The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

Steve Donahue hired as mens basketball coach Credit: Holden McGinnis

They work together, but only when the rest of us aren’t paying attention.

At the University of Pennsylvania, 27 men and women hold the honor of serving as a head coaches for one or more of Penn Athletics’ 31 varsity teams. Their jobs require them to successfully solicit support, athletic excellence and financial backing from communities formed by students, players and alumni.

But often undocumented is the bond formed and fostered by the coaches themselves.

“There is a tremendous amount of interaction between the head coaches,” said women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin, who enters his seventh season at Penn after becoming the fastest coach to reach 400 wins in NCAA history during his stint at Holy Family. “I think Penn is really fortunate right now to have a have a great group of coaches that are really mindful of Penn and really passionate about our athletic department.”

“The peer group of coaches at Penn is really such an important part of why I chose to coach here,” said volleyball coach Kerry Carr, who made that choice quite some time ago — she took the job in 1998 and in 2010 became the winningest coach in program history.

“As head coaches, we’re very, very close,” added Ray Priore, whose 29th year as a Penn football coach and first year as the man in charge ended on the highest of notes with Saturday’s Ivy title-clinching win over Cornell.

A student or alum who attends a game in University City will see the coaches working with their players and assistants. They might get emails asking them to buy tickets or donate money for renovations. A Penn senior might bump into a high school student three times his size and discover that they are a prized football recruit making an official visit coordinated by a coach looking to build the next great Red and Blue team.

What one will not see on campus is the head coaches working with each other.

After all, what can a basketball coach learn from a soccer coach, when one sport requires the athlete to master controlling the ball with their hands and the other sport prohibits it? Plenty, according to the coaches — including first-year basketball coach Steve Donahue, a former assistant with the Red and Blue in the 1990s who returned to the Palestra after head coaching stints at Cornell and Boston College.

“We basically do the same job. It’s just a different vehicle that we do it with in terms of our sport,” Donahue said.

“We pick each other’s brains, we look at ways we can enhance our programs, our recruiting models,” McLaughlin added. “We share a lot of ideas. Even though we are coaching different sports, we have similar challenges in everything we do.”

While the coaches talk to their players during practices and timeouts, they communicate with one another behind closed doors.

“We get together once a month and share different ideas about how to coach our team, about leadership,” Carr, who generally organizes the meetings, explained.

The gathering, by design, takes place without any administrators present, so that, as Carr says, the coaches can “let out a lot more ideas.” But don’t take that as a sign the coaches are going around the administrators’ backs in any way.

“I think our Athletics Department really encourages things like that. There’s a free and open exchange of ideas,” said swimming coach Mike Schnur, who is entering his 29th year with the program and 16th year as head coach of both the men’s and women’s teams.

Some coaches have been at Penn since before any of their current student-athletes were born; other coaches find that many of their players arrived on campus before they did themselves. Accordingly, the fresh faces look to the more familiar ones for guidance and camaraderie, and they always find it.

"It's definitely special and it certainly makes the transition easier when you come from a new place," said first year women's soccer head coach Nicole Van Dyke, who arrived at Penn after a stint as an assistant at Stanford, which produced a national championship in 2011.

“This is such a great place of good people, and that’s why I was excited to get back,” Donahue said. “It’s a place where you get to recruit great kids and you can win nationally. And with that, it attracts really good coaches, great people. They’ve been very open to be, very accepting of me, very supportive, and I hope I’m doing the same for them.”

Each coach, even those who have been at Penn for some time now, remembers the warm welcome they received from by their colleagues upon their arrival.

“Ray Priore is one of my biggest mentors. He’s the one that helped me and guides me as much as anyone,” McLaughlin said. “He and [17-year Penn men’s soccer coach] Rudy Fuller were tremendous to me when I got to Penn. [Former football coach] Al Bagnoli was good to me, he used to help me as well.”

“There’s no doubt that as new staff members come on board, we all look out for each other and try to help them make that transition,” Priore said.

Despite having been at Penn for nearly three decades, Priore is new to the world of being a head coach. In the words of Drake — the hip-hop star, not the star Penn linebacker — Priore is both “the rookie and the vet.”

So when Bagnoli stepped down at the end of 2014, Priore found that his peers, including the man who saw him as a mentor, had much to teach him in turn.

“As I was taking over here as head coach, I got a chance to talk to a number of different coaches about being a first-time head coach. Mike McLaughlin shared some great wisdom with me,” Priore said.

“I was a defensive coordinator for a lot of years,” he continued. “Obviously, now I have an offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator [working for me] on the field, and there’s the temptation to jump in to their thoughts and conversations. But Coach McLaughlin told me, ‘Every time you think you want to step into a conversation on the field, take two steps back.’”

In the coaching industry, there is consistently a significant amount of turnover. In many instances, job security can be hard to come by. And when a coach moves on from the school — or the school moves on from a coach — their colleagues are left with a hole in their community.

“When you’re at Penn a long time, you develop relationships with a lot of other people,” Schnur said. “There are coaches, administrators, professors, staff — you get to know a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. And you’re always sad when people go that you’ve known a long time.

“But at the same time you bring in some new people that are terrific and bring new ideas and become friends with them as well.”

The new coaches have much to learn. But they have plenty to say as well, a factor that is not lost on their more-experienced colleagues.

“I consider new coaches, me being able to pick their brains, as valuable as they could consider getting information from us,” Carr said. “It’s definitely a collaboration from everyone, young and old, new coaches and ones who have been here for a long time.”

After all, at the end of the day, the coaches are all playing the same game, even if their respective groups of athletes are not.

“To be a coach at Penn is an honor,” Schnur said. “What it means is a lot more than helping your team be better at their sport. Helping the student-athletes move on and achieve and do great things in their lives is something that we all do.

“I think we’d all like to think that we’re measured by a lot more than how successful our teams are. I think a better measure is how successful the athletes are that we coach, five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road in their careers,” Schnur continued.

“We’d like to think that we had a little hand in helping our athletes form the kind of lives that they do and to be as successful as they are. I think that’s more important than how we do as teams.”

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.