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Sheldon Hackney, former Penn president, discusses his new book, The Politics of Presidential Appointment: A Memior of the Culture War, at the Penn Bookstore. Credit: Allyson Mariani , Allyson Mariani

Sheldon Hackney knew football.

After becoming president of Penn in 1981, Hackney – who died Thursday at age 79 – became a fixture at football games at Franklin Field, cheering on a Quakers program that had turned in just five winning seasons in the previous two decades.

And he was more than a cheerleader.

“I remember one time him turning to me and saying, ‘This would be a great time to run a draw play,’” said Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky, who was assistant director of athletics at Penn during Hackney’s first two years as president and frequently sat alongside Hackney at Quakers football games. “And sure enough, we did within a play or two, and I think it broke for 50 yards. I looked at him and said, ‘You know, you’re a good president and stay where you are, but you wouldn’t be a bad coach either.’”

Sheldon Hackney knew Penn basketball.

“I always thought it was pretty cool that here you are, at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and the president of the university knew you personally,” said Bruce Lefkowitz, a first-team All-Ivy presence on Penn basketball’s 1986-87 Ivy championship team in his senior year.

“When I pledged my fraternity, I was a Phi Kappa Sigma, and one of the pledge things you had to do was get the university president’s signature,” Lefkowitz said. “Of course, I was the only one in the house who knew the president as a sophomore, so I showed up to his office scraggily during Hell Week and knocked on the door and someone there said, ‘He’s very busy, he’s very busy.’ Then Dr. Hackney walked out and said, ‘Hey Bruce, what can I do for you?’ I told him, and he gladly signed on page one.”

Related: Remembering Sheldon Hackney

It was not uncommon for Hackney to address the Penn basketball team in the locker room, and he was even more of a fixture at Penn basketball games than football contests. Hackney was also one of six university officials involved in the hiring of Tom Schneider as Penn basketball coach in 1985 when Penn Athletics was in between athletic directors.

He was at home with Penn basketball, and Penn basketball’s greatest figures were at home with him.

“If I engaged him golfing conversations in which we both had that as a hobby of ours, he would have typically played at the Cobb’s Creek Municipal golf course the weekend before and enjoyed every minute of it,” said former Penn basketball coach Fran Dunphy, who helmed the Quakers during Hackney’s final four years as president at Penn. “He loved that whole experience of getting out there amongst the people, just a very simple, kind soul.”


But those associated with Penn Athletics throughout Hackney’s 12-year tenure agree that what Hackney knew best was the art of delegation.

“It takes a person with intelligence and who is good at their craft, to cede control of the athletics department and at the same time [be] confident enough in giving practitioners the authority to do their jobs,’ said Craig Littlepage, Penn basketball coach from 1982-85 and current Athletic Director at Virginia.

Related: Under Hackney, a university met a community

“He allowed the athletics administration to run its wing of the university and was always there to support it,” Dunphy said. “He was there for not only the coaches and administration, but he was there for the athletes.”

And the athletes responded. After two decades of futility, Penn football rose to Ivy dominance throughout the 1980s, reeling off shares of five straight Ivy championships from 1982-86 and winning more than 60 percent of its games during Hackney’s tenure. Current coach Al Bagnoli came to Penn in 1992, leading Penn to another undefeated Ivy title run in 1993.

“What a president can do is set the tone throughout campus that athletics is important,” Bilsky said. “If your president thinks it’s important, then it’s important. That’s what [Hackney] did. He set a leadership position by saying it’s important that we have a great athletic program, and he was particularly fond of football. It’s not a coincidence that the direction of Penn football’s fortunes changed with his arrival.”


And it wasn’t just football whose fortunes had faltered before Hackney arrived at Penn. Cuts to the golf, badminton and gymnastics programs were made throughout the 1970s.

“[He took over] after the budget cuts that in Penn Athletics’ case, had resulted in the cutting of programs, which was a difficult thing to do,” Bilsky said. “I remember him being a healer. I think the first thing he needed to do was really heal all the wounds on campus before he really had a chance to promote the agenda. It took a real special person to be able to do both.”

For Penn Athletics, after the tumultuous 1970s came a 1980s that saw women’s athletic programs grow in both scope and competition as they continued to develop in the decade after Title IX.

“In the early ‘80s, the NCAA in essence took over the management of women’s athletics, and so it was a new time for all schools,” Bilsky remembered. “[Hackney] made it clear on campus that women’s athletics was important, and that we really needed to make sure that Title IX was implemented.”

One program that made the jump from intramural to varsity program during the Hackney administration was Penn women’s soccer, whose first varsity season came in 1991. Debbie Goldklang Gramiccioni played for both the intramural and varsity Quakers, and still holds the school varsity record for career saves and save percentage. Twenty years after graduating, she still remembers what got varsity Penn women’s soccer off the ground.

“We essentially needed the administration’s support to survive at the time in what was and remains a very competitive league in women’s soccer, and we did receive a lot of administration support at that time,” Gramiccioni said. “We were able to get desirable field times, uniforms, the coaching staff. We had access to everything that the men had, which at the time I thought was wonderful.”

Now Gramiccioni is Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Cabinet Liaison for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But even with her packed schedule, she still follows Penn women’s soccer.

“When I played soccer for Penn, I had a sense of being part of something much bigger than me alone, a community,” Gramiccioni said. “And that tone was clearly set at the top. The overall administration and also the athletic administration. I still pay very close attention to what’s happening on the soccer field and still feel a strong connection to Penn.”

While women’s athletics stabilized and grew throughout the 1980s, another barrier was broken. Littlepage’s hiring in 1982 made him the first African-American varsity basketball coach in Penn history and the third African-American basketball coach in Ivy League history.

Although Hackney was not involved in the hiring of Littlepage, the latter does remember the president as “enthusiastic in his support” of Penn basketball.

“He understood the value of intercollegiate athletics in bringing a community together,” Littlepage said.



It’s that sense of community throughout Penn Athletics, then, that stands as Hackney’s lasting impact throughout the institution.

At least that’s what Lefkowitz remembers from the last time he saw Hackney, at Graduation Ceremony 1987. Walking with his friends down Locust Walk to Franklin Field for the graduation procession, Lefkowitz spotted Hackney. Stopping 15 feet short of Penn Athletics’ highest-ranking fan, Lefkowitz positioned himself in Hackney’s line of vision.

“I yelled, ‘Sheldon!‘” Lefkowitz remembered. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Bruce!’ And he gave me a big hug and congratulations. I will remember that very fondly.”

“I think that when it’s your time to leave this earth, and somebody calls you a good and decent man, your life has been extremely successful,” Dunphy said. “And that’s how I think of Dr. Hackney.”

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