PENN’S CALHOUN A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

Penn named Loyola’s M. Grace Calhoun to replace Steve Bilsky as its athletic director on July 1.

By Theodore N. Beitchman

With that appointment, the university has gone a long way toward erasing the stain of the past eight years when Bilsky let Fran Dunphy, the best basketball coach in the school’s rich history, walk away to Temple without even a returned phone call; and last fall Bilsky embarrassed himself and Penn by engaging in a bizarrely sexist description of Drexel’s basketball arena.

Calhoun won the Nell Jackson Administrator of the Year Award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators in 2009 while an associate athletic director at Indiana University. Officials said she has also been actively involved in the governance of the N.C.A.A. as chairwoman of the research committee and vice chairwoman of the Olympic Sports liaison committee.

Shortly after taking over the Loyola job in 2011, Calhoun fired the men’s basketball coach, Jim Whitesell, who was 109-107 in seven seasons, with one year remaining on his contract. She replaced him with Porter Moser, who has gone 32-61 in three seasons.

A current concern for supporters of Penn athletics is the state of the men’s basketball team, which has not won a league title since 2007 after dominating the conference, along with Princeton, for decades. Penn followed a 20-13 season in 2011-12 with records of 9-22 and 8-20 in the past two seasons. Coach Jerome Allen, a former player at Penn and in the N.B.A., is 56-85 in five seasons at Penn, his only college coaching job, 34-36 in the Ivy League.

Amy Gutmann, the university president, said Calhoun’s experience as an Ivy League student and athlete at Brown would give her “a valuable leg up” in understanding Penn’s culture.

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At first glance, the Penn athletic director has a cake job — meet budgets, assuage alums, raise money, charm Guttman with your competence, wit and erudition. Oh, and pose for photos with the parents and other relatives of Penn athletes.

Let’s be honest. It has been a long time since whomever is in charge at Weightman Hall has had a consequential place in the pantheon of Philly sports. Or at least enough to make news.

So when Bilsky — who let the greatest coach in Penn basketball history walk away without a call back in 2006 — bizarrely offended good neighbor Drexel by comparing Penn’s Palestra to Marilyn Monroe and the Dragons’ Daskalakis Center to a dog, you had to have wondered why Guttman and Penn board chair David L. Cohen hadn’t fired Bilsky before he announced he was retiring next June 30.

Or maybe they pushed him to make way for Calhoun.

I don’t know why Bilsky, who seems obssessed by buildings at the expense of his teams’ performance, compared an 86-year-old barn, charming though it may be, to a 1950s sexpot. Or why he reverted to sexism to make a point. But it is clear that Bilsky is now officially off the rails.

It wasn’t always this way at dear old Penn.

Jerry Ford — or Jeremiah Ford II, C’32, G’42, as he is referred to by the holier-than-thou crypt-keepers in West Philly — merely saved Penn athletics.

He became athletic director in 1953 — which Dan Rottenberg calls the Year of the Witches— when the Quakers played football against Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Army, Navy and Michigan. Penn granted no athletic scholarships and had no spring practice.

Ford’s mission, as directed by president Gaylord P. Harnwell, was to affect the transition from big time football to the more genteel level of play in what would become the Ivy League in 1955. The aim was to make Penn as famous academically as it had been athletically.

Along the way, Ford had to break some eggs and break some hearts. Legendary coach George Munger resigned in protest, but Ford persevered, lasting until 1967, when he was fired — it was front-page news in the Bulletin, this town’s paper of record. It took Fred Shabel’s calm and conciliatory leadership to deal with the angst of the Munger men and right the Quaker ship.

Bilsky had a nice career as a Penn basketballer — he was All-Ivy as a member of the 1971 28-0 squad that was blown away 90-47 by Villanova in the NCAA Eastern Regionals — and after a stint as AD at George Washington, Bilsky took over the Penn AD job in 1994.

Bilsky had two all-world coaches when he arrived — Al Bagnoli in football and Dunphy in basketball. You can roll up all the lacrosses and wrestlings and soccers and tennises into a sack and they wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the big two, which generate the most revenue.

Bagnoli is in his 22nd year on the sidelines for Penn, and he has the highest winning percentage of any coach in Ivy history, which includes Dartmouth’s Bob Blackburn, Princeton’s Charlie Caldwell, Harvard’s Joe Restic and Yale’s Carm Cozza. Going into 2013, he had amassed nine Ivy titles and three of the last four.

Dunphy coached the Quakers from 1989 until 2006, and in those 17 seasons he won 310 games, 10 Ivy titles and even managed a win in 1994’s March Madness, the last Penn team to do so.

Yet when Temple AD Bill Bradshaw came calling in 2006 and wanted Dunphy to replace the legendary John Chaney, no one at Penn said, “No way.” Maybe they couldn’t have matched Temple’s salary offer, but, according to Bradshaw, he was told by Mary DiStanislao, a Penn associate AD, “There is no problem on this end.” Bilsky never got involved.

Bilsky allowed Dunphy to walk, just as the brain-dead Eagles allowed Brian Dawkins to walk in 2009.

So, Bilsky hired Glen Miller (not the band leader) to replace Dunphy and now former Penn star Allen. How did that work out for you, Steve? Five losing seasons out of eight.

Now, thanks to Mike Tony, senior sports editor at the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s excellent campus paper, we have an insight into Bilsky’s mind and mouth. They do not seem connected.

In an article last September about “The Battle of 33rd Street,” the basketball rivalry between Penn and Drexel, Tony writes, “

“It’s only nine-tenths of a mile long, but the bridge separating the Dragons and the Quakers is too treacherous for either side to cross. But the Palestra has to be the trump card here, right? It’s the Cathedral of College Basketball. It’s the home and pride of the Big 5, forever preserved in steel, concrete and red and blue benches.

“Drexel’s arena, the Daskalakis Athletic Center, is better known as the DAC, and Penn athletics director Steve Bilsky knows it’s no Palestra. In fact, just comparing the two brings another ‘D’-initialed three-letter word to Bilsky’s mind.

“ ‘How would you compare Marilyn Monroe and a dog?’ Bilsky asked.

Then, as if he knew he had stepped on it, Bilsky tried to walk it back. ‘There’s nothing like the Palestra. I’m really truly not saying that to demean their facility or their program. I’m just saying you have two schools that are within walking distance from the facility. Is there anyone else who can make that statement in the country?’ ”

For the record, Drexel’s response was short and pithy:

“We will not dignify [Bilsky’s] comments about the DAC with a response,” emailed Lori Doyle, Drexel’s senior vice president of communications. “Other than to say that any time Penn wants to play Drexel in basketball, we’re up for it, no matter where the game is played.”

Attempts to get a response from Penn president Amy Guttman or her flack were unavailing.

In other words, Guttman was speechless.

Unlike her athletic director, who will go down in history as a refurbisher of Franklin Field and the Palestra and someone who presided over the decay of the most mighty Quaker basketball team.

And an embarrassment.

 

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