When Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky steps down effective June 30, he will leave behind in Penn Athletics an institution being pulled in a lot of different directions.
One is toward a decision point on the future of Penn basketball. Another is toward sustaining the fundraising momentum brought on by the $125 million Campaign for Penn Athletics that wrapped up this year. Still another is toward having to address Penn Athletics’ continued visibility issues both on and beyond campus.
So where does it all begin?
Leo Charney, a spokesperson for the Provost’s Office, told The Daily Pennsylvanian Monday that there will be an announcement soon about the formation of the advisory committee to the President and Provost, and that Provost Vincent Price will “definitely” be involved in the search.
For the first time in her tenure as school president at Penn, Amy Gutmann will be involved in selecting a new athletic director as well. Bilsky told The DP on Nov. 21 — the day Gutmann announced his retirement — that he won’t be hands-on in choosing his successor.
Whoever the successor is, though, will have to hit the ground running.
Starting with Penn basketball. A 2-6 start for a Quakers squad, which could very feasibly be 6-2 right now with its high levels of athleticism and experience, has coach Jerome Allen sitting squarely on the hot seat — well, not yet anyway. Bilsky won’t fire Allen in his final months as athletic director, primarily because he still legitimately believes in him, but also because it wouldn’t be a good look for him to admit failure with the only two Penn basketball coaches he ever hired.
So that’ll be the next athletic director’s issue. Let’s say Penn basketball keeps underachieving in 2013-14 and posts a final record flirting with .500 both in Ivy play and overall — what happens next?
Since Bilsky doesn’t officially step down until the end of June, it’s doubtful that the next athletic director will be confident enough with such a quick turnaround to fire Allen in one of his first acts as AD, unless of course this season winds up an unmitigated disaster. Allen’s new boss will, in all likelihood, give him another year.
The other issue with assessing Allen is weighing the value of the Penn basketball brand –— past and present. As a former Ivy League champion and all-everything for the Quakers, Jerome Allen is Penn. He’s successfully Penn to program donors, he’s successfully Penn to alumni and he’s successfully Penn to students. Success for Allen has always meant inspiring support for the
program among the alumni and students he meets.
Failure has been comprised of suspect in-game decision-making and lack of player development. The question for the next AD is, how much time does it take until the faulty on-the-court Penn basketball brand damages the previously solid off-the-court Penn basketball brand?
Next question — how do you sustain all that fundraising momentum? If there was one thing Bilsky excelled at despite not being a very good people person, it was getting rich potential donors to open up their checkbooks. With University financial support at an all-time low and philanthropy and gifts to Penn Athletics more important than ever, the next athletic director is going to have to double as fundraiser-in-chief. And being fundraiser-in-chief means having an aggressive business-like, bottom-line personality, just with the charisma Bilsky sometimes lacked.
Although Bilsky was a champion of Ivy broadcast visibility, pushing for the Ivy League Digital Network and the league’s national TV contract NBC Sports Network, visibility on campus wasn’t as good as Bilsky’s tenure progressed. The Line disintegrated into irrelevance, the Palestra only enjoys a handful of vocal Penn student supporters each game and Penn Athletics has been reduced to offering 200 rally towels for attending Penn volleyball home games.
Creative marketing is going to be as important as charisma going forward for the next AD. The Penn Athletics Picnic during NSO worked because it brought students, athletes and coaches together. Student Appreciation Day worked because it brought students, alumni and 1980s sweater-clad TV dads together. Events that bring coaches, athletes, alumni and other student groups together are the events that stick, and they’ll have to be the priority of the next AD from day one if Penn Athletics is going to get student support now that will translate into financial and institutional support later.
Come July 1, then, it all comes down to … marketing. And fundraising. And streaming visibility. And Jerome Allen. Good luck with that.
MIKE TONY is a senior English and history major from Uniontown, Pa. and senior sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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