Almost 20 years ago, a skinny kid from Germantown came to the University of Pennsylvania and helped turn the basketball team from a struggling also-ran into three-time Ivy League champions.
Penn basketball fans everywhere hope Jerome Allen C’95 can do it again.
On December 14, Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky W’71 fired Glen Miller as head coach of the freefalling men’s basketball team and handed the keys to the program to Allen, a Quaker legend who joined the coaching staff as an assistant in August after a lengthy professional career overseas [“Sports,” Nov|Dec 2009].
As a coach, Allen is as green as they come; he has only a handful of games under his belt. And never before in the history of Penn basketball has a head coach been fired in the middle of a season. But if this seems like a desperate move, well, it was. At the time of the change, Penn had the third lowest Ratings Percentage Index, a system that ranks all 347 Division I basketball teams, in the entire nation—a stunning decline for a program steeped in glory and tradition.
“I think it’s an opportunity for us to recapture the Penn identity, or begin to recapture it, by hiring Jerome,” said Bilsky, who hired Miller prior to the 2006-07 season after longtime head coach Fran Dunphy moved to Temple [“Sports,” May|June 2006].
“He represents to me the essence of what a student-athlete at Penn can accomplish here.”
Miller, the former head coach at Brown, never won over Penn’s passionate alumni fan base. The Quakers were Ivy champs in his first season, but since then the team’s performance—as well as attendance at the fabled Palestra—has steadily declined, capped by a 0-7 start this season before his firing was announced. Allen, who has the head-coach job on an interim basis, will have a lot of work to do to return the Quakers to respectability.
“The swiftness and acceleration of the entire process has been not necessarily overwhelming, but it’s a lot to handle,” said Allen, who as a crafty point guard led the Quakers to three straight perfect Ivy League seasons from 1992-95, as well as the program’s last NCAA tournament win. “Coaching at the University of Pennsylvania is probably a dream of a million guys out there. I would be doing all of them a disservice if I didn’t say that I’m overly ecstatic for this opportunity.”
The players seem just as excited about the change. Prior to the start of Allen’s second practice in charge, co-captains Zack Rosen and Darren Smith each spoke of a “different environment” surrounding the team.
“We know that the right guy has our back,” said Rosen, a promising sophomore point guard. “Jerome Allen is everything that every Penn basketball player wants to be.”
“Everyone is more excited, more motivated to be in the gym,” added Smith, a senior.
While Allen hasn’t had a chance to get back to all of the people who offered congratulations and support, he did reach out to his old mentor, Dunphy, who expressed confidence in his ability to “make a difference,” Allen said.
And did the man who coached Penn to 10 Ivy League championships give the rookie any advice?
“He told me, ‘Don’t throw a trash can at the kids’—like the one he threw at me.”
—Dave Zeitlin C’03