If Penn Athletic Director Grace Calhoun was using the past year to build the platform for a presidential run, her campaign slogan would be simple: Change you can believe in.
But it is precisely because of all the change within Penn Athletics that Calhoun’s decision to reward women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin with a contract extension through the 2020-21 season is particularly noteworthy.
After Steve Bilsky’s two-decade tenure atop the Penn Athletics mountain, Calhoun took over a program last July that had myriad parts going nowhere. Despite his indelible legacy as a fundraiser and champion of facility renovations, at the time of Bilsky’s retirement, the Quakers — save for a handful of consistent winners — seemed to be falling behind their Ivy counterparts from a competitive standpoint virtually across the board.
However, in an effort to rejuvenate Penn’s athletic community, Calhoun has made change her priority since her official hiring.
Jerome Allen and his 65-104 record? Gone. Alex Tirapelle and Nicole Van Dyke, marquee assistants at successful programs at Stanford? They’ve replaced Rob Eiter and Darren Ambrose, respectively. And don’t forget about Al Bagnoli.
Although the nine-time Ivy League champion retired while Bilsky was still the boss, Bagnoli rode off into the sunset after 23 seasons with the Red and Blue and took an administrative position under Calhoun. Three months later, he resurfaced at Columbia. Apparently, after two years at the bottom of the Ancient Eight, he’s ready to spend another handful of years in the conference’s cellar.
On the other hand, never before in Penn’s history has the women’s basketball team been considered one of the school’s bedrock programs. The Quakers have — for good reason — been overshadowed by their co-tenants in the Palestra for decades.
That trend looked like it might continue immediately after McLaughlin’s hiring in 2009. Despite becoming the fastest coach in NCAA history to reach 400 victories in 14 seasons at Division II Holy Family, McLaughlin’s squad won only two games in 28 tries during his first year with the Red and Blue.
Yet the mark of truly great coach is someone who can consistently improve. And that’s exactly what the man entering his seventh season at Penn has done. McLaughlin bettered his win total in each of his first five seasons, including consecutive postseason appearances and an Ivy championship in only the team’s second 20-win campaign. Though the Quakers took a marginal step back in 2014-15, I doubt many would consider it a failure: They finished second in the Ancient Eight behind Princeton, a team that started 31-0, still won 21 games and clinched the first Big 5 title in program history.
McLaughlin has done it his way too. After losing three-fourths of the team’s 2008-09 scoring prior to his arrival at Penn, he has built a mid-major powerhouse through effective recruiting. Each one of McLaughlin’s incoming classes has produced a Big 5 or Ivy League Rookie of the Year, as well as consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards for junior Sydney Stipanovich.
Undoubtedly, the results are there. It’s unclear whether or not the Red and Blue will have enough firepower to overtake a Princeton squad that is once again loaded this season. But under McLaughlin’s leadership, the Quakers have demonstrated that they are prepared to run roughshod around the rest of the Ivy League, and the road to a conference title doesn’t only run through Princeton’s Jadwin Gym.
Over the past couple years as a student, I’ve had a front row seat to some of the most significant transitions altering the landscape of Penn Athletics. The retirement and hiring of an AD. The “retirement” of a football legend. The firing of Jerome Allen and the hiring of Steve Donahue.
I’ve occasionally joked that, since the fall of 2013, there’s been so much change in Penn Athletics that my successor won’t have anything groundbreaking to cover. Secretly, I’ve worried that the one thing that might render that false is if McLaughlin bolted – deservingly – for a higher profile job elsewhere.
Now that he’s under contract through 2021, fans of the program can rest easy. The man who is six wins away from 500 won’t be one of the names to follow Eiter, Ambrose and Bagnoli out of town.
So let Calhoun have her change. Because, at least when it come to Mike McLaughlin and Penn women’s basketball, stability is something we can all believe in.Comments powered by Disqus
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