T he athletic departments at both Penn and Princeton have always been incredibly similar over the past few decades.
To outsiders, the Ivy League championship numbers do all of the talking. But look closer, and the similarities run even deeper.
For the past 20 years, Penn Athletics has operated under the direction of Steve Bilsky, a former basketball player for the Red and Blue. The scene has been nearly the exact same at Princeton, where Gary Walters, a guard on the Tigers’ 1965 Final Four team, has served as athletic director since 1994.
As the seasoned ADs prepared for the end of their respective tenures, for the first time in two decades, both Penn and Princeton had the opportunity to steer their athletic departments onto different paths.
And on Tuesday, less than a month after M. Grace Calhoun was hired to replace Bilsky, Princeton announced the hire of Mollie Marcoux as Walters’ successor. With that decision, Penn’s main rival sent a clear message to its Ivy League counterpart: it is ready to make the bold moves, that Penn is not.
Some will say that it’s too early to judge the hires of Calhoun and Marcoux. Neither one will assume her position until this summer, and Bilsky and Walters remain the schools’ respective top decision makers. I don’t disagree.
Those people will also look at the hires themselves, as well as the manner in which the new ADs were brought into the fold, to discount the notion that it’s too early to praise Princeton’s hire.
Though this period represents an opportunity for Penn and Princeton to navigate their athletic programs in different directions, both schools arguably followed the same patterns during the search for Bilsky and Walters’ replacements, culminating in each school taking the progressive step to hire the first female AD in program history.
Clearly, Penn and Princeton aren’t operating that differently at all.
But as they say, you only get one chance at a first impression. And based on the atmosphere surrounding her hire, it’s clear that Marcoux has already won over the Princeton community in a way Calhoun has not.
To be fair, a lot of Marcoux’s appeal to the Tigers fan base stems from her time as an athlete at Princeton. The 1991 graduate played varsity soccer and ice hockey and was named first team All-Ivy all four years in hockey.
While Calhoun should not apologize for the fact that she didn’t play sports at Penn, let alone graduate from the University, that distinction between Calhoun and Marcoux isn’t doing the former any favors.
After all, Bilsky was not only successful in fundraising for Penn, but also had the ability to connect with and appeal to a variety of fellow alumni. While Marcoux likely won’t have trouble doing the same at Princeton, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Calhoun can follow in Bilsky’s footsteps in that regard.
And though this will be Marcoux’s first experience as an AD, her in-depth knowledge of Princeton from her time as a student-athlete will help her connect with the causes of those she represents.
Calhoun has emphasized that she wants to go on road trips to understand each team at Penn. Already endowed with the mindset of what it takes to be a Princeton athlete, Marcoux likely faces half the battle.
All of those factors combined likely give Marcoux an advantage over other Ivy ADs in her quest to continue the development of Princeton Athletics.
And while it’d be unfair to disparage Calhoun’s hiring before she’s even served one day on the job, it’s clear that Princeton’s new direction is one positive advantage it has over Penn in each schools’ AD search processes.
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