We caught up with two-time first-team All-Ivy forward Mark Zoller, who helped lead the Quakers to three straight Ivy championships from 2004-05 through 2006-07.
Daily Pennsylvanian: First off, what are you doing right now? You’re with Lincoln Financial?
Mark Zoller: Yes sir, that’s right.
DP: I want to start talking about how you came to Penn. Who from Penn’s coaching staff took the lead in recruiting you to Penn?
Zoller: It was kind of a tandem deal, but the majority was through recruiting done by [then-Penn assistant] Dave Duke.
DP: How did coach Duke try to sell you on Penn?
Zoller: To be honest, he didn’t have to sell me too much. I was in the city, I went to school in Philadelphia so I knew what Penn was about. They were hovering around the top 25, and just the fact that I was even getting looks by them was kind of a perfect fit. I really gravitated towards Penn. Just the program as well, playing in the Big 5, getting an Ivy League education, being close to home, it just kind of fit.
DP: That definitely makes sense. Your freshman year, looking back, you were named Ivy League Rookie of the Week three times, and I think you led the team in field goal shooting too. Was the transition to the collegiate level a smooth one for you? What were your expectations for yourself going into freshman year?
Zoller: To be honest I probably wasn’t as highly recruited as maybe I should have, but I played for a college coach in Speedy Morris in high school for two years and kind of knew the drill as far as practices and that I was coached in preparation for the college level. I guess it was a little easier for me to transition just due to that, I mean I was prepared just because Speedy Morris ran our high school program like a college program so it made it a little bit easier for me to step in. I kind of got lucky getting in the lineup, and took every day to get better.
DP: Moving on to your sophomore year, I don’t think that team was expected to win an Ivy title by a lot of outsiders, but you guys did go 13-1 in Ivy play and you proved a lot of people wrong. Did you guys go into that season thinking you were going to have that level of Ivy dominance?
Zoller: You know, Princeton had the seniors and juniors and was a more mature, veteran team. And they were picked in every poll that I can remember. We had a bunch of guys that were trying to prove themselves, whether it was sophomores or freshmen, that just wanted to play. We had a little bit of a chip on our shoulders because we didn’t get to the tournament the previous year, and felt like we needed to work harder. We kind of learned how to win through losing. It left a bitter taste in all our mouths in that offseason and going into the season, it got us more prepared.
DP: What were your feelings when coach [Fran] Dunphy left and coach [Glen] Miller took over? Obviously that was a huge transition for the program but also for you going into your senior season.
Zoller: I obviously had some emotions just because it was my senior year and we were picked to win the Ivy League, and to have your coach go to another school is obviously tough.
But coach Dunphy had conversations with all the seniors and brought us in and was frank with us. He said he couldn’t be more confident having this group of seniors at this time. You have to realize that it is a business, and he did what was best for him and his family, and there’s definitely no bad blood at this point. I still talk to him often. He’s still an integral part of my life. It was obviously tough at the time, but in hindsight we did win the Ivy League again and get to the tournament.
DP: How would you compare coach Dunphy and coach Miller’s coaching styles?
Zoller: There were definitely different coaching styles. Every coach and player for that matter has his own coaching style. I think they both definitely have different coaching styles where coach Miller was more of a gym rat, if you will, and coach Dunph, just seeing him now, he’s just extremely prepared for any game. And I feel like he knows what the other team is going to do before the other team even does it and just that preparation whether two weeks prior or a day prior to the game. They’re well prepared and they know the other team’s steps and I think that’s helped them.
DP: What was the relationship between the basketball team and the student body? How much on-campus excitement among students surrounded the team and the Palestra in your time at Penn?
Zoller: Obviously the Red and Blue crew were awesome, they really helped us win a couple games that we might not have been in if they weren’t there. Most of our games were sold out or at capacity. It was that proverbial sixth man that we always had. The Villanova game my senior year, where I guess they were ranked in the top five – that place has never been louder. It was an amazing support we always had and that allowed us to win a couple games we shouldn’t have.
DP: You and Ibby Jaaber obviously were both really strong statistically in your Penn careers in terms of points and steals – you both are both top-six all time in steals. How do you think you and Ibby complemented each other on the court?
Zoller: I loved playing with Ibby. He was probably the best on ball defender I’ve ever played with. It’s funny that we’re even in the same category because I consider myself a pretty poor defender and he’s the best on ball defender I’ve ever played with or seen. The amount of skill he had one-on-one was unbelievable, and because of that pressure he put on the ball, he gave us more of an opportunity to gamble and take chances.
DP: In general, what do you consider to be the biggest highlight of your Penn basketball career?
Zoller: A lot of memories float through, but obviously going to the tournament and just having those moments with the guys and my family as well. Going to the tournament three out of my four years was everything I wanted and more.
The game that I remember most was the Princeton game my sophomore year when we were down 17 or 18 with seven and a half minutes left and somehow we pulled it out. We went to overtime and wound up winning, and that was when I think everyone outside of the league realized that we were the real deal and that we were going to win the Ivy League. That was one of my fondest memories – I don’t think I’ve heard it quite as loud at the Palestra as it was that night.
DP: I half expected you to highlight the win over Temple your senior year.
Zoller: [Laughs] Yeah that’s another one. There were obviously a lot of emotions and definitely some nerve-wracking foul shots at the end there. Those are things you practice before, but that was a much different atmosphere. That was definitely a highlight as well.
DP: Is there a single loss that stands out to you as the most disappointing or the most crushing?
Zoller: On my first Ivy League weekend, we lost to Yale and we lost to Brown in overtime. That was my first taste of Ivy League basketball. We were on the road and those two losses were crushing for me, especially being a freshman, and playing and making mistakes at the end there. But, you know, it was a successful season – we were 10-4 in the Ivy League. Again, being a freshman, experiencing those losses early definitely put a sour taste in my mouth and pushed me the rest of my career just to get better every day.
DP: Looking back on that run of three straight tournament appearances, do you feel like the team should have won one or even two of those games, or do you feel like you guys were just outmatched? How do you remember those games?
Zoller: We played three top-caliber teams. I mean, as always with the tournament the seeding and matchups are critical. But I think we were well prepared. I mean, shots weren’t falling. In all three games we had a shot in the second half, we were right in the thick of it with 12-10 minutes left. I think it was with our mental focus at the end of games, I think we let crowds get into it too much. We had shots in all three games, and as an underdog against a high seed that’s all you can ask for.
DP: Did you expect the program to take the nosedive that it did after you graduated? Obviously the team struggled in Ivy and overall play a lot more than it had in a long time after 2007.
Zoller: I think it shows how much the Ivy League has changed. You have Cornell getting to the Sweet 16, you have Harvard, who’s making some noise in the tournament too. I think the floor is coming up to the ceiling in college basketball. I think there’s a lot more parity now. Sometimes it comes down to who’s getting hot and who’s making threes at the right time. I think the guys that are on the Penn squad right now get it. They want to play, they want to win. Like we had before us, we had to learn how to win by losing a little bit, and you work all the harder to get the victories. I think it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get back to that tradition that I think so many people are used to.
DP: What do think about how the program is doing now?
Zoller: I think there are going to be struggles with any team, but I think they have the right people in place right now. Miles is playing well – they have Fran Dougherty who’s now restored. I think those guys get it. They want to win, they want to be stars. They’re the leaders, the guys that you want to hold other people accountable whether it be in the workouts right now or in the end of games, say, when you need a stop to win a game. They’re the right guys that you need in those places.
DP: You were talking earlier about how impressed you were with Ibby’s game. Do you still keep in touch with him at all?
Zoller: Yeah, I’ll talk to Ibby every once and a while. We were roommates our freshman year. We came from different backgrounds but we got along really well and still keep in touch. I still keep in touch with most of the guys I’ve played with over my years just because those are the guys you spend the majority of your college days playing with and going to class with. Those are your brothers for lack of a better word. I definitely still keep in touch with them.
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