Wednesday, March 18, 2015

News and Notes: Wednesday Edition

Below, news and notes...

  • Hampton Roads (VA) writes, "Here’s how some other local players did this season. Cornell G Darryl Smith (Norfolk Collegiate) 2.5 points, 20 assists, 13 steals."
As usual, if the Ivy League wants respect in college basketball, it will have to be earned.
Even then, it might not matter.
Consider the latest slap at a league that usually finds a way to be in the middle of the conference RPI rankings: Yale went 22-10 but lost its final regular-season game to Dartmouth 59-58 on a shot in the final seconds, falling into a tie with Harvard for the Ivy League title and setting up a one-game playoff.
Yale then lost to the Crimson 53-52 on a 15-footer by Steve Moundou-Missi with 7.2 seconds remaining as Harvard earned the Ivy’s automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs, who beat defending national champion Connecticut and Patriot League champion Lafayette, took Vanderbilt to double overtime before losing 79-74 and lost to tournament team Providence 72-66 on the road, didn’t even merit an NIT invitation...
Welcome to the Ivy League, where there is no margin for error when it comes to making the NCAA Tournament...
The Ivy League has never received more than a bid for its conference champion since at-large teams were added to the tournament in 1979.
Although there have been 18 Sweet 16 teams in league history, Cornell’s trip to the regional semifinals in 2010 — which started with victories over Temple and Wisconsin in Jacksonville — is the only one for the Ivy since Penn’s 1979 Final Four team...
One way to perhaps get a second Ivy League team into the tournament would be to hold a conference tournament. The Ivy is the only one of the 33 conferences that get automatic bids that still relies on the regular-season to decide a conference champion...
  • The Daily Pennsylvanian notes, "[Steve] Donahue received his first head coaching opportunity with perennial Ivy bottom-feeder Cornell, spending a decade in Ithaca.  However, in ten seasons with the Big Red, he transformed one of the Ivy League’s worst programs into a powerhouse. In his final three years at Cornell, Donahue won three consecutive Ancient Eight titles, becoming the first team outside of Penn and Princeton to ever do so.  Following a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010, Donahue was hired at Boston College.The DP also writes, "Tuesday also happened to be the 21st anniversary of the Quakers’ upset of Nebraska as an 11-seed in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, Penn’s last win in the Big Dance. Things have changed a lot since then – the Ivy League is almost unrecognizable compared to its former self. Heck, it’s completely different from what it was back when Cornell made three straight NCAA appearances under Donahue from 2008-10.  Face it. The days of Penn and Princeton winning the Ivy title by birthright are dead. A new approach is needed to restore the Red and Blue program to relevance. Luckily for Penn fans, Donahue is well aware of the conference’s paradigm shift. 'The days are over in this league where you can rely on this building [the Palestra] and the Big 5 to take you to the NCAA Tournament,' he said...Donahue is unafraid of scheduling the big boys. At Cornell, he took the Big Red to Assembly Hall to face Indiana, Cameron Indoor Stadium to play Duke and Allen Fieldhouse to play Kansas, in addition to their annual trip to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse. 'People thought I was crazy at Cornell. They thought I was crazy at [Boston College]. They may have been right,' he said. 'I had the hardest nonconference schedule in the country at BC. I had 18 road games my last year at Cornell. I will play anybody.'"
Without any prompting, Steve Donahue directly addressed one of the most important challenges he will face as the 20th head coach in the 115-year history of the Penn men's basketball program.
"The days are over in this league where you can rely on this building and the Big 5, and it's going to take you to the NCAA tournament," he said. "This league has changed. It has changed over the last 25 years, the last 10 years and the last five years... We just cannot afford to think this is enough."
Donahue remarks were a none-too-subtle reference to the rise of Harvard as the Ivy League's new superpower.
In addition to Tommy Amaker's recruiting skills, the Crimson have been able to use the school's unrivaled endowment; fundraising support from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and former Staples chairman Tom Stemberg; and an athletics-friendly admissions department to become an unstoppable force in ways that extend beyond the walls of Lavietes Pavilion.
Donahue was also describing the Ivy League as a whole, which is stronger from top to bottom now than at almost any other point in its history.
"What I think happened as Penn and Princeton had such dominance in this league - and I was on the other side of that for a long period [at Cornell from 2000 through 2010] - the other schools in this league recognized how important it was to win at college basketball," he said. "Every single program made huge investments - that's not just financially, but that's in every aspect, to make sure that basketball was a priority."
Indeed, it's not just Harvard that has surpassed Penn in recent years. Columbia offers further proof of Donahue's point.
For decades, Levien Gym was a wasteland, save for the annual visits from thousands of Penn and Princeton alumni. The school's students boasted about how little attention they paid to their sports teams. Now, under current coach Kyle Smith, the program has improved, and there's a legitimate student section at every game.
But when Donahue said that the rise in quality across Ivy League basketball "has a lot to do with changes in financial aid at all of these institutions," the message was clear. It was a shot aimed straight from the banks of the Schuylkill to the banks of the Charles.
If Donahue is to end Amaker's reign atop the Ancient Eight, he won't be able to do it alone, and he knows it.
No one is going to directly ask Penn to lower its admission standards for the men's basketball team. But there are legitimate questions to be asked about how the university administration should support the athletic department and vice versa. As Amaker once told me, only in the Ivy League do secondary recruiting violations become big stories in the New York Times.
I would have liked to ask Penn provost Vincent Price, who serves as the primary liaison between College Hall and Weightman Hall, to answer a few of those questions. He was a key player in the hiring of athletic director M. Grace Calhoun last March. But when I approached him right after Donahue's press conference ended, he told me he had to run out and couldn't talk.
So it was left to Calhoun to do the talking. She did some of it unprompted, including a description of the coaching search during her opening remarks in the press conference.
"After performing a robust and year-long assessment of the men's basketball program, we entered the search process with a strong sense of the background, skills and character traits for which we were looking in Penn's next head coach," she said. "A list of 25 sitting or former Division I head coaches and four assistant coaches was thoroughly vetted. Quite frankly, Steve Donahue set a bar that no other candidate could overcome."
Donahue set that bar over the course of a five-and-a-half hour in-person conversation with Calhoun. Whether or not that time precluded substantive interviews with the other 28 candidates isn't known, and may never be. But I do know that Penn hired the well-known basketball coach search firm run by Eddie Fogler.
I also know that Yanni Hufnagel, the former Harvard and Vanderbilt assistant who's now at California, was contacted by Fogler's firm. His candidacy was championed by a sizeable caucus of Penn alumni, especially younger ones. But the search firm decided to go in another direction.
"We were also acutely aware that coach Donahue had multiple suitors, and that Penn would need to move swiftly to stay in front of other searches," Calhoun said. "While some may conclude that Steve was the obvious choice, or even go so far as saying that I read the newspapers and selected him, nothing could be further from the truth. Countless hours, conversations and negotiations went into making this happen."
(The author of one of the newspaper pieces in question, Mike Jensen, was sitting just a few feet away from Calhoun's podium. In his story for the Inquirer on Donahue's introduction, Mike Jensen paid particular attention to Donahue's remarks about recruiting, and for good reason.)
After the press conference ended, I asked Calhoun what priorities she set for Fogler's consultants.
"It has to begin with integrity - this is a place where character flaws will not be accepted, where winning in any other than the right way will not be accepted," she answered. "I then asked them to find me a proven coach, someone who was a known developer of talent... certainly a seasoned recruiter, someone who had a seasoned track record for being able to land prospects and really close the deal... and then I went through things that are really kind of Philly- and Penn-specific."
Calhoun may not be from the Philadelphia region, but when the Palestra hosted big crowds for Penn's games against Villanova and Saint Joseph's in January, she got a good helping of what the building is supposed to be like.
"There's something so special about Philadelphia basketball and Big 5 basketball that I really wanted someone who had some appreciation of that, who could recruit locally and had a good name locally," she said. "The Ivies are a different kind of recruiting war."
I also asked Calhoun for her perspective on the financial aid question. She cited an Ivy League policy which allows schools within the conference to match each other's financial aid offers, and said "there truly never should be a student-athlete that we lose out on because they got a more favorable package elsewhere."
But she also acknowledged that "there are some improvements we can make in how we administer that, and how we get peer-competitive packages immediately."
For as much has changed in the Ivy League over the years, the sense of familiarity that Donahue brought to the Palestra was impossible to miss. Whether or not you believe he was the safe choice, there's no question that he was the most familiar. You knew it from the accent, from his love of the Palestra, and from the first of his classic, razor-sharp whistles that shot across the floor as he chatted with old friends.
The first three words out of Calhoun's mouth as she began to recite Donahue's accomplishments at the start of her prepared remarks were "as you know."
Whether those words were intentional or not, everyone in the Palestra on Monday did indeed know.
"I wholeheartedly believe that Steve is the ideal leader to return Penn men's basketball to prominence," Calhoun said. "You can expect to see an exciting brand of basketball, and where players are left to play. He'll create a great environment at the Palestra, and his Quaker team will win games."
Those italics were Calhoun's, not mine. She is not one for speaking forcefully, but she put some oomph into that particular word.
"I was taken aback by his humility in describing his failures when he could have instead described circumstances beyond his control," Calhoun said. "After all, we are ultimately defined by our response to adversity."
I asked Donahue about one of the challenges he will face in addition to building a winning team: restoring basketball's pride of place in the Penn community, especially within the student body. No matter which City Six school you root for, you've surely seen attendance at the Palestra wither away over the last decade.
Donahue, much more than I ever heard out of Glen Miller or Jerome Allen, takes a personal interest in fixing that.
"Coaches forget, and I think players forget as well, that the main purpose of us being a basketball program is to enhance the experience of the student body," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can - if I have to drag them out, knock on their doors 10 minutes before the game, to get them down here. We're going to try to play - a lot of my reasons for the way we play is because it's fun to watch."
He also acknowledged that for as much as he wants his team to play a style of basketball "that mirrors what they try to do in their classrooms," results will matter most.
"You've got to have a winning team for the students to jump on," he said. "I'm pretty sure they will."
Donahue also addressed the struggles he has endured in his career, especially at Cornell and Boston College.
"When I went to Cornell in 2000, I thought I had all the answers," he said. "I was a bad basketball coach for a good stretch."
At Boston College, Donahue said, he "figured out an incredible growth in my personal development," incluidng the lesson that "failure isn't fatal."
"To land here with all that experience behind me can make me a much better basketball coach," he concluded.
Twenty-one years to the day after Penn's last NCAA tournament win - a game he witnessed from the sidelines as a Quakers assistant coach - Donahue was presented with a new kind of adversity. Now it's time for him and Calhoun to respond, and to create their ultimate definitions.
Steve Donahue was all set to wear a green tie for St. Patrick’s Day, before changing his mind at the last minute. For his introductory press conference at the Palestra on Tuesday, the new Penn basketball coach opted for the red and blue tie instead.
You know, Penn’s colors.
Back with the Quakers after 15 years, Donahue just had to show off the pride he has for the university that made him into the coach he is today.
“This place,” he said, “is a place that is everything I could ever want in an institution.”
Luckily for him, Donahue is also everything Penn wanted in its next men’s basketball coach. And that’s why athletic director Grace Calhoun didn’t waste any time hiring the former Penn assistant and Cornell and Boston College head coach to help turn the floundering program around.
Donahue was hired Monday, less than a week after Jerome Allen stepped down following three straight losing seasons.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Donahue said. “We need to get back on top where we belong. I’m going to work as hard as I can to make sure that happens.”
If anyone knows the potential of Penn’s basketball program, it’s Donahue.
From 1990 to 2000, he served on Fran Dunphy’s staff at Penn, helping the Quakers capture six Ivy League titles, including four separate undefeated conference campaigns. During that span, Penn compiled a 182-91 record and a 114-26 mark in Ivy play. And exactly 21 years ago today, Penn won its last NCAA tournament game, beating Nebraska in the first round of the Big Dance – with Donahue on the sidelines and Allen starring on the court.
Of course, a lot’s changed since then. Back when Donahue was an assistant, Penn’s only real competition in the league was Princeton, as the two former Ivy powerhouses combined for every conference title from 1989 to 2007.
The league is a lot more competitive now with Harvard having won at least a share of five straight Ivy crowns and other teams rising from the bottom of the league and passing Penn in the conference hierarchy.
“The days are over in this league where you can rely on this building and the Big 5 to take you to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “This league has changed.”
Donahue, interestingly enough, is one of the big reasons why the league changed. After Dunphy left Penn for Temple in 2006 – and Penn passed over Donahue for the job to hire the ill-fated Glen Miller – Donahue ended the reign of the big “P”s by leading Cornell to three straight Ivy titles starting in 2008.
The icing on the cake was Cornell’s magical run to the Sweet 16 in 2010, marking the farthest an Ivy League team advanced in the NCAA Tournament since Penn’s Final Four trip in 1979.
But getting Cornell to that point certainly wasn’t easy, as the Ursinus grad endured many losing seasons and failed efforts to get Philly-area recruits.
“When I went to Cornell in 2000, I thought I had all the answers,” Donahue said. “I was a bad basketball coach for a good stretch. Like all my experiences, I thought it enabled me to figure things out.”
Donahue wasn’t afforded much of an opportunity to figure things out at Boston College, getting fired after four years with the Eagles. Still, he doesn’t regret springboarding off his success at Cornell to jump to the ACC in 2010.
“I can’t tell you what an incredible experience that was for me and my family,” he said. “I had incredible growth in my personal development in that time. … I learned that failure isn’t fatal. You have growth and you move on. And I’m here.”
Because of his failures at Boston College, there were some Penn fans out there that hoped the Quakers would try to snag a younger coach on the rise. Some popular names were Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole and Colgate head coach Matt Langel, both of whom were star guards for the Quakers.
But Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun settled on Donahue after a five-and-a-half hour interview, while making clear she thoroughly vetted many other candidates.
“Doing your due diligence and making sure you make the right decision is critically important,” she said. “On the other hand, we’re in a competitive industry. And with a lot of jobs opening and searches gearing up, I certainly was acutely aware that our ability to talk to the most desirable candidates was going to be predicated on our ability to move quickly.”
Donahue confirmed he would have had some other opportunities after spending a year away from coaching as a TV analyst, but he made it clear that this job was far and away his top choice.
“A lot of people think, including my family, the main reason was this is in Philadelphia,” said Donahue, a native of Springfield Township. “I love Philadelphia. I love everything about it. But that has little to do with this decision, in all honesty. This decision is based on my research that, of the institutions that were going to open, this is flat out the best spot to win – with the right type of kids and the right way.”


Anonymous said...

CBB - put us inside Andy Noel's head...Any chance he wishes he had cut Courtney loose and jumped on Donahue before Penn? Or is he content to stay the course and give Bill a few more seasons?

The Cornell Basketball Blog said...

I announced months ago that B.C. was most likely coming back. Steve D was never a target.