For all of its accomplishments this year, and there were many — earning a share of the Ivy title, finishing the season on a six-game winning streak, garnering 11 All-Ivy award winners — Penn football was not the most successful team on campus this year.
Not even close.
That title would go to Penn men’s cross country, which operated under the shadows cast by larger Red and Blue programs. The squad finished 24th in the nation at NCAA’s — the top finish in the meet by an Ivy team and the team’s first appearance at NCAA’s in 40 years — after narrowly missing out on an Ivy title just weeks prior.
Think about that for a second. 24th in the nation, as in the entirety of Division I athletics. Beaten out only by powerhouses like Oregon and Syracuse and ahead of big-name programs like Michigan State and Texas.
I know it’s comparing apples to oranges, to a certain extent, but could you imagine Penn football beating a team like Michigan State?
Coming off of a series of campaigns marred by a superficial sense of persistent mediocrity, 2015 may appear like a freak breakthrough for the team. But in reality, the signs of future success have been there for years.
When coach Steve Dolan made the move from Princeton to take control of the Red and Blue four years ago, he inherited a program in shambles. From day one, he approached the problem with patience, preaching the value of small, incremental improvements. In 2015, those improvements culminated into something greater.
Make no mistake, this year wasn’t a fluke. Sure, you can’t count on having a dominant, two-time consecutive Ivy champion like Thomas Awad every year, but the Red and Blue’s success can’t be squarely placed on the shoulders of any one performer. And with a solid supporting crew, the team is primed for success moving forward.
But what surprises me isn’t that the Quakers made noise on a national stage this year, but that they haven’t done so sooner. Because Penn has all the makings and resources of a program that could dominate the Ivy League and region, and consistently compete on a national level.
It can lay claim to perhaps the most prestigious outdoor track facility, Franklin Field, and annual track event, the Penn Relays, in the nation. It is the southernmost Ivy school, lending itself well to year-long training. It may be located in a city, but with the Schuylkill River Trail, it also provides access to one of the best urban running trails in the nation.
These aren’t new developments, so why exactly has Penn cross country struggled for so long to attain relevance?
I can only think of one legitimate reason: that the athletics department simply hasn’t cared. That it hasn’t historically put in the time and effort necessary to recruit and develop elite collegiate runners.
But as the team demonstrated this year, it should. Despite the disadvantages brought about by the lack of any scholarships, Penn has all the resources at its disposal to make its cross country program a consistent national contender, much like Cornell has done with its wrestling program.
So, to Penn men’s cross country, congratulations on a great year.
And to Penn Athletics, now is the time to take notice and go all in.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.