After our win in the championship game of the Ivy League Tournament, coach Steve Donahue remarked that he’d been doing this a long time and had never been around a team like this. I haven’t been doing it quite as long but it’s been a long time nonetheless and I know exactly what he means. I think all of the coaching staff does.
This team did not win because we were incredibly talented or overly athletic or especially big or even ultra-skilled. We won because of the strength of character and will of the individuals on this team, which resulted in an unsurpassed level of selflessness and grit as a team.
I have worked at three different universities with coach Donahue. I have heard him remark many times to all of the teams we have coached together, that we will be better if the players do not care how the winning gets done. He means that if they are willing to sacrifice their own stats and accolades, to suppress their ego in favor of what can most benefit the team, we will reach our highest potential as a group. It is hard for people to do, let alone 18-22 year old males. We had an incredible group at Cornell that put together a string of Ivy Championships that culminated in a Sweet 16 run. This group has some similarities for sure, but there are differences.
Professor Angela Duckworth has garnered acclaim, done TED Talks, and written a book about her concept of grit. She defines it as perseverance and passion for long term. I have seen her remark that she has been taken with how sports teams and coaches embody the term and understand it. This Quaker team has grit in spades.
You can look at the path of senior Darnell Foreman, someone that has been counted out but never gave up on himself. It led him to a state title at Pittman High School in New Jersey and it has taken him from a freshman year of eight wins to a senior year of 24 and an Ivy regular season and tournament championship.
I was on the staff at Penn under Jerome Allen when Darnell arrived as a freshman. Jerome and Ira Bowman, two of the all-time great Penn guards ever, had become strong believers in Darnell through the recruiting process. It was through his senior year, later than most recruiting of high school players that they formulated this belief. As they watched him will his high school team, a team that included two other Division I players but a team where he was unquestionably the leader, Jerome and Ira came to feel that Darnell was the type of person who would be successful.
I can remember often sitting in the office talking about our team and the struggles we were having and Jerome was adamant that Darnell would be a winner and become the player he believed he could be. I cannot say I always believed and never doubted the feelings of Jerome and Ira, but they were so right. Much has been said about Coach Donahue’s struggle to come to the same realization. Darnell can be as stubborn as any person you could ever meet, just ask his teammates, but there is no question that we came to embody the strength of his determination that Jerome and Ira saw in high school and that led us to our championship season.
My favorite moment after we won the Ivy Tournament was standing on the court and seeing Darnell and Ira embrace. There is a picture of that moment that was in the Inquirer. It is to me what team, what coaching, what love amongst people committed to a common goal and something bigger than them is about.
What makes this team amazing is that Darnell is not the only story. Max Rothschild, another of our captains, a lightly recruited player even after prolonging the recruiting process for an extra year at a prep school, embodies our team grit as well. Max is clearly out of his mind to all of us who are part of this team, but it is in a way that drives him and his teammates to keep competing, to keep fighting, to keep pushing the envelop of our personal capacity to achieve. He is tough, relentless, and constantly vocal.
There are so many examples that embody the grit of Max Rothschild, who incessantly loves to evoke the term grit in new and creative ways, but I will share one. Max, in large part due to his makeup, will often yell things to anyone at any time during competition. His diatribes while playing can span the spectrum from fun-loving exuberance for the game to frothing at the mouth lunatic competitor. Max is often in foul trouble, again its due in large part to his makeup.
In a game this season, where he was forced to take a seat on the bench in the first half after a flop against him by the other team’s star player, Max proceeded to scream at the player from his seat. “You think that’s funny (player’s name)? Well I’m coming for you! I’m coming for you!” At least that’s the for publication version of what I heard. Max did get back in, and we did win the game, a game that was a key win and very close.
Matt MacDonald was the first recruit that we as a staff under Coach Donahue brought to Penn. Matt had just finished his sophomore year at Fairleigh Dickinson where he had started for 2 years and been a captain. We felt Matt would help us change the culture of the team to something representative of the five core values that Coach Donahue implemented when he was hired.
Matt’s time has gone from playing 30+ minutes a game early after becoming eligible to being used as a role player throughout his senior season. There have been games he has not played. In this time where so much is made of players not being happy if they are not the star of the team, Matt MacDonald has been a leader for a team that became a championship team while he was captain, while seeing his role diminish. It’s virtually unheard of. I cannot think of another example where a player grows into an incredible captain, someone everyone on the team views as a leader, while seeing increasingly less playing time.
Matt’s father, Mike MacDonald is a great coach. He has coached at every level with great success. Parents often have a hard time staying out of the evolution of a team, as players go in and out of the lineup, as roles change. Obviously, parents see their kid through rose-colored glasses that they do not see other people’s kids through, and they want to be advocates for their kid.
Mike has contacted each of us on the staff often and each and every time he has said the same thing, regardless of Matt’s recent playing time. His message has always been, thank you for all you are doing, Matt loves Penn and loves the team.
Matt’s brother Pat is about to graduate from Merchant Marine Academy where he was a student-athlete. Pat is set to join the Navy and serve our country. Matt has many other family members that have served in the armed services. This is what Matt is, a servant leader. He is a servant to his teammates; he is a servant to the team. Our team is better for Matt MacDonald, and, as he moves on with his life after graduation, the world will be better for Matt MacDonald.
Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue are hard to separate at times. They were part of the last recruiting class of Jerome Allen. They were starters in the backcourt as freshmen in Coach Donahue’s first season back in University City. They are like brothers that fight every day at practice, at times seemingly hate each other, talk shit to each other, and then go share a house off campus as close friends.
They are tough and competitive, insane in their own right, and all of it allows them to compete at the Division I level despite limited physical gifts. They too have seen their time fluctuate from starters to role players. Jake as a freshman from nearby Cherry Hill, where he had such a stellar high school career they named a day in his honor, had his name chanted during games his freshman year. Some said he was the embodiment of another redheaded Penn guard from New Jersey (the great Zach Rosen). Jackson had arguably the best in league season by a freshman that year. They are both all grit.
They would chew off your leg to get a loose ball and they will find any way to manipulate the rules to win, at anything, against anyone. They have come to each and every practice since they arrived at Penn, whether starting and playing the whole game at the time or not playing a second, and brought a manic, highly vocal, energy and competitiveness to the floor. It is remarkable to watch. I have never seen anything like it.
All the while, they have not once voiced negative feelings to any of us on the coaching staff, nor have they ever not been the loudest on the bench: cheering, supporting, urging teammates to do better and play harder, calling out every minute detail that was part of the scouting report. They are exceptional teammates. Not only do they support and care, but also they hold their teammates accountable, immediately with unwavering intensity. They are the type you love when they are with you and hate when they are on the other side.
They are also exceptional people. My youngest son reveres Jackson, talks about him all the time, and asks me incessantly what I think he is doing. For his fifth birthday, he desperately wanted to have Jackson at his party. I tried to brace him for the inevitable heartbreak. No college male wants to go to a five year-olds birthday party on a Saturday. My son wore me down, so I asked Jackson to come, expecting what I thought was the certainty of him declining the invitation. Jackson came, stayed for hours, and bought my son a present.
The thing about it is, this team is full of people that are remarkable. Not remarkable because they are the most talented, skilled, or athletic.This group is remarkable for embodying our core values: selflessness, passion, competitiveness, unity, and gratitude; and because every day they demanded that each other would BYOG (Bring Your Own Grit).
Nat Graham is an assistant coach for Penn men's basketball. Comments on his guest column can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
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