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Photo: Ananya Chandra

On June 26, Jason Calhoun, the husband of Penn’s Athletic Director, Dr. M. Grace Calhoun, was announced as the next head coach of the men’s golf program. 

The Calhouns quickly addressed any questions of nepotism as soon as Jason’s latest destination was announced.

“If my wife was the Athletic Director at Villanova or Temple, I still would’ve wanted the Penn job. It’s a very prestigious role and it’s an honor to be an Ivy League coach for sure,” Jason told The Daily Pennsylvanian in late June.

“Jason emerged as the most qualified candidate in a comprehensive national search that was led by the University’s men’s and women’s golf sport administrator, Assistant Athletic Director Jake Silverman,” Grace wrote in a statement in July. “Given my relationship with Jason, I had no involvement in the search.”

But doubts still lingered — Penn had just hired a new head coach who was married to the most powerful individual person within the University’s athletic department, marking the fourth school in the last 20 years where the two have worked simultaneously.

The DP embarked on a months-long investigation to determine if there had been any impropriety.

After dissecting two decades of the Calhouns' work history — including a forced resignation involving a conflict of interest and the ousting of a beloved Penn interim coach — the DP found more questions than answers. 

Never had a chance

Former Penn interim coach Michael Blodgett is, just about as much as one could possibly be, a Penn guy. Having golfed for the Red and Blue from 2005 to 2009, he starred for the 2007 Ivy League champion squad, before following that up as the conference’s individual champion in 2008.

Even after his playing career was complete, he served as a volunteer graduate assistant with the team in 2010, and when he worked for the College Golf Fellowship from 2012 to 2016, he often attended the Quakers’ tournaments and practices to build relationships with the team’s active players.

So it was no surprise that when former Penn head coach Bob Heintz resigned in January to take a vacant assistant job at ACC power Duke, Penn’s administration looked to Blodgett to fill that interim role for the 2017 season. 

Only featuring two seniors, his young team had some ups and downs on the course, but Penn’s second-place finish at the Yale Invitational in April was its highest result in any team tournament in a full two years, and its eventual fifth-place finish at the Ivy League Championships was two spots better than the team finished in Heintz’s last season.

Beyond the pure results, though, Blodgett made an even greater impact in changing the cultural dynamic of the program. 

“He did a phenomenal job coaching. On the culture side I think he really stressed the team getting along, really hanging out and bonding, and we’ll implement that moving forward,” said an active Penn golfer who wished to remain anonymous. “He knew exactly what he was doing and he was a great mentor to all of us. We achieved a solid amount of our goals for the season.”

The Penn team learned at the conclusion of the regular season that Blodgett wouldn’t be returning — and not only were returning players thoroughly devastated, but they were also equally surprised. 

“We had grown really close to him, and he’s such great mentor and even a friend, and even though we were together for such a short period of time, I think we all felt like he had done so much for us, both on a golf level and on a personal level,” a different Penn golfer said. “When he told us that he wasn’t gonna get asked back, we were all sad.”

The situation surrounding Penn’s decision not to ask him back is now under dispute. 

It wouldn’t have mattered how well Penn fared in Blodgett’s lone season. Even if the Quakers had won the Ivy League Championship, the athletic department had determined that after the season, it would seek a candidate who fit job qualifications written by Calhoun when she entered office three years ago.

“From our first conversation, we talked about that it was an interim post only,” Calhoun told the DP in August. “Regardless of what the team would’ve done, he didn’t meet the minimum qualifications. There was always the understanding that we were filling the interim spot, and then we’d go to a national search because of his lack of credentials.”

Blodgett said he was told by Calhoun that he would not be considered for the full-time job in late March, a full month before those Ivy Championships got underway. 

“I didn’t know [entering the season] whether or not I would have the opportunity to be the next coach. There was a point in the season where I started telling people close to me that I was operating — that I had a strong desire to be the next golf coach,” Blodgett said. “I was told at the end of March that I was not gonna be a part of the job search. I was told I didn’t have the minimum qualifications, and I was also told that Jason was gonna be a candidate.” 

That story is in direct contrast to the Athletic Director’s version of events, where she told Blodgett before he took the job in February that he would only serve in an interim capacity.

Calhoun later clarified in a follow-up meeting with a DP editor that there could have been some confusion regarding the terms and conditions laid out to Blodgett. 

“There was a sport administrator involved,” she said. “I wasn’t in every conversation with Michael, but I regret if there was a lack of clarity.”

Regardless of what Blodgett's performance as interim coach, the listed job qualifications would have directly excluded him. Calhoun put a very targeted detail on the list of preferred qualifications: being a PGA Class A Professional.

“[In all sports] we certainly set our bar high in saying that someone should have either Division I head coaching experience, or at least high-level assistant coaching experience,” she told the DP in August. “I think with the specifics of golf, we did say that PGA certification was at least highly recommended.”

But being a PGA Class A Professional isn’t directly related to playing or coaching success: all it entails is being a Head Professional — one who gives lessons and supervises instruction — at a PGA-recognized golf course. 

“Most college golf coaches do not have that classification. If you went through your top 100 schools in men’s and women’s golf, you might not even find ten that are considered Class A Professionals,” Golfweek Magazine writer and college golf expert Lance Ringler said. 

Jason has been a Class A Professional since becoming the Head Professional at Hanover Country Club in 2004.

“We could talk about the best college golf coaches in the country, and I bet none of them are Class A Professionals,” Ringler said. “In fact, if you somehow went on the NCAA Job Market, I doubt that you would even see any of those college golf jobs even require you to be a Class A Professional: it’s not something that’s usually part of the process.”

In her conversation with the DP, Calhoun said Blodgett would have been permitted to apply, but because he lacked the Class A designation, he would not have been hired. 

One former Penn men's golf coach had strong words to say about that.

"If the PGA certification is what drives being a good college coach ... then I certainly had no right to win an Ivy League championship," Rob Powelson, who coached at Penn from 2005 to 2007, said. “If anyone had all those boxes checked when looking at a qualified candidate to coach Penn golf, Michael Blodgett was that guy.”

Blodgett was most frustrated with Calhoun never asking him about the performance of the team or consulting players or assistant coaches about his on and off-course efforts. 

“What makes me most disappointed is that I had built great relationships with players of the team," said Blodgett, who said he would be open to coaching at Penn again later in his career. "More than anything, I would’ve loved to see them succeed moving forward.”

Penn men’s golf sport administrator Jake Silverman, Penn men’s golf sport board co-chair Mark Junewicz, Bob Heintz, University President Amy Gutmann, and four individual Penn men’s golf alumni whose careers overlapped with Blodgett all declined requests to comment.

Penn’s Human Resources department states: “Faculty and staff members are not permitted to participate or influence in any way the hiring, promoting, termination, salary, performance evaluation, or vital decisions concerning the employment of his/her family members. A faculty or staff member may not directly supervise his/her family.”

Those not actively involved with the University were skeptical that these rules were followed.

“The people who were engaged in the interview process, from what I’ve been told, they were basically given an edict — ‘here’s the job description, and get to the end result,’” Powelson said. “I'm sure they’ve been put on a gag order, but I'm told that those people were like, 'Yeah, this is awful,' and I know the other coaches in that athletic department were like, 'What's up with this, how did we get to this result?' ... She knew what she needed to do to get her husband on that payroll, and [Blodgett] got railroaded by an A.D. who manipulated the process."

“If [Penn players] say to you that they liked the guy, and they recommended to the athletic department that they hire him, that’s just something that Grace can’t ignore," added an early 2000s Ivy League golfer who wanted his name and school to remain anonymous. "Or if she can, that deserves to be published."

File Photo

A glance at the past

As previously stated, this is not the first time Jason and Grace have shared an employer. 

Penn is the fourth university where the couple has worked together over the past twenty years, joining Saint Francis (PA), Dartmouth and Loyola (IL). And though most of their time working together has produced little drama, one stop before Penn did see conflict.

The two didn’t know each other when they both began working at Saint Francis — Jason was hired as the women’s golf head coach in 1994, and Grace came on as an Assistant AD in 1997 before the two ended up marrying a year later. 

Jason was the first to arrive at Dartmouth when he was hired as the head men’s golf coach in 2001. Grace had no affiliation with Dartmouth until she became an Associate AD at the school in 2002, telling the DP the opportunity to build a family motivated her move. 

The Calhouns left Dartmouth three years later, when she was offered the same position at Indiana, which became Grace’s only school where Jason didn’t simultaneously work with her. 

At a big-market athletics school, there would be more scrutiny on the athletic department by the central administration, more pressure to win and a greater number of qualified applicants seeking positions. As such, Jason never coached at Indiana, instead working as a Head Professional at several local courses.

After six years working at Indiana, Grace took over her first Athletic Director position at Loyola in 2011, and the situation there quickly attracted scrutiny.

When Grace arrived at Loyola, the women’s golf head coach was Jennifer Feldott Hall, who was entering her eighth season at the school. As Grace became involved with Loyola, so too did Jason, who accompanied Grace to Chicago and joined the Loyola team as a volunteer assistant.

“Obviously he didn’t just stumble upon Loyola,” former Loyola golfer Alex Meyers said. “Grace definitely got the foot in the door there.”

In spring 2012, the year after Feldott Hall coached the team to a third-place finish in the Horizon League, she and Grace Calhoun mutually agreed to part ways. Loyola issued no press release on the longtime coach’s resignation. 

Feldott Hall was one of 11 head coaches out of Loyola’s 13 varsity teams to leave the school during Grace’s three-year tenure. 

“Our previous coach was kind of stuck in her old ways, so I think they both thought it was best for her to part ways with Loyola because she wasn’t on board with the direction Loyola was going,” Meyers said. “I know there was a lot of turnover in her first year as an AD just because she had a lot of new people she wanted to bring in.”

Having already gotten to know the active players well, Jason was named the interim coach after Feldott Hall’s departure. And after leading that 2011-12 team to a second-place finish at the Horizon League Championships, the promotion became official — Loyola named Jason Calhoun its full-time coach in summer 2012, marking the first time he was hired as a coach where his wife had already been employed as an athletic administrator.

Meyers said the players were hopeful Jason would take over as coach after Feldott Hall resigned. “We had already built a relationship, and we were really excited when learning he would take over,” she said. 

The search process that culminated in Jason’s promotion was, according to Loyola’s athletic department, handled by then-Senior Associate AD Carolyn O’Connell. O’Connell and Feldott Hall both declined interview requests for this story.

In the middle of Jason’s second season at Loyola, the team was hit with a bombshell announcement: Loyola would not be retaining Jason after that season. Meyers said the school cited a conflict of interest as their reason. (Grace Calhoun did not deny this characterization when asked about it by the DP.) 

“Everyone was pretty bummed after that,” she said. “They didn’t really fill us in much, but somewhere within Loyola, whether it be athletics or just the school or something, they were no longer okay with having Grace and Jason under the same facility.”

Loyola’s then-President, Michael Garanzini, and Loyola’s then-Senior Vice President, Ellen Kane Munro, declined interview requests. 

Jason’s resignation was never announced via a press release.

There are other examples of familial relationships in sports, some of which have proven to be successful, but few — if any — include a husband/wife combination as coach and athletic director. 

“I was trying to think of other examples where there might have been an administrator and then a coach in golf [that were married],” Ringler said. “It’s definitely something rare.”

Another way in which the Calhouns have no precedent is the duration of their stays at schools.

Penn will be Jason’s sixth stop as a varsity head coach in the past two decades. Though such a circuitous career path might be plausible in high-revenue sports like football or basketball, it isn’t too common in golf.

“I’d say if you grabbed 50 head coaches and looked at their resumes, most of them probably haven’t been at more than two stops,” Ringler said. “You don’t see a lot of golf coaches that have been at three, four, five places.”

Only time will tell if Penn will merely be another of the Calhouns’ pit stops, or if University City will finally be where Jason, Grace and the school administration around them will finally feel comfortable with a long-term arrangement. But if Jason truly desired the Penn job as much as he claimed to, it would be a strong first step to helping that dream of a stable coaching spot turn into a reality.

Jason Calhoun (Photo by La Salle Athletics)

“The job I would’ve wanted”

“You know, as it relates to golf coaching jobs, if all the Big 5 coaching jobs were open right now, Penn would be the one I want,” Jason said in late June. 

But if this desire wasn’t facilitated by the fact that Grace was already working in University City, it’s unclear what that motivation was.

It wasn’t the quality of the team. Based on Golfweek’s team computer rankings, Penn’s average national rank over the past two seasons is 237.5, the third-best out of Philadelphia schools behind Drexel (204) and Temple (228). 

“Penn, La Salle, Temple you know, all those jobs in that area, you’re probably going to have most likely some sort of connection to the area or the school or the athletic department or something in order to want that job,” Ringler said.

There is one clear distinction that does separate Penn from its local rivals — its status as an Ivy League school. Being able to work with athletes of the highest academic caliber adds a different wrinkle to a coach’s day-to-day operations, one that Jason cited as that separating factor.

But according to others less directly involved, the prestige of coaching in the Ivy League, isn’t all that Jason hyped it up to be.

“It’s not easy to coach in the Ivy League because of the requirements of getting student-athletes into the school, and a full-time job making 30-something thousand a year? That’s not very much,” Ringler said. “On paper, he was probably was one of the more qualified guys. I don’t know who else applied for the job, but he probably would’ve been qualified for the job easily.”

Still, Jason’s newest role is a step up from his most recent one. In the 2016-17 school year, Jason served as the head coach for the first-ever La Salle women’s golf team, leading a squad of almost entirely freshmen that he recruited. Though Jason enjoyed his time there by all accounts, even those at La Salle were willing to admit that there was certainly reason for the Penn men’s job to be more desirable — perhaps partially, but not fully, because of Grace’s presence.

“Penn in general has this long history, and his wife works there. He’s invested in Penn, and to coach a men’s team versus a women’s team is a new challenge, and on top of that Penn just has better funding, it has better competition,” 2017 La Salle graduate and walk-on golfer Kendra Heyer added. "He's coached at other places before, but everyone knows UPenn."

Independent of the jump in prestige, Jason still blindsided the Explorers’ program by leaving after his debut season. Tasked as the man to build something out of nothing when hired in January 2016, Jason worked to compile enough recruits to field an eventually competitive team and, more importantly, build a culture that led the players to enjoy the sport until that title contention came. 

But in an instant, the man responsible for starting the program was gone, forcing his team of almost entirely rising sophomores to adjust to the loss of the only college coach they knew.

“The way he talked about La Salle and the way he talked about building our program, he made it sound like he was there for the long haul,” Heyer said. “Yes, we were upset ... but we couldn’t be happier for him; it was a great opportunity and you couldn’t really turn that down.”

As shocking as the announcement was for the athletes, though, the Calhouns’ relationship gave La Salle athletic administrators a bit of an inkling ahead of time.

“Grace called me as a courtesy to say that they were having a job opening and that he was going to be an applicant, so when I heard that, I was certain that he would be leaving us,” La Salle Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw said. “Even before she called me, when we saw that [Penn job] open, we were — when she called me, I was certain why.”

Breaking it down: the coach’s quality

By all accounts, Jason has been almost unanimously beloved by his former athletes.

“One of his strongest assets besides his technical skills is that he knows how to talk to players on a course, which from the many coaches I had at Loyola, I think that’s something a lot of people lack,” Meyers said. “Even after he was gone, he just left his mark on the program.”

Starting a team from scratch, Jason saw some difficulties at La Salle, but he laid the groundwork for a squad with serious potential to improve in the coming years.

Playing in its inaugural season last spring, La Salle took last place at the MAAC Championships, but that was by no fault of Jason. The Explorers consisted of entirely freshmen aside from Heyer and junior transfer Mariam Colon. 

Jason knew the program would struggle to put up elite results initially. But what he could control was creating a culture where his players loved the sport and each other no matter what the scorecards said. 

"Almost every tournament I played in, one of the girls on another team would say, ‘You guys look like you have so much fun, I would love to be on a team like that,'" Heyer said.

The best indicator of how Jason’s tenure at Penn will go — because of its status as a men’s team at a fellow Ivy school — is Dartmouth. Four different Dartmouth golfers who played under Jason all declined interview requests for this story, but at least based on pure results, Jason enjoyed some degree of success.

His peak with the Big Green came in his debut season, as Dartmouth took third place in the Ivy League in 2001-02, before finishing in the bottom half of the league in each of the next three seasons. (Only two of the past 34 seasons have seen one of the Ivy League’s four northern-most schools — Brown, Cornell, Harvard and Dartmouth — win the conference title, and Dartmouth itself hasn’t won since 1983.) 

In the twelve seasons since Jason left Dartmouth, its third-place finish has only been matched or topped three times.

“The bottom line is no one comes to Hanover, N.H. for a golf career,” the early 2000s Ivy League golfer said. “The deck is really against Dartmouth from a weather and geographic standpoint; Dartmouth’s weather just isn’t conducive to great golf regardless of coach.”

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his hire, Penn’s active players can look forward to a man with a proven track record.

Carter Thompson

Looking ahead

Independent of whatever questions might arise about how Blodgett’s situation was handled, Penn men’s golf is looking forward to its new era. 

All first impressions of Jason upon his new players appear to be strongly positive. The members of the team might be resentful that Blodgett got the short end of the stick, but they also have a genuine sense of optimism that the program will continue to improve under Jason’s reign.

“I’m sure there’s like a little skepticism in the back of people’s minds, but all of that has been sort of overshadowed by the fact that [Jason]’s a great candidate and has quite a history coaching,” the active Penn golfer said. “And we really do feel like he’ll be a strong coach, so any of those qualms have been sort of overstepped.”

Based on the small sample size of Penn’s fall season, all signs point toward a resurgent Red and Blue team. Returning all of its top four scorers from last year’s Ivy Championships, Penn finished in third place out of 15 teams at the Colgate Alex Lagowitz Memorial tournament in its first tournament of the fall, leading to a widespread belief that Jason’s program is on the brink of a breakthrough as it seeks its first conference title in three years.

“I think he’s gonna really kind of re-energize our program, and a lot of what we were saying was about tradition, and how he wants us, the team right now at Penn, to kind of start that,” junior Josh Goldenberg said in July. “The tradition so that 10, 20 years from now, people will say, ‘Wow, that team kind of started it, look at all they accomplished.’”

As good as the statistical results might be, though, they were also good at Loyola, and the Calhouns only lasted two years together there.

As Penn’s HR department states, “the University recognizes that the appointment of two or more family members, especially within the same department, may lead to abuses or generate pressures and prejudice among colleagues.”

“Of course there are gonna be conflicts,” Ringler said. “If you have a relation that is your boss — I’m assuming he probably doesn’t report to her directly, but of course there could be conflicts.”

If all goes as planned, the Calhouns’ intention is to become a Penn family for years to come.

“This one hopefully is our last and final move. We’ve got kids that are headed into high school, so we’re looking to hunker down and become part of a community,” Jason said. “Hopefully we’re gonna both be here for a long time, and hopefully we can create a great atmosphere for our family and our girls, and stay here for as long as we want.”

No matter how successful Jason’s time at Penn may be, those unanswered questions about how it began will always remain. 

“We all know what probably happened: his wife is an AD there and she’s got a husband who’s very qualified,” Ringler said. “We’ll just never know how it went down.”

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