The number 20 was plastered all over the Palestra Tuesday afternoon for the introductory press conference of new basketball coach Steve Donahue.
It was proudly emblazoned on the Penn jersey that adorned the podium on the dais. It shone on the scoreboard above the court.
Donahue is the 20th basketball coach in program history. But it’s apparent that he’s focused on an integer one digit higher.
Tuesday also happened to be the 21st anniversary of the Quakers’ upset of Nebraska as an 11-seed in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, Penn’s last win in the Big Dance. Things have changed a lot since then – the Ivy League is almost unrecognizable compared to its former self.
Heck, it’s completely different from what it was back when Cornell made three straight NCAA appearances under Donahue from 2008-10.
Face it. The days of Penn and Princeton winning the Ivy title by birthright are dead. A new approach is needed to restore the Red and Blue program to relevance.
Luckily for Penn fans, Donahue is well aware of the conference’s paradigm shift.
“The days are over in this league where you can rely on this building [the Palestra] and the Big 5 to take you to the NCAA Tournament,” he said.
So what exactly will it take to get Penn back into relevancy in March Madness? It’ll take a couple factors.
First, the Quakers will need to go back to playing a real nonconference slate that jettisons the likes of Niagara, Wagner and Marist for Power 5 schools and (gasp!) even Drexel.
Donahue is unafraid of scheduling the big boys. At Cornell, he took the Big Red to Assembly Hall to face Indiana, Cameron Indoor Stadium to play Duke and Allen Fieldhouse to play Kansas, in addition to their annual trip to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse.
“People thought I was crazy at Cornell. They thought I was crazy at [Boston College]. They may have been right,” he said. “I had the hardest nonconference schedule in the country at BC. I had 18 road games my last year at Cornell.
“I will play anybody.”
Penn’s rebirth will also require a renewed commitment to local recruiting. Guard Darnell Foreman, a Camden, N.J., product, is the only player on Penn’s current roster that can be considered a local product.
Zack Rosen, Ibby Jaaber, Tim Begley, Ugonna Onyekwe, Michael Jordan, even Jerome Allen; Donahue is well-aware of the fact that the greatest Penn basketball players of recent memory have gone to high schools well within driving distance of the University.
“It’s critical that’s where we recruit our hardest,” Donahue said. “Philly-type kids. Gritty. [Players who] understand the Palestra. Parents [who] understand the Palestra and Penn. [Their] cousins understand the Palestra and Penn. Their older brothers want to go see them play.
“That’s where we get great players.”
Most importantly, Penn will need the players currently on the roster and its commits for the class of 2019 to buy in.
Donahue is a coach with a unique leadership style. This is a coach who brought a stuffed Boston College mascot to practices on Chestnut Hill, nicknamed it the “Energy Eagle” and offered it up as a talisman to the player who worked hardest in practice that day.
But maybe little things like that are exactly what the Quakers need. It’s obvious that Donahue — who spurned other schools’ advances to return to the program for which he worked as an assistant for 10 years — has a specific vision in mind.
Time will tell if it’s the correct one.
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