There is no perfect way to say goodbye to a legend.
Especially when that legend has been the heart and soul of a community in the way that Fran Dunphy has been for Philadelphia basketball.
After all, you don’t get the nickname “Mr. Big 5" for nothing.
The former Penn and current Temple basketball coach has been synonymous with the Big 5 and Philadelphia basketball since he was scorching defenses for La Salle back in the late 60s.
His nearly 20-year legacy at Penn speaks for itself — 10 Ivy League titles and a 310-163 record that included 48 straight Ivy League victories. His 310 wins place him second in League history behind legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril.
But his influence on the program didn’t stop when he left for Temple following the 2006 season.
Current Penn coach Steve Donahue got his big break coaching as an assistant at Penn for Dunphy in the 1990s.
Back then, Donahue was just an assistant at the former Philadelphia University (now Jefferson), and before that was a high school assistant. He admits that he was very inexperienced and didn’t play at a high level in college, not necessarily a recipe for success when competing with hundreds of others wanting to be assistant coaches at the Division I level. However, what seemed like a long shot was suddenly changed, thanks to Dunphy.
“[Dunphy] and [then-Penn assistant coach] Fran O’Hanlon allowed me to be a part of one of the most historic programs in the country at a young age and let me learn and grow, and that’s just really lucky,” Donahue said. “And I’m very fortunate to be in that situation, and I understand what a great opportunity it was, and I tried to take full advantage of everything I could to help him.
“Looking back, I realize how lucky I really was to be around a guy like that. He taught me so much and allowed me to be where I am today.”
Donahue has never shied away from letting people know how much “Dunph” has meant to him, personally and professionally. He certainly learned from Dunphy on the court, but it was what he learned from Dunphy off the court that stands out the most.
"I kept saying to my girlfriend at the time, now wife, just how kind he is," Donahue explained. "Just over the top caring about people … how he treated the kids, the janitors, the secretaries, all the people around the program who you wouldn’t think he’d have time for and still be a great leader within the program. I remember thinking, ‘that’s surprising.’”
Both coaches undoubtedly know that a major storyline ahead of this matchup has been that it is Dunphy’s last game against Penn. But Donahue quickly pointed out that there’s still a game to play.
When asked what he might say to Dunphy before the game, Donahue responded, “Hey, I hope your team plays well. Let’s go.”
“We both want to win,” Donahue said. “It’s an important game for both of us and we’re locked in on that. After the game, maybe. But they’ve got a lot of season left, and we’ve got a lot of season left.”
And right he is. Penn has a very real chance to win at least a share of the Big 5 for the first time since the 2001-02 season. To do it, the team will need to win one of its next two games, the other being against Saint Joseph's. To win outright, Penn would need to beat a Temple team that it has not beaten since the 2006-07 season, Dunphy’s first leading the Owls.
While Temple might not be playing for a Big 5 title, the Owls are playing to make the NCAA tournament. At 14-3 in the surprisingly deep American Athletic Conference, Temple has a chance to send Dunphy off with a trip to the Big Dance. Rest assured, the Owls don’t want to let their coach lose to his former team either.
But it doesn’t seem like Donahue's ready to say goodbye to coaching against his good friend.
“I’m really not accepting that he’s stepping down. I see a guy that’s very vibrant, sharp, passionate, and a great coach. There’s a lot of guys in his age group that are still coaching, he’s coaching as good as he’s ever coached. He built a great program; I just feel that he belongs to still be coaching, so maybe I’m not ready to say goodbye to Fran Dunphy the coach.”
Ready or not, the goodbye is coming. And while it might not be perfect, both teams hope to deliver a performance worthy enough to honor Mr. Big 5 in his final Big 5 game.
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