Grit is an intangible. It also costs $75 with Amazon Prime.
“It’s the real deal. It’s not a knockoff — that was probably a nice coal miner’s lunch box right there.”
Director of men’s basketball operations Brad Fadem's assurance of the quality of the lunch pail matched a cursory observation. The lunch pail — a heavy, steel container with P-E-N-N stickered to the front over the Stanley logo — was dreamt up by Fadem and coach Steve Donahue early in their tenures at Penn. The pail evokes imagery of coal miners, steel workers, smoky cityscapes, and sooty men sitting on cranes. Or at least, those were the images Fadem, Donahue, and junior forward AJ Brodeur supplied.
The idea was to motivate the team to embody the grit and hard work of the blue-collar mentality through the symbol of the lunch pail. Donahue, with the help of Fadem and the rest of his staff, awards the lunch pail to the hardest working, grittiest player of that day of practice. At some point after its original introduction, Fadem put an empty container of Quaker brand grits in the lunch pail just to drive the point home.
Donahue’s goal was to instill in his new team a culture of pride, grit, hard work, and fun. The pail was a way to represent those goals and motivate the team while keeping the work light-hearted and fun. It was important to him to reward hard work with something tangible.
“I want the guys to take pride in practice — who comes every day ready to go — and reward that person,” Donahue said. “We talked about what do we want our identity to be: ‘Go To Work.' It was all about putting in the work, and I thought the lunch pail was a great symbol of that. And the guys really bought into it.
“This was just another way to make it fun. Work extremely hard, but reward with a goofy lunch pail.”
The lunch pail had quietly been awarded inconsistently for the first few years after its conception, but this fall it has become a phenomenon. Brodeur tweeted a photo of the pail celebrating winning it in the last preseason workout. The public boast forced a policy change.
“We awarded it on the last day heading into the season, and [Brodeur] won it. He posted something on Twitter,” Fadem said. “So I told him, ‘Ok, if you’re going to post when you win it, we’re going to post when you don’t win it.’
“I really just thought we would do it for a couple days, just to rub it in [Brodeur's] skin. We got feedback after that first week, and people we’re like, ‘That’s so cool! We can’t wait to see who’s going to win it!’ So I kind of dug my own grave on that one in terms of having to do it every day.”
Brodeur seems to be the consensus favorite to win the award on a daily basis. He has made it his mission to claim the lunch pail, especially after Fadem’s public challenge. Twitter fame is on the line.
“We all know that at the end of the day it’s just a fun little thing we do, but also it does mean a lot to a lot of people,” Brodeur said. “Me especially. I’m trying to win that every day.”
“I do like that they care about it,” Donahue said. “They obviously complain when they don’t win it, but it means something.”
Brodeur complained that the pail had taken on a political dimension with players campaigning and pestering coaches to win it. Of course, on days he is the winner, Brodeur dismisses claims of politicking as jealousy. For his part, Fadem thinks the complaints are completely unwarranted.
“[Brodeur] likes to refer to it as the ‘political pail,’ but it’s funny: He only refers to it as that when he loses,” Fadem said. “There’s zero politics. … Now [that it’s become popular], we really stick to who has the best practice from beginning to end that embodying all the things we’re looking for.”
Politics or not, the pail has become popular both among the team and on Twitter. With that popularity has come an increased focus on the competition and the values the pail represents.
“It’s supposed to symbolize a gritty day, someone who gets their hands dirty,” Brodeur said. “We use that word a lot, in our practice, in our locker room. We love the word grit, because it’s a great word to encompass a lot of what our identity is.”
“We were successful last year, and the reason was because we did work really hard. We were very selfless. We competed against each other, and I still see that with this group,” Donahue said. “The level is really high in terms of intensity, competing against each other, to the point that you wouldn’t know they’re friends.
“If the lunch pail motivates these guys … to exhibit those behaviors — I’d like to think that’s a reason why we’re successful.”
The original $75 investment has paid off, and the dividends are paid in sweat.
For more about the upcoming season, check out the project page for the 2018-2019 Penn basketball preview.