It is hard to consistently give attention to everyone that contributes to Penn men’s basketball.
Nearly everyone that follows the team knows coach Steve Donahue, the star senior threesome of AJ Brodeur, Ryan Betley, and Devon Goodman, and breakout freshman guard Jordan Dingle. However, the Penn fanbase is likely less familiar with assistant coaches Nat Graham, Joe Mihalich, and Trey Montgomery.
The assistants are often the engine behind practice. From running individual workouts to spearheading recruiting, they take care of much of what happens behind the scenes.
Graham is Donahue’s top assistant, receiving a promotion to associate head coach shortly after former Penn assistant Ira Bowman left for Auburn. He played under Donahue for three seasons from 1993-1996 when he was still an assistant under Fran Dunphy and has coached under Donahue for 13 seasons across stops at Cornell, Boston College, and Penn.
“He’s probably known me since I was 18,” Graham said. “Assistants are able to have relationships to players that head coaches can’t. He was the youngest guy on staff at the time, so some of us had a different relationship with him compared to other assistants.”
After Graham concluded his playing career overseas, he received his first Division I coaching opportunity with Donahue at Cornell.
“Like a lot of things, you get a job through someone you know, and he gave me a chance to make no money on his staff,” Graham joked. “We have some similarities in how we think about the game, so there was a natural fit right away."
Graham is also currently the longest tenured coach on staff after being retained by Donahue from Jerome Allen’s staff following the latter’s resignation in March of 2015. When head coaches are fired, the assistants from the previous coaching staff are often let go as well.
“Fortunately for me, he kept me on, which doesn’t always happen,” Graham said. “I’m sure our history helped a little bit.”
Throughout his coaching career, the former Penn power forward has not moved around a lot compared to most in the profession. While coaches often change jobs every two to three years, Graham has enjoyed the luxury of stability, coaching at three schools over nearly 15 years.
At this point in his career, the only thing that could make Graham leave would be a head coaching opportunity elsewhere.
Mihalich was brought to University City by Donahue in 2015 when Donahue returned to Penn. He got his coaching start at Big Five rival Villanova as a graduate assistant under Jay Wright after a successful playing career at D-III Nazareth College.
However, one could say he truly got his coaching start in his youth, often attending his father practices and studying what he did as a head coach. His father, Joe Mihalich Sr., has spent the last 22 years as the head coach at Hofstra and Niagara. Before that, he spent 17 years at La Salle as an assistant.
“Growing up around college athletics, I got to see how things operate from the inside out,” Mihalich said. “I remember going to work with my dad when [I was] little, going up to Hayman [Center] at La Salle just running around.”
As he got older and progressed further into his playing career, hanging out transitioned into workouts with players his father was coaching.
“I was able to see the other side, not just games and practices [but also] things that happen in the office. This is the type of job that people bring home. It’s not just X’s and O’s; it’s about the human beings that you’re coaching.”
Montgomery is the shortest-tenured coach on the staff, hired in 2018 shortly after Bowman left for Auburn. Unlike every other coach on staff, Montgomery’s roots are not in the Philadelphia region.
Though he served as an assistant coach at nearby Eastern University for one season before being brought on by Donahue, Montgomery played college basketball at Samford in Alabama, embarked on a two-year playing career overseas, and coached four years of high school basketball in Louisiana before finding his way to the Philadelphia area.
Montgomery described his move to Philadelphia as a “leap of faith,” citing that there were more coaching opportunities in the Northeast compared to Louisiana. He coached at Penn’s Elite Camps, designed as a showcase for athletes looking to play D-I basketball, and at Penn’s youth camps while he was an assistant at Eastern.
These camps were where he first developed a rapport with Graham and Mihalich and allowed him to rise to the top in a pool of candidates to replace Ira Bowman.
“I think I left a pretty decent impression at those camps, and hopefully it wasn’t a bad decision,” Montgomery said in jest. “I’ve been welcomed here and coach Donahue has been a really big influence.
Montgomery was also aided by the fact that Eric McNelley, his head coach at Eastern, was from Graham’s high school in Miami. Additionally, as a player at Samford, he played in a system similar to what Penn runs now, which allowed him to be familiar with the team's concepts as he made the move to University City.
As the newest member of the coaching staff, a lot of his duties have been delegated towards being a mentor to players on and off the court.
This particularly involves working out with players, checking on their classes, and being a resource for all things basketball and non-basketball related. Montgomery is also the self-proclaimed “special teams guy,” with Graham and Mihalich focusing more on the offense and defense, respectively.
While all the coaches have a hand in developing the offense and defense, Montgomery has had the opportunity to work especially with crafting out of bounds plays and the transition game.
“For the most part [though], we pretty much cover all the bases with each other,” Montgomery said. “We just work together.”
Looking ahead, the staff is primarily focused on helping Penn return to the Ivy League Tournament for the fourth consecutive year and make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.
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