A new era for Penn Athletics has arrived.
And it feels really weird.
M. Grace Calhoun was formally introduced as Penn’s next athletic director Monday after a four month-long search process and her resume indicates that she was worth the wait.
She’s a 1992 Brown graduate and was associate athletic director at Dartmouth from 2002-05, so she knows Ivy athletics. She is, in her words, the “soon to be former” athletic director at Loyola Chicago, so she knows how to oversee collegiate athletics in an urban landscape. She said all the right things at her introductory press conference, using her Palestra pulpit to broadcast her appreciation for the Big 5 tradition and desire to enhance the Penn community through successful and engaging athletics.
“We need to train them that this is fun, that this is community-building, that these will be some of the great moments that they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives,” Calhoun said.
Her commitment to hitting the ground running covered pretty much everything most Penn supporters would like to hear.
Except when she can actually hit the ground running.
“Steve Bilsky is in the position until [July 1] and I fully expect him to continue his decision-making until then,” Calhoun said. “Quite honestly, this will be the sanest transition I’ve had. I’ve had a lot where I finish in one state on Friday and start in the next job on Monday.”
That’s true, you need time to adjust to any job, let alone one overseeing a multimillion dollar organization like Penn Athletics that directly or indirectly affects millions of lives every day.
But when an organization finds itself at a crossroads as stark as the one that is facing Penn Athletics right now, it needs a leader at the helm. Yet what Penn Athletics has is one lame duck AD in Bilsky and one still transitioning AD in Calhoun.
In other words, when you have two athletic directors, you don’t have any.
So what’s the crossroads that Penn Athletics faces?
A student body so apathetic towards Penn Athletics that just one solitary student showed up for the athletic director search open forum last month.
An Athletics apparatus so reliant on fundraising that Bilsky couldn’t even support his successor at her introductory presser because he was on a fundraising trip, so reliant on philanthropy that Calhoun admitted that “Provost Price has made it clear that he does not enjoy getting asked for money.” The reliance on philanthropy is fine for now, but substantial athletics budget cuts could always be just a generation of indifferent Penn students away.
Penn men’s basketball program is at its lowest ebb in history — seven years without an Ivy crown and, more importantly, a glaringly unacceptable 17-42 record in the last two seasons.
So that last one got really awkward towards the end of Calhoun’s press conference. Penn men’s basketball coach Jerome Allen was noticeably absent for much of the presser, one of very few Penn head coaches not in attendance. He walked in towards the end of the event, probably soon enough to hear Calhoun say this about the possibility of her firing him:
“First and foremost, during this transitional period, we have no plans to make any changes. I believe strongly that I need to get in and really assess the situation firsthand. I believe everyone is entitled to a fair opportunity. Certainly I can see the records as everyone does and read the blogs as everyone can. But I really need to understand what’s happening there.”
The irony is that just a month after Calhoun took over at Loyola, she fired men’s basketball coach Jim Whitesell and replaced him with Porter Moser.
“It certainly would not have been my choice to make a change at that time,” Calhoun said. “But again, knowing that the coach was going into his last year, we came to terms with the fact that we had to be willing to either extend or we had to make a change. Ultimately, we just did not feel comfortable enough that the student athletes were having that quality of experience and that the winning was there to extend that coach’s contract.”
So is the winning there for Penn basketball now? We all know the answer is no, but what can Calhoun do about it?
Her final words to reporters:
“There tends to be a narrow window where positions turn over, and we knew that to get a good pool for that position, we would have to move quickly.”
Calhoun means so much more to the Penn community than Allen or no Allen, but that conundrum signals the weird irony that she’s a new face being forced to adopt more of the same old. The same old Penn basketball. The same old student apathy to turn around.
Calhoun is exceptionally well-qualified for her new job and thus as well-equipped as possible to transform the same old and re-energize Penn Athletics. The weirdness is hers to wipe out now — or at least sometime soon.
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