Welcome to the Calhoun era of Penn Athletics.
Provost Vincent Price announced on Monday that M. Grace Calhoun, the current athletic director and assistant vice president at Loyola of Chicago, will be the next Penn Director of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics, effective July 1. Calhoun was formally introduced at a press conference at the Palestra Monday afternoon.
Calhoun has been Loyola’s AD for three years and had previously been an associate athletic director at Indiana from 2005-11. She also has previous experience in the Ivy League, both as a student-athlete at Brown, where she graduated in 1992, and as an associate athletic director at Dartmouth from 2002-2005.
Calhoun earned her Ph.D. from Florida, where she also worked in the athletic department. She has also worked as acting director of athletics at St. Francis (Pa.) from 1997-98 and associate executive director of the Patriot League from 1998-2002.
“We set out to find a star, and we did,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said in a press release.
She will become the first female athletic director in Big 5 history.
"I’m helping to open doors for other women, just like so many phenomenal women have helped to open doors for me by being the first to serve in their positions," Calhoun said.
As the new AD, Calhoun will oversee both the Department of Recreation, which is in charge of the Pottruck Center and other facilities, as well as Intercollegiate Athletics, working closely with administrators and coaches to help each program. A major concern facing Penn Athletics has been student apathy towards its programs, something Price is confident Calhoun can address.
“We certainly value the role of Penn Athletics in building bridges within the community, not just the larger community but the community just before us, the student body, the faculty, the staff here on campus,” he said. “So one of the reasons we’re so excited about bringing Dr. Calhoun to campus is that she does have that kind of experience in having built that kind of excitement in other programs.”
Calhoun succeeds Steve Bilsky, who will retire after 20 years as Penn’s athletic director on June 30. Calhoun said that Bilsky “is in the position until then and I fully expect him to continue his decision-making until then.”
Under Bilsky, Penn Athletics recently finished fundraising $125 million during Penn’s Making History campaign with the Campaign for Penn Athletics. Penn also renovated existing facilities, including the Palestra and Franklin Field, and constructed new ones, adding Meiklejohn Stadium in 2000, Rhodes Field in 2002, Penn Park in 2011 and Vagelos Field in 2013.
Similarly to Bilsky, Calhoun oversaw significant changes in her time at Loyola. She opened two new facilities while hiring and restructuring 40 new coaches and staff members, which included the hiring of three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopesas women’s basketball coach. She also helped Loyola transition into the Missouri Valley Conference.
“I knew going into Loyola that it was a rebuild opportunity,” Calhoun said. “The president, vice president, university leadership made it very clear to me that they had been down for a lot of years and needed to be rebuilt.
“If I look at the Penn program, it’s very different in that things are going relatively well. They have some of the best facilities at an urban institution, to have the fundrais[ing]accounts be as healthy as they are right now.”
At the press conference, Calhoun also addressed issues involving Penn’s men’s basketball, which has struggled to the tune of a 17-42 record the past two seasons under coach Jerome Allen.
“During this transitional period, we have no plans to make any changes,” she said in response to a question about the men’s basketball program. “I believe strongly that I need to get in and really assess the situation firsthand. I believe everyone is entitled to a fair opportunity.”
Calhoun’s hire brings to an end a four-month long search process. Bilsky announced his retirement on Nov. 21, which was followed in January by the announcement of a 14-member advisory committee, which was chaired by Price and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli.
“I was thoroughly impressed by the work of the committee under [Price and Carnaroli],” Penn men’s soccer coach Rudy Fuller, a member of the committee, said. “We feel really good about the end result and we think we have a fantastic person to follow in Steve Bilsky’s footsteps.”
The committee, in conjunction with Daniel Parker of Parker Executive Search who was hired as a consultant, both received applications and reached out to candidates. Calhoun said that she was “called by the search firm,” which gave her the chance to get back to the Ivy League.
While Calhoun doesn’t have a prior connection to Penn, many see that fact as a positive, including Class of 1973 Wharton graduate Bob Johnson, one of 15 Penn basketball donors in the $10,000-$24,999 range for 2013-14.
“There is value in getting out of the ‘Not invented here’ syndrome that the Penn connection can sometimes overplay,” Johnson said. “Understanding the challenge of Ivy sports is important so maybe the [Brown and Dartmouth] connection gets her there.”
Fuller echoed Johnson’s sentiments about Calhoun bringing in a fresh view.
“I think there is an opportunity to bring in some fresh ideas and some new energy to the department,” he said. “I think that’s exciting.”
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