This article is part of a semester-long series on the last decade in Ivy League athletics. To read the first article in the series, click here.
If one thing was clear from the earlier articles in this series, it's that when it comes to overall athletic excellence in the last 10 years of the Ivy League, it’s Princeton, then Harvard, then everybody else.
But 10 years is a long time, and Penn Athletics underwent a pretty significant change just over halfway through that span: hiring M. Grace Calhoun as athletic director. Four years into her tenure, The Daily Pennsylvanian breaks down exactly how the athletic department’s results have fared over that span — and the results show that the Red and Blue are clearly on the rise.
Perhaps the best measure of the strength of an athletic program is the collective average finish of all of its teams. Over the entire 10-year span, Penn teams’ average finish in Ivy League sports was a mediocre 4.57. This was good for fourth best in the conference, ahead of Columbia’s 4.72 and Yale’s 4.74, but behind Harvard’s 3.45 and Princeton’s 3.02 by a huge margin.
Look at Calhoun’s tenure only, though, and it's evident that the Quakers are creeping up the rankings. In the last six years under Calhoun's predecessor, Steven Bilsky, Penn’s average finish across all sports was 4.83, ahead of only Dartmouth and Brown.
But in the past four school years, the Quakers jumped up to 4.18, by far the largest improvement of any Ivy school. Over those four seasons, Penn’s average finish is third-best in the league, trailing only the dynamic duo of Princeton and Harvard.
Still, it’s not quite fair to say that Penn has suddenly made it a “Big 3” atop the league. The most coveted prize in sports is the championship, and the Quakers have a lot of ground to make up there.
In Bilsky’s last six years, Penn totaled 21 Ivy League championships, 17 of them outright. These are averages of 3.5 and 2.83, respectively, per school year, which both ranked fourth out of the Ivies over that time span.
By contrast, since 2014-15, Penn has won 17 Ivy titles, and only eight outright, for averages of 4.25 and 2.0 per year. Interestingly, despite averaging more total Ivy League titles per school year, Penn’s rank in titles has actually gone down; the Quakers rank fifth in total titles and sixth in outright titles over the past four years.
That decrease in outright titles is partially due to an increase in shared titles over the past four years. During Bilsky's last six years, the Ivy League averaged 6.67 shared titles per year. In Calhoun's tenure, that figure has more than doubled, ballooning to 13.75 shared titles per year.
But with that slight drop, there’s an important caveat. Transformations can never happen overnight. And if one looks specifically at the most recent years, the Quakers’ improvement becomes apparent.
Prior to Calhoun’s hiring, the last time Penn had won five Ivy League championships in a season was back in 2010-11. In her brief tenure, the Quakers have already done that — and they’ve done it in two consecutive years, both 2016-17 and 2017-18. Penn’s average finish in all sports over those two years is a strong 3.85, third-best in the conference.
This study only factors in Ivy League sports, but if one includes Penn’s 2016-17 sprint football title (which competes in the Collegiate Sprint Football League), that school year was only the fourth time this century that Penn had six different varsity teams win league titles.
That’s still a far cry from the top of the league; Princeton has won double-digit titles in 10 of the past 11 years. But it shows that the program has been continuously growing.
Needless to say, Calhoun isn’t fully responsible for the achievements of certain Penn teams in the past four years. Many successful coaches like track and field's Steve Dolan, women's lacrosse's Karin Corbett, and football's Ray Priore were hired or promoted while Bilsky was still around. And most of the 10 new head coaches hired in Calhoun's tenure haven't been around long enough to fairly evaluate — men's basketball's Steve Donahue is the only one to have won a league title yet.
But when all is said and done, many of the statistics point favorably in Penn's direction. No one can argue that Penn has caught Harvard or Princeton, and no one can argue that getting to that point will be easy. But the numbers clearly show that the Quakers have at least taken a few steps on the road there.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly claimed that Ray Priore was promoted to head coach during the 2014-15 school year. Priore was actually promoted in April 2014, when Steven Bilsky was still Penn's Athletic Director. The DP apologizes for this error.