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Saturday, August 14, 2004

Fran Dunphy to Stay at Penn

In Philadelphia basketball circles, the suspense was tantamount to the selection of a new Pope, which doesn't happen that often either. But this would have been the first time that a sitting (or standing, as it were) Big 5 coach would have left one Big 5 school for another. For the past month, the question was whether Penn coach Fran Dunphy would leave his perch as dean of Ivy coaches for his alma mater, LaSalle University.

There were great arguments both ways. On the "go" side, Dunphy would be returning to his alma mater as the savior of a once-proud program that has not had a winning season in 10 years and that has just undergone a major scandal. He would return as a conquering hero. On the "stay" side, the arguments were that he has a great gig going at Penn, where he has become an institution, and that he might have developed a serious case of "be careful what you wish for" had he taken the LaSalle job, for he might have realized that despite the increase in pay (which apparently Dunph insiders know he doesn't really need) and fortified Explorer recruiting budget, HS kids still would wonder why they would want to spend 4 years in north central Philadelphia, on a campus that doesn't compare to, say, nearby Villanova's (or even nearby St. Joe's). In short, the world has grown tremendously since Dunphy went to LaSalle, and he would have found that out in a hurry.

A suburban Philadelphia columnist, Mike Sielski, kept great tabs on this story, as much as any sportswriter could have given that Dunphy kept quiet during what had to be a tumultuous time making his decision. Penn alums probably persuaded him if not begged him to stay, and Penn's most prominent hoop fan, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, was among the callers. And getting Dunphy to stay at Penn might be among the Governor's top five accomplishments since he was elected. Click here to read the article that broke the news.

Penn, naturally, is thrilled that Dunphy has elected to remain. Click here for the statement from the University of Pennsylvania, which includes a quote from Penn A.D. Steve Bilsky. Apparently, they were singing "Kumbaya" at the Penn A.D.'s office after all, despite reports that Bilsky, a former Penn hoops star when Penn was a top 10 team, and Dunphy (who played against Bilsky), didn't get along. Perhaps, in the end, business considerations outweighed the personal. And, of course, Ed Rendell is quite the charmer. One of the best.

So now LaSalle has to focus on hiring a new coach. Click here for my post on who I think they should consider going after, now that three coaches (Fran Dunphy, Fran O'Hanlon and Joe Mihalich) have taken themselves out of the running. The cognoscenti say that Maine coach John Giannini may still be a viable alternative; he was the runner-up three years ago when Billy Hahn was hired. Let's wish the LaSalle administration good luck; they're going to need it.

So Fran Dunphy now has some peace of mind, at least in the short term. The LaSalle job under ordinary circumstances wouldn't have appealed to him except he went there and obviously has great feelings for the school. What he really has been looking for is a true step up, at a university in a major conference, with great facilities and a solid recruiting budget, just so that he can have a shot at the bigger time. His agreeing to stay at Penn probably isn't as much a concession that Penn is his ultimate resting spot as it is that he couldn't go home again to LaSalle, that his beloved alma mater wasn't the same institution and didn't hold the same appeal as it did when he was a HS senior making his college choice. My bet is that if opportunity knocks again at the "right" school, Fran Dunphy will want to answer his biggest "what if" question in his professional career. And leave Penn. Despite any entreaties from Ed Rendell. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Princeton's legendary coach, Pete Carril, flirted with other opportunities during his coaching career, perhaps wrestling with the same "what if" demon that has made its way into Dunphy's kitchen. Rumors abounded during Carril's time that he was in the running for jobs at Boston College, Fordham (where he would have doubled as the A.D.) and even Auburn (where he ultimately took himself out of the running). Carril, though, is a much different personality from Dunphy, and while he always probably wanted to know the answer to the "what if" question, he was (and is) a smart guy, and probably realized that his very direct, non-coddling style might not have played at the bigger-time schools during his prime. So he remained in central New Jersey, where he built an amazing record and a legacy that even Penn's beloved Dunphy will have difficultly surpassing (despite having the chance to win more titles than Carril did).

In a way, though, Pete Carril did get his "what if" question answered, because he knew his post-Princeton calling was as an NBA assistant, where he could be the consiglieri and draw up plays until the sun came up. And he has done that, putting the trademarked "Princeton offense" on the map and earning a place in basketball's Hall of Fame. And while the Sacramento Kings haven't won an NBA title since he has been affiliated with them, that they have gotten so far is testimony, in some part, to the basketball genius that Pete Carril is.

But Dunphy and Carril aren't a matched set; their careers only overlapped for 7 seasons (7 of Carrils' 30 or so at Princeton), and they aren't paired the way Affirmed and Alydar were, Foyt and Andretti or Chamberlain and Russell. There is no bad blood, no rivarly (in fact, Carril was one of the references who called his own alma mater, Lafayette, on behalf of Fran O'Hanlon when the former Dunphy assistant was applying for the Lafayette job). Both are great coaches. One enjoys status as an exalted senior statesman of the game, while the other one still wonders, a bit, what remains on his journey and where, if anywhere, his next stop will be.

Like a good coach, Fran Dunphy will work hard in the present, focusing on helping prepare his Penn Quakers to win yet another Ivy title under his tenure. And, in electing to remain in University City, he elects to face a very tough challenge -- a veteran Princeton team that won the title last year, that has almost everyone back, and that has a new coach with a great curriculum vitae of his own, Joe Scott, the Princeton alum who might get nominated for college hoops sainthood himself one day for the miracle he worked at Air Force.

That's a big enough challenge in and of itself, and Fran Dunphy will have fun tackling it. In early February he'll be in the thick of the Ivy race, instead of waiting for his LaSalle season to end quickly so he can hit the recruiting trail and get some players. He'll be grateful he stayed. I think he made the right decision and was surprised that it took him this long.

That said, the quality of Ivy coaches has increased markedly over the years, and in facing Joe Scott, he'll be facing one of the best young coaches in the game, a coach who is probably better from a tactical and disciplinary standpoint (in terms of ball and clock management) than his predecessor, John Thompson III, who is a very good coach in his own right. So the challenges remain for Fran Dunphy.

For now.


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