By David Porter | The past has always weighed heavily on Penn’s men’s basketball program, serving as guide and inspiration, to be sure, but also as stern-faced custodian. The Quakers tread daily in the sneaker steps of Wideman and Haigler, Price and Maloney, Jordan and Onyekwe. This is not a bad thing; Ivy League basketball has been one of the few corners of the sports world where success has begotten success so reliably.
Until lately, of course. For anyone who has been asleep for the last two years, this is not your father’s Ivy League (or your grandfather’s, for that matter). And as the Quakers try to put the brakes on a descent that resembles nothing so much as a luge speeding down an icy track, they are looking to the past, in the person of former great Jerome Allen C’95, to help shape their immediate future.
“This is something of a reality check,” athletic director Steve Bilsky W’71 said as the Quakers began their Ivy League schedule by splitting their first two weekends—a development that would have produced all manner of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing in years past but was treated as an encouraging sign for a team that had just tripled its win total for the season. “You could say we’ve been spoiled, but let’s face it, we like being spoiled,” Bilsky continued. “It’s rare for two schools to dominate a conference for 40 years. It’s a fluke, really. And we have to remember that it’s not an entitlement.”
How times have changed. No longer do the Ivies consist of Penn and Princeton and the Six Also-Rans. For Bilsky, who can remember years of chiding other athletic directors for being content to play for third place, it’s been the wish that came true, in screaming Technicolor.
“We just didn’t expect that they would elevate their programs at the same time we would be going through what we’re going through now,” he said.
The job of cleaning up the mess falls, for now at least, to Allen, who took over for Glen Miller, who from many accounts never really warmed to the Penn community (nor they to him) during three-plus seasons that kicked off with a league title then steadily slipped into the hole in which the Quakers find themselves today.
Allen was elevated from assistant coach when Miller was fired in December after losing the first seven games of the season, the last an 80-75 defeat to a Monmouth team that Quakers had beaten four straight times, and once by 44 points. According to Bilsky, the timing was right: The team was winless, there was a 16-day gap between games, and players were in finals and stressed out anyway. For many in Red and Blue Nation, the change came eight or nine months too late, but Bilsky had preached patience last spring after Penn’s second straight sub-.500 overall record and first sub-.500 Ivy season since 1990-91.
Allen is short on coaching experience and long on playing pedigree: He was the fulcrum of the mid-1990s teams that were the Quakers’ second Greatest Generation, after the early 1970s teams that featured a scrappy guard named Steve Bilsky. After two seasons in the NBA and several more in Europe he’s still fit enough to fuel Quaker followers’ fantasies that one day he’ll magically come behind a back pick and throw down an alley-oop dunk. But Allen knows no one wants to hear about the glory days when the current situation is so dire.
“I try not to talk about it too much,” Allen said after the Quakers matched St. Joseph’s point-for-point for 15 minutes, trailed by as many as 35 and eventually lost by 21 in their final non-conference game. “I want these guys to have their own experience, but it’s inevitable because I know what it takes on a day-to-day basis to get better.”
Allen has an able lieutenant in sophomore point guard Zack Rosen, whose intensity on the court masks an almost preternatural calm and focus. With few true offensive options, Rosen has had to be both distributor and scorer this season, illustrated by his 16.7 points and four assists per game, both tops on the team.
“I don’t get frustrated; that’s not me, and I’m trying to get all the guys to believe in that,” Rosen said after the St. Joseph’s game. “Guys are wearing down,” he conceded. “This is obviously not the way anyone planned it, but we’re here, we’re alive, we’re breathing. It’s a new season.”
The onset of the Ivy League schedule often has risen like an oasis in the desert for Penn teams laboring under tough non-conference schedules; this season it was more like a bandage applied to the gaping wounds of a 1-13 start. For a struggling team hobbled by injuries—including to its leading scorer, sophomore Tyler Bernardini—wins at Brown and Dartmouth were the perfect balm.
“It’s another opportunity for us to compete,” Allen had said before the Yale-Brown weekend. “We’re staying in the moment. It’s an opportunity for us to bond as a group. When you’re on those long bus trips, you talk about movies, you talk about current events, you talk about life. We still have an opportunity to reach some of the goals we set. It’s an opportunity for us to change the direction.”
With another humbling season already assured, the primary questions surround Allen’s status. Should he be handed the job before the season ends (no, according to Bilsky, who says Allen will be one of several candidates considered for the full-time position). More to the point, how does one judge a coach who inherits a dysfunctional team playing without its leading scorer and with not enough bodies to stay in most games?
“We can’t judge him strictly on wins and losses,” Bilsky said. “It comes down to, how does he run practices? How does the team play on the floor? How is his strategy? How does he handle the administrative tasks? Jerome is learning things about what it takes to be a successful head coach. We want people feeling good about the program and remembering that Penn basketball is a special situation. Recognizing that no one is a miracle man, we were looking for good effort, good enthusiasm, good practices; in that, he’s done an excellent job. They’ve bought into that, they haven’t pointed fingers; they know there will be better days ahead. And I give Jerome the bulk of the credit for that.”
David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.