In 2008, Ira Bowman landed a college coaching job in his hometown of Newark, N.J., less than 10 minutes away from where he played
high school basketball at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange.
In his four years as an assistant coach at NJIT, Bowman played a large role in helping the program achieve respectability — going from 1-30 in his first season to 15-15 and 15-17 in his third and fourth seasons, respectively.
But leaving the Highlanders after four years to join Jerome Allen’s staff at Penn was one of the easiest choices Bowman has ever made.
“Not a rough decision at all,” Bowman, a 1996 graduate and two-year star with the Quakers, said. “I bleed red and blue. I was ecstatic about the opportunity to come back — Penn proud to be back. It was a no-brainer for me.”
Still, returning to the Fleisher Center on Thursday evening to coach the Quakers in a matchup against his former players and recruits will be an odd feeling.
“It’s going to be strange,” Bowman admitted. “Before the game I’ll feel a little nostalgic going back in there, but once you get into the game and get situated, I’m going to be focused on getting Penn the win.”
Fortunately for Bowman, there’s no ill will between him and NJIT coach Jim Engles, who gave Bowman his first collegiate coaching gig when he took over the program five seasons ago.
“I always knew that if a job opened at Penn — I know that him and Jerome are best friends and that if a job opened at Penn he was going to leave,” Engles said. “When the rumor was circulating that Mike [Martin] was going to get the [Brown] job, I was prepared for it.”
Tasked with fixing a team that set the NCAA Division I mark for the worst record ever at 0-29 the year before — a result that triggered the entire coaching staff to step down — Engles, Bowman and company built the fledgling Highlanders program from the ground up.
“In the program when we took over, we were pretty down obviously,” Engles said. “I think he was a great example with our guys.
“It wasn’t about being entitled or being given anything. You had to work for it, and I think his example of what he was coming up as a high school player and college player, I thought that really helped establish some credibility with my guys and helping the program move forward.”
Engles, of course, is referring to Bowman’s NBA career with the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks.
At Penn, Bowman and his fellow coaches are faced with a similar mission — bringing a once highly respected program back to relevance. But it won’t come about in the same way as it did at NJIT.
“It’s a completely different set of circumstances,” Bowman said. “Here at Penn there’s a tradition, there’s a level of expectations. At NJIT I think we were just trying to get something started.
“There’s not many similarities, but obviously when you talk about struggling and going through periods where there were a bunch of young player playing that are growing up on the court, I feel it’s somewhat similar to what we’re experiencing here.”
Indeed, Penn is going through growing pains one season after losing Zack Rosen, Tyler Bernardini and Rob Belcore. A freshman-heavy squad that’s also missing its leading scorer and rebounder, Fran Dougherty, enters Thursday’s bout at 2-13.
For Bowman, it’s a battle that he’s fought before–and won.
“It feels good to be able to sit back and say that you formed something, built something from the ground up,” Bowman said. “That program [at NJIT] is still ascending, and I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished and happy for the work that they’ve all put in.”
Sports Editor-elect Ian Wenik contributed reporting.