There’s nothing better than coming home.
Fifteen years after leaving the Red and Blue to take over the head coaching position at Cornell, former Penn basketball assistant Steve Donahue was formally introduced as the Quakers’ next coach at a press conference at the Palestra on Tuesday.
Standing next to Athletic Director Grace Calhoun, Donahue described his return to the Red and Blue as an opportunity that was too good for the 52-year-old to let get away.
“This was flat out the best spot to win,” Donahue said. “I have the chance to win with the right type of kids, the right way. This place is one that has everything I ever wanted in an institution, because [it has] the people and the ability for me to really win championships.
“I am a Big 5 coach. There are only five of us. To imagine that I am one of them, at this institution, is just incredible.”
The 20th coach in program history, Donahue arrives at Penn after a season away from the sidelines, a period in which he did television work for ESPN. An assistant to legendary Red and Blue coach Fran Dunphy from 1990 through 2000, Donahue received his first head coaching opportunity with perennial Ivy bottom-feeder Cornell, spending a decade in Ithaca.
However, in ten seasons with the Big Red, he transformed one of the Ivy League’s worst programs into a powerhouse. In his final three years at Cornell, Donahue won three consecutive Ancient Eight titles, becoming the first team outside of Penn and Princeton to ever do so.
Following a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010, Donahue was hired at Boston College. Although they finished 21-13 in his first season at the helm, the Eagles won only 33 games in Donahue’s final three years in Chestnut Hill, Mass., claiming less than 10 victories in two of those seasons.
Despite Donahue’s struggles in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Calhoun views the hiring as a no-brainer.
“I was taken aback by his humility in describing his failures when he could have instead described [them] as circumstances beyond his control,” Calhoun said. “After all, we are ultimately defined by our responses to adversity.
“I was again taken aback as he described his professional and personal challenges over the past three decades, and I heard perspective, perseverance, wit and wisdom that can only come from life experience.”
Now tasked with improving the fortunes of a team in the midst of its longest Ivy title drought — eight seasons — since the 1960s, Donahue is excited about the opportunity to develop a talented group of players heading into next season. After freshmen Antonio Woods, Sam Jones, Darnell Foreman and Mike Auger played significant minutes in 2014-15, a talented incoming recruiting class and various veteran players will allow Donahue to implement an exciting style of play.
“We’re going to recruit high-character kids that play an extremely fast, skilled, gritty and smart style of basketball,” Donahue said. “We’re going to get up and down the floor, and we’re going to do it in a manner that is really focused on execution on both sides of the ball.
“I hope that you can look out and, even if we didn’t have uniforms on, you would know that it is a Penn basketball team.”
Donahue’s vision for Penn basketball fit in with what Calhoun was looking for in the program’s next head coach. Calhoun hired the firm of long-time Division I basketball coach Eddie Fogler as a consultant after first developing the characteristics needed in the next coach.
“I’ll start by acknowledging that with a year to really study this, I felt that – as of Jerome’s resignation – I had a really strong sense of the background and the personal attributes that were going to be required in our next coach,” Calhound said. “So it really allowed me to focus the search really quickly.”
Moving quickly on candidates became a priority for the first-year AD as Penn hoped to stay ahead of the curve compared to other Division I coaching searches. While Penn initially considered a few assistant coaches, Calhoun didn’t see the job as ideal for someone’s first head coaching experience.
The Red and Blue looked at 25 coaches with Division I head coaching experience, vetting candidates for experience as well as familiarity with the financial aid model within which Penn operates.
"[The more I] had a chance to talk to people, the more it just became so obvious that no one could check all the boxes and presented the profile and the proven track record that Steve Donahue does,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun launched a coaching search as an athletic director once before, finding a new coach in her previous position at Loyola virtually immediately after she took the job. This time around, she had the benefit of being on campus and having more experience at the school.
Ever since arriving on campus, Calhoun placed an emphasis on assessing and turning around the Penn basketball program, deeming it either the 1-A or 1-B priority alongside assessing the division of intercollegiate athletics and recreation as a whole.
“You can debate which order they happened in but certainly getting through that assessment and figuring out how to take that next step forward is so critically important because this is our flagship sport,” Calhoun said. “We need the Penn community to feel good about our program and be engaged in our program.
“We want students to come to games. We want there to be interest in the program and we want to proudly represent the University with what we do here so we’re well positioned to do that.”
With the one-year anniversary of her hiring as athletic director less than a week away, Calhoun now has a better sense of what the program needs to thrive in the current Ivy League. With that knowledge, she hopes that she can work hand and hand with Donahue to return the Quakers to prominence.
While Penn used to be able to rely simply on its superior facilities like the Palestra along with its history to recruit top-notch athletes, Calhoun believes the school needs to rethink many of the program’s smaller aspects to help regain competitive advantages in an improving Ivy League.
“Certainly making the announcement of a coach is just the first step now in the next chapter,” she said. “We do need to work together to access what he will need and the team will need to be competitive. We certainly know there will be a series of changes that we’ll need to go through to reposition that program so that ought to keep us plenty busy.”
Despite the changes looming on the horizon for the Red and Blue, Donahue understands that it will take a significant amount of work for both he and Calhoun to accomplish their goals surrounding Penn basketball.
“Obviously, right now, that vision is not where we want to be,” Donahue said. “We need to be back on top because that’s where we belong.
“I will roll up my sleeves and work as hard as I can to make sure that happens.”
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.