The mystique of Philadelphia college basketball has been well-documented — with the Palestra earning the designation of the nation’s most “Hallowed Hall” in a Dec. 2014 NCAA.com feature — and that allure makes it quite difficult for local figures to stay away.
For Penn men’s basketball, consider Joe Mihalich Jr. the latest victim.
Hired in April to serve under first-year head coach Steve Donahue, the Philadelphia native is back in town, immediately jumping into the school’s efforts to rebuild what was once Penn Athletics’ premier program into a perennial powerhouse again.
“It’s a day-by-day process, and we just try to compete every single day,” said Mihalich, who was an assistant at Division III Scranton (Pa.) from 2011-15. “Our culture is definitely growing, heading in the direction that we want it go.”
A long-standing relationship
As is natural in the world of Philadelphia basketball, the relationship between Mihalich and Donahue goes back far further than their 10-month partnership at Penn.
Donahue, also born in Philadelphia, was an assistant coach for the Red and Blue from 1990 to 2000, contributing to five Ivy League titles in that time. Meanwhile, Mihalich’s father, Joe Sr., was an assistant coach at local rival La Salle from 1981 to 1998. For the younger Joe, childhood was filled with passionate Big 5 rivalry games pitting his father and his future boss against one another.
“I remember being a waterboy for one of my dad’s teams and meeting Coach Donahue, and he was great to me,” Mihalich said. “Then we crossed paths in the basketball world when I was coming up.”
Driven by a pair of tempting offers, both coaches would go their separate ways, with Mihalich Sr. taking the head coach position at Niagara in 1998 and Donahue at Cornell in 2000. After moving to New York, Mihalich — who admittedly “wasn’t good enough or smart enough to go to Cornell, Penn, or any other Ivy League school” — played at D-III Nazareth (N.Y.) from 2005-09.
Still, even with all three parties headed on their own respective paths to the Empire State, the relationship between them continued.
“I enjoyed watching his Cornell teams [which won three Ivy League titles from 2008-10] and rooting for him, and afterwards I followed him at Boston College too,” Mihalich said. “In the basketball world, especially in the Philadelphia area, it’s a really tight-knit community, so both my dad and I absolutely kept in touch with [Donahue] throughout.”
Immediately after his playing career concluded, Mihalich became a graduate assistant for Villanova before gaining his first coaching position at Scranton, where the program went 89-25 and won three Landmark Conference titles in his four-year tenure there. Basketball was an integral part of Mihalich’s life from day one, and that passion hasn’t remotely faded as he’s embarked on the journey from fan to player to coach.
“I was always in my dad’s office — I had to work really hard to be a very mediocre basketball player, so I was always in the gym dribbling and shooting. When your dad’s the coach, you always have the keys,” Mihalich said. “I remember hanging out in the office with him, remember thinking that it never seemed like work. ... So I knew that getting into coaching could be something that I’d really enjoy.”
The elder Mihalich offers a ready-made mentor for his son, having put together a quite impressive resume since leaving La Salle. In 15 seasons with Niagara, he led the Purple Eagles to NCAA Tournament appearances in 2005 and 2007 before taking over at Hofstra in 2013.
“I would be thrilled to work for my dad, and I think that would be really cool,” Mihalich said. “But the best advice I’ve ever gotten about coaching is that you just worry about the job you got right now.
“We plan, and God laughs,” he added.
Indeed, focusing on the present job might be the only feasible option for a kid who was literally kicking and screaming for the opportunity to return to the Cathedral of College Basketball.
“When I first got offered this job, my mom told me this story where she was pregnant and walked into the Palestra for a game, and she said she could feel me kicking as she walked into the gym. Now that might just be a ‘Mom’ story, but I always thought that was pretty cool,” Mihalich said. “The Big 5 is the coolest basketball conference in the country. Being a part of that really is a dream come true, and it’s always been where I wanted to be.”
The decision to hire Mihalich didn’t seem difficult for Donahue, as his appointment was announced only 17 days after Donahue’s own. Factoring in both the family-friendship and the basketball body of work from Mihalich, he was a no-brainer for Donahue to fill his final assistant coaching position.
“It starts with the fact that I’m a very good friend of his father’s, and I’ve known Joe [Jr.] since he was a baby,” Donahue said. “He understands how hard you have to work to be a coach.”
Although Mihalich is in his first coaching role at a D-I school, the adjustment process has been going smoothly for the youngest of the program’s four coaches. Joining a staff of assistants that includes 1996 Ivy League Player of the Year Ira Bowman and Nat Graham — who also played for Donahue at Penn before coaching under him at both Cornell and Boston — there’s a huge sense of familiarity between Donahue and his three proteges, an arrangement that isn’t accidental by any means.
“It absolutely helps having two guys like Ira and Nat,” Mihalich said. “I just try to fill in the cracks wherever I can, just try to follow their lead and be a part of what they’re doing,” he added. “But having them around is unbelievable for me and the players.”
While Mihalich is the Quakers’ only coach to not have played or coached at the school prior to this season, it didn’t take long for the first-year assistant to immediately assert himself on a staff stocked with Red and Blue legends.
“Joe has incredible energy 24 hours a day, and I think that’s the thing the guys love about him,” Donahue said. “He’s always upbeat, 100 percent ready to go, and he’s younger, he’s single, so he probably relates to the players a little better. Whether it’s basketball issues or personal issues, he’s someone they can go to and talk to a little differently than the other assistants and myself.”
For a Penn program on pace to miss the NCAA Tournament for the ninth consecutive season after making 22 of 38 between 1970 and 2007, all hands will be needed on deck to orchestrate a return to relevancy. With the vibrant and passionate Mihalich joining a coaching staff comprised of two proven players and an eight-time Ancient Eight champion running the ship, the Red and Blue may have found their secret ingredient.
“His engagement level is off the charts, and he loves what he does every day,” Donahue said. “Whether it’s running camps or getting scouts, everything is done right and 100 percent.
“And some day, I think he’s going to make a great head coach.”
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