Steve Bilsky reflects on his time as Penn’s athletic director

Steve Bilsky played a major role in the construction of Penn Park, seen above. (Tom Gralish/Staff file photo)

Although Thursday's announcement that Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky will retire in June was not expected, it also was not surprising.

As Penn's release with the news noted, Bilsky just finished an enormous capital campaign that raised $125 million. Since returning to his alma mater 20 years ago, the Long Island native has overseen multiple renovations to the Palestra and Franklin Field, a complete overhaul of Hutchinson Gym, and construction of new baseball, softball, soccer, tennis and field hockey facilities.

Penn Park was created on his watch, turning a concrete wasteland between Walnut and South Street bridges into a spectacular green space. There's also Shoemaker Green, which serves as a wonderful gateway from 33rd Street to the Palestra.

Those of you with direct ties to Penn also know that Bilsky got Pottruck Gymnasium built. The facility incorporated Sherr Pool and parts of the old Gimbel Gym into a new construction on Walnut Street that holds nearly 160,000 square feet of workout space.

At the Ivy League level, Bilsky was extremely influential among his fellow athletic directors. He was a key player in securing the conference's first ever national television contracts for football and basketball, including direct involvement in the negotiations with NBC Sports. He also spent years trying to convince the rest of the league to get on board with a conference-wide online streaming platform. That effort finally paid off this summer.

When I asked Ivy League executive director Robin Harris for her reflections on Bilsky's tenure, she said: “He is a visionary, he's innovative, and he's one of the smartest people I interact with.”

The Ivy League Digital Network, Harris told me, “was something where he really had a vision, and communicated that vision to his colleagues and athletic directors… Steve really articulated how we could make this be a really high end video experience.”

So Bilsky leaves a considerable legacy. Penn president Amy Gutmann and provost Vincent Price will have to reach a high standard in their search for Bilsky's successor.

To be sure, Bilsky had his fair share of critics, and for fair reasons. He does not have the most gregarious personality, and was not always the easiest to work with. I have disagreed with him at times over the years, sometimes strongly. But we have both always respected each other, and now get along well.

The biggest mark against Bilsky's legacy, without doubt, is his decision to hire Brown's Glen Miller as head men's basketball coach when Fran Dunphy left for Temple in 2006.

Some Penn fans – especially former players - wanted Cornell's Steve Donahue instead. Others wanted Bilsky to match the salary Dunphy had been offered to succeed John Chaney on North Broad Street.

Bilsky's case was built on Miller's considerable track record of success in Providence. As this statistical analysis notes, Miller had the better numbers when the hire was made. 

As is well known by now, MIller proved to be a disaster. Although he won the Ivy League in his first season, he did so mainly with Dunphy's players. And although Miller recruited Zack Rosen and Tyler Bernardini to Penn, the team unequivocally crashed.

After winning the Ivy League in his first season (mainly with Dunphy's players), Miller finished fifth in the conference in 2008 and sixth in 2009. The Quakers also failed to win a Big 5 game in each of those seasons.

Off the court, Miller's prickly personality did not sit well with Penn boosters and power brokers behind the scenes. I have heard many stories over the years of well-known Quakers fans and alumni who felt slighted by Miller's manner. He also was, at least initially, not as keen to embrace the Big 5's traditions and familial culture as other coaches in the city. That later changed, but too late for some.

Meanwhile, up in Ithaca, Donahue built a powerhouse. Cornell won three straight Ivy titles from 2008 to. Donahue's era of dominance culminated with a Cinderella ride to the Sweet 16 in the last of those seasons, including a win over Dunphy's Owls in the round of 64.

After Donahue left for Boston College, Harvard rose to prominence under Tommy Amaker. Sydney Johnson then brought Princeton back to the top of the heap, and Mitch Henderson has kept them there.

The Quakers have shown signs of recovery under Jerome Allen, but seem to still be a long ways from winning a 27th Ancient Eight crown.

At the time when Bilsky hired Miller, I thought it was the right decision. I have stood by that view ever since, and still do. Miller had a proven track record of success. Indeed, an entire chapter of a book detailing the inner workings of Ivy League recruiting was devoted to his success at Brown.

(I also thought, and still think, that it was folly to think Dunphy would stay at Penn after Chaney effectively anointed him as his successor. Temple had, and will always have, resources and a reputation that Penn cannot match.)

No one knew for certain in April of 2006 that Donahue would go on to greatness. Nor did anyone know for certain that Miller would fail to translate his success at Brown to a higher standard of Ivy League competition.

And here is something that may surprise you: Bilsky calls Miller's tenure the biggest regret of his tenure.

Bilsky said so on Thursday night, when he sat down with me and the Daily Pennsylvanian's John Phillips for an extensive Q&A session. We chatted during halftime of the Penn men's soccer team's NCAA tournament game against Providence, in a suite overlooking Rhodes Field.

The suite and the stadium as a whole were built with money that Bilsky helped raise. So was the adjacent field hockey venue, and so was the baseball stadium a few hundred yards down the access road.

It will be left to history to judge the degree to which Bilsky's many successes outweigh his one great failure.

Why make the decision now to retire?

I've been thinking about for a while. I'll be 20 years [in the job], I'll be 65 years in the job, and we just finished a campaign. So you look for milestones, numbers, things, and 20 years is a hell of a long run. So why particularly today? I wanted to do it after the campaign celebration was over.* I wanted the celebration to be all about everybody and all we did, so I said let's do it right afterwards.

* - Penn has held a number of events in recent weeks celebrating the end of not only the athletic department's capital campaign, but the university-wide Time to Shine campaign that raised over $4 billion. The last of those events (at least the public ones) took place on the first weekend of November, when Penn held its Homecoming festivities.

When did you start thinking about stepping down?

Probably a year or two ago. For all of the reasons I mentioned, culminating with the campaign. It's funny – I've told coaches over the year who've retired after being here a long time that it's better to do it a little too early than a little too late. So I basically used that same advice to me.

I love the place, I love the job. I certainly could have done it longer. But it certainly seems like this is the perfect time to turn it over.

The capital campaign did a lot not only for the major sports, but the minor sports too. To go out on something like that is significant, for sure. But if you were to rank your accomplishments in your time as athletic director, would that rank at the top, or would something else?

Oh, there's no question. It's so unprecedented to raise that kind of money and do that much - not just with facilities, but endowing coaching positions, and raising all the annual funds. There were a lot of doubters at the beginning. We had never done an athletic campaign before, so how you measure what an ambitious potential would be? Anything over $100 million sounds astronomically high for a college like us.

It's not like we can load 50 people on a charter flight at the University of Michigan, and charge them all $50,000, and raise money that way. Ours is pure philanthropy. So yeah, it was pretty amazing.

Was this campaign different from the one that funded the Palestra renovation in 2000, and if so, how?

Yeah. This is really a science. You establish what you want to do, you put a price tag on it, and then you say how do you get to that point? It's almost like building a pyramid. You have to have a base of people at this level, and then at the top you get your high-end donors and you see how you get to $125 million. It takes a good number of years of planning before you get to even start executing it.

So this was a great learning experience, in addition to a lot of fun raising the money.

You've had a commitment throughout your time here, as you said, to all of the sports in the program. Some institutions might want to prioritize football and men's basketball above others. Talk about the importance of that philosophy. Is it something you would like to see continued by your successor? And is that a process you think you will be involved in?

The broad-based support goes back to being a student-athlete here. When you're friends with people from other sports, you get to know the soccer players and football players and track guys, et cetera. And you also realize that their commitment to and love of their sports was as big as yours. So when you get to this position of being athletic director, you're not going to forget that.

That was with me from the very beginning. I told the staff that from a standpoint of visibility and people's interests, sure, basketball and football are going to draw that. But that doesn't mean that the student-athletes are treated differently, or that the coaches are treated differently, or the ability to create facilities, or anything else we do. It will be the same. That's been kind of my mantra from the very beginning.

Sometimes it takes a while to deliver on all of that, but it's for sure.

And then with the successor, I'm really not involved in that. Where I'm involved is the global challenges and where things lie ahead. I have a great relationship with the provost and we talk about those kinds of things. But when it comes to selecting people, that's his call.

What do you think that your legacy is?

I think it's two-fold. It's the ability to create all of these facilities for so many sports, and taking old facilities like the Palestra and Franklin Field, and making them 21st-century buildings. There's places that tear those buildings down, but they are part of Penn. You can't just let them go to neglect. So to be able to update those and make them functional and modern was important.

And then creating new facilities like Penn Park, and what we've done here [at Rhodes Field] and so forth.

The other part is that we have never been in better financial shape than we are right now. We get revenue from so many different areas that we never did before. There's income from Penn Relays and ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, and recreation fees that students now pay.

As much as it sounds like we're so dependent on philanthropy, really and truly less than 20 percent of our money comes from giving. That's a great position to be in, because like anything else, when your income is diversified, you're not so dependent on one part.

We are in, by far, the best financial shape certainly of all of the years I've been here. And as you know, I was associated with Penn in the 70's and early 80's, and those were bad times. So it wouldn't surprise me to say that we're in the best shape we've been in for at least the last 30 or 40 years.

You had a big role in the Ivy League's national TV contract with NBC Sports and the creation of the Ivy League Digital Network. And there still is no conference tournament in men's basketball, which is a position you've supported strongly for a long time. Talk about your work at the conference level and your reflections on it.

I have an aggressive personality, and that carries over to my dealings with my colleagues and the league. I really feel that for the first part of my era, television was really important. We have to create visibility, whether it be for donors, recruits or families.

And now the streaming thing, there it is [he pointed to a large-screen television showing the online feed of the soccer game]. The world can see it right now. We can target audiences nationally and internationally with state-of-the-art technology, which I think is really going to increase our visibility dramatically.

So I've pushed the league to not only do it, but to do it at our quality - which I think is the best – and to meet our standards. I think they're doing it.

This is something that goes back a little while, to the press conference when Glen Miller took over as men's basketball head coach. He stood on the podium and said that that one of the things that most appealed to him about coming to Penn was that the school raises athletics to the level of academics, creating a kind balance between the two that isn't found elsewhere.

Having that kind of balance is not a unanimous philosophy in the Ivy League. It's also no secret that some schools in other conferences lower academics to be equal with athletics. So how important has that philosophy of balance been for you?

Well, they're not exclusive of one another. I have said from my own experiences, and from what I espouse, that intercollegiate athletics is an academic activity. It's not an extra-curricular activity, it's a co-curricular activity.

You're learning things from being part of a team that could help you in whatever thing you do. It's going to help build character. It's as important in some ways as the things you learn in the classroom.

If you believe that, and espouse that, then there's no reason that one has to sacrifice for the other. I've always felt that way and I still do. We push both and we push that they are integrated.

What would you say is your biggest contribution to Penn's athletic program, and what would you say is the biggest mistake or regret from your tenure?

I think the biggest contribution, again, is the funding. Both in terms of what it created and the base that it established. I think there have been 10 or 11 endowments that have been created. Endowments are invested so that 20 years from now, if it grows like it should grow, somebody's going to really benefit from having all of this money.

And I would say that the regret is probably obvious. I thought that when we hired Glen [Miller], because of his background, I was looking for somebody that could take us not just to the level where we had been, but possibly to a level beyond that: to win NCAA tournament games and get there.

He had been successful as a head coach in two places [Connecticut College and Brown]. He had taken a Division III team to the Final Four. He had done, I thought, the best job of any coach in the Ivy League at Brown. You would think, then, that with better resources and a better situation, he could take our good program to the next level.

But it just shows you how difficult things are. There's things that you can predict, and there's things you can't predict. And once they kind of spiral badly, then you just have to make the change and go forward.

I am really confident that Jerome [Allen] - you know, it might take another year or two to build his team in the way that the wants, but we'll be on the right track again.

At one point, there were plans for further renovations to the Palestra that briefly became public, but never came to pass. They involved turning the walkway from there to Hutchinson Gymnasium into a foyer-style entryway, and knocking out the top of the south wall of the arena to build a skybox-style structure. Is not getting that done a regret as well?

No. What we did to the Palestra is we've re-done the locker rooms, we've re-done the floor, we've put the video scoreboard in to make it a more pleasant place for fans. We just re-did the sound system in there. I think the thing that needs to be done, possibly, is renovating the bathrooms. Now, that's very expensive to do. But I think that we've done everything with the Palestra that we were going to do.

Was the skybox rendering realistic?

We looked at that. Rather than take up space in Hutchinson to do that, we wound up doing in Hutchinson what we did in the end: a new gymnasium and other things that were a much better use [of resources].

A lot of these plans get adjusted over time. You come and say you're going to do this, and then somebody comes up with a better idea or way of doing it. [Renovating] Hutchinson was never in the original plans. But when we thought about what we could do with the facility, and all the needs, we said this is exciting, this is really good, so we'll do that.