O n July 1, Penn Athletics underwent the proverbial ‘passing of the torch,’ with Dr. Grace Calhoun taking over for Steve Bilsky as Athletic Director.
There was no fanfare. No big overpriced ceremony. But there was no need for any of that. That’s because Calhoun doesn’t seem to be seeking the spotlight and instead is simply getting down to work.
While it is hard to deny that her predecessor has left his mark at Penn — all you need to do is look around and see renovations to the Palestra and Franklin Field or the scenic Penn Park to know that — Calhoun seems ready to bring a good kind of change to the University.
For many people, Calhoun’s legacy, at least in the early going, will be inexorably linked to her decisions on Penn basketball and coach Jerome Allen in the next couple years.
And while this is an overly simplistic view of her tenure (men’s basketball is just one of 33 sports and has fewer than two dozen athletes), how the new AD handles a program whose struggles are well-documented will be an important test, especially after how swiftly she dealt with similar problems at Loyola University Chicago.
While talking with The Daily Pennsylvanian , Calhoun seems to have a solid grasp on what she, and Penn Athletics as a whole, need to do to turn things around while placing the pressure on whom it belongs: coach Allen.
“At the end of the day, that’s going to be up to coach Allen to [position the program for success],” Calhoun said. “But certainly he understands that there will be a top-down commitment to doing everything we can to position the program.
“To his credit again, he certainly knows that most of the weight will fall on his shoulders.”
As it should. While Penn should be throwing strong support behind its program, the coach of any program is the person responsible for its success at the end of the day.
But Penn basketball is ultimately a small part of what Calhoun should and will be focusing on as the head of a department that can have a wide-reaching effect on Penn student’s lives.
In reality, as much as this writer would wish otherwise, there are very few people on campus that seem to care about Penn basketball ... or Penn Athletics in general. And what will truly define any AD coming into a job at this point in the 21st century will be how they deal with this issue of student apathy.
Calhoun views it as “a national issue” and that is very true. But on something that affects many schools, how do you address it at one school in particular?
“It’s certainly something that’s going to require creativity and a concerted effort,” Calhoun said. “Gone are the days when you can say we’re going to announce an event and people will come.”
But Calhoun’s mindset seems to be the perfect one to reverse this startling trend.
“I continue to say that for me, I believe it starts with getting students educated and exposed from their first days on campus,” she said, “so you can certainly expect that we’re going to have a presence around freshman orientation.”
but he didn’t make the necessary connection with the student body that any AD needs.
but creating a connection with the student body is what fuels an athletic department years down the road.
It’s simple: make a lasting impression on current students and student-athletes now by making athletics an essential part of their time at Penn and they become your donor base in the future. Fail to reach them now and athletics will slowly lose donations down the road.
So if Calhoun can get athletics back to being a definitive part of the Penn experience, she will have done her job as well as made her successor’s job a lot easier.
It is impossible to make true judgments on Calhoun from her short time at Loyola nor will we know if she is truly a success or failure at Penn within the next few years. But with her early focus on the student experience, it is hard not to be optimistic about what lies ahead for Penn Athletics.
STEVEN TYDINGS is a rising Wharton junior from Hopewell, N.J., and is the senior sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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