Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell writes a weekly sports column for the Daily News from a fan's perspective. His column appears Wednesdays.
FRAN DUNPHY is a great basketball coach. More importantly, he is a terrific person and a great teacher who cares about his players and their future. But make no mistake, Dunphy hates to lose and hates it even more if he feels that his team is playing with less than maximum effort.
It was a January night in 1991, one I will never forget because it was the night we started our air war against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. Penn was playing Saint Joe's at the Fieldhouse. I was at the game, sitting behind the Penn bench right next to the Dunphy family. Penn was playing poorly with very little second effort when coach Dunphy called a timeout. Then, Fran began to teach, and this great guy probably taught those Ivy Leaguers a few new words that even 20-year-olds had never heard before. This "lesson" caused the Dunphy elders to place their hands over the children's ears.
Yes, Dunphy is intense, and that intensity and his incredible basketball IQ have made him a winner. In less than 3 years he turned a Penn program that was going nowhere into a winner.
In his next 3 years, Penn went 69-14, including three consecutive 14-0 Ivy League championship runs. Overall, in his 17 seasons at Penn, Dunphy's teams won 10 Ivy League titles and went 310-163 overall (191-48 in the Ivy). At Temple, Dunphy started off 12-18 in his first season, but since then the Owls have reeled off 99 wins in 4 years and have won the Atlantic 10 Tournament three times.
Yes, Dunphy is a winner, but not in the NCAA Tournament. Dunphy's teams are 1-12 in March Madness games (1-9 at Penn; 0-3 at Temple). Does this tarnish his incredible coaching record? Does it eat away at the coach?
The answer to both questions is no. First, as the coach points out, in all but one of those 13 games his teams were the lower seed (last year the Owls were seeded higher than the tournament's Cinderella, Cornell). Second, in many of these games, the underdog Dunphy teams came agonizingly close to major upsets.
In 1993, Penn lost an extremely close game (54-50) to John Calipari's powerful Massachusetts team. The next year, the 11th-seeded Quakers upset sixth-seed Nebraska and then lost a close game to Final Four-bound Florida. That Penn team had three NBA players in Matt Maloney, Jerome Allen (now the Quakers' coach) and Ira Bowman. In 1995, that threesome played Antonio McDyess and Alabama and lost in overtime. With seconds to go in regulation, Alabama was holding the ball for the last shot and Allen came within inches of stealing it for what would have been a game-winning breakaway dunk. In Fran's last tournament game at Penn in 2006, the Quakers played second-seeded Texas in Dallas and after holding the lead in the second half, were down by only four with 2 minutes to go.
At Temple, the games haven't been that close. But this year was going to be different. The Owls were loaded with eight good players who could score, rebound, move the ball well and play great team defense - just the right depth and balance to do very well in the NCAA Tournament. But then Dunphy's bad luck reared its head again with crippling injuries to Micheal Eric, a great physical presence underneath, and Scootie Randall, a high-percentage shooter who averaged over 11.5 points per game.
Do these injuries spell doom for the Owls in this year's tournament? I don't think so, although the loss to Richmond may be a warning sign. The Owls still have great balance - against La Salle last Friday five players took between 11 and 14 shots. They can all score and rebound. They have an NBA player in Lavoy Allen, talented shooters in Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt, a great playmaker in Juan Fernandez and, best of all, they play team defense that can be smothering.
The Owls caught a break in drawing Penn State. The Nittany Lions are good, but they are an excellent matchup for Temple as they don't have a strong physical presence underneath, which mitigates the loss of Eric. So this could be the year. Good luck Fran, it will be one helluva game against San Diego State. *
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