Whether or not anyone saw Loyola-Chicago making it to this year’s Final Four, someone at the school had the sense back in 2011 to believe that Porter Moser was the right coach to lead the Ramblers to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1985.
That someone was Grace Calhoun, who in 2014 moved from Chicago to Philadelphia to become Penn’s athletic director. It’s safe to say she has had a pretty good March, as her former team and her current team both broke March Madness droughts this year.
“To see so many of the hard efforts of turning around the program really now take shape … It really has just been so exciting. I could not be happier for them,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun said repeatedly that she didn’t want to make the moment be about her, but she knows her role was important in a few ways.
One was getting Loyola into the Missouri Valley Conference in 2013 after 34 years in the Horizon League. That was the same year Creighton and Butler joined the new Big East. The former move opened a spot in the MVC; the latter move came a year after Butler had left the Horizon, diminishing the conference’s stature after those two famous runs to the title game.
Loyola’s move up required a big financial commitment, but the conference was glad to put its footprint inside Chicago’s city limits.
“We had to do a lot on the promise of what the future could bring,” Calhoun said. “The president had to be sold on why the move was going to make sense … A lot of people had to make a leap of faith that Loyola could be a really competitive program, and I think we did all the right things to put our best foot forward and really show what that future could look like.”
It’s safe to say that won’t be a problem in the Ivy League, whose membership hasn’t changed since its founding in 1954.
But changing basketball coaches is a different story, and that is something Calhoun has done at Loyola and Penn.
The Loyola decision came within months of the Ramblers hiring her from Indiana. Then-coach Jim Whitesell’s contract was going into its last year, which meant she had to make a decision quickly. So quickly, in fact, that Calhoun made the decision to not extend Whitesell before her first day on the ground in Chicago. She was already working on finding Whitesell’s successor while in the transition period to Loyola from IU.
“I didn’t feel like my first move could be signaling all the wrong things by extending a coach and perpetuating a situation I didn’t believe in,” Calhoun said. “Yet I knew deep down that if I was to lead the Loyola program in the way that I really felt it needed to be led, that I had to be willing to make those personal sacrifices and have my first actions really speak to my management philosophy.”
It’s a lot easier to look back at all of that now, of course. And it’s a lot easier to look positively at her current circumstances in the wake of Penn’s first NCAA men’s tournament berth in 11 years.
“I feel very confident that Penn is on much of the same trajectory, because I’ve been building it in all the same ways,” she said.
That includes parallels she sees between Moser and Quakers coach Steve Donahue. Both men have deep roots in their respective cities, and deep understandings of their campus cultures. Moser grew up at a Jesuit high school and a Jesuit college in Creighton, and now coaches at another Jesuit institution. Donahue built his coaching resume in the Ivy League, with 10 years assisting at Penn and 10 in charge at Cornell.
Just as importantly to Calhoun, both men turned failure into later success. Moser was fired by Illinois State in 2007 for underachieving; Donahue was fired by Boston College in 2014 for the same reason.
When Loyola won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Moser called Calhoun to thank her “for giving him what he considered to be a second chance at being a head coach, and believing that he could be successful.”
Just under a year after Calhoun took the job at Penn, she dismissed Jerome Allen and hired Donahue. Reflecting now on that time, she noted how Donahue “had been in so many ways made the wiser from his past experience at Boston College. … There was somebody with so much life wisdom that was going to come in and really understand what the environment needed to move forward.”
That move has happened, and it has happened faster than even some in the program expected. Calhoun believes the stage is now set for Penn to continue rising. Maybe not to the Final Four — which the program has some experience with, including playing a team from Michigan — but to sustained success in March.
“I think we’re in all regards well ahead of schedule,” she said. “Steve believes deep down that he’s going to build this thing to be a program that regularly not only gets to the NCAA tournament, but can win some games.”