buy local college sports tickets
 
Latest college sports videos
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected