1981 was a transitional year for the Quakers, who won their fourth consecutive title but fell just short of getting to March Madness.
Penn went 20-8 in the 1980-81 season, including a dominant 13-1 Ivy League record as the Red and Blue split their series with Princeton. It took a third game to decide who would win a bid to the NCAA Tournament, and this time Princeton won it all, 54-40.
A loss to Villanova and Penn's two losses to the Tigers were defining moments of the season, leading to a change in coaching philosophy that brought future titles.
The game against Villanova cemented itself in history as one of the Quakers’ worst games, a 68-55 “demolition” according to Penn's coach Bob Weinhauer.
The first half kept the sold-out Palestra in one gigantic frenzy. There were no timeouts, four lead changes, and four ties in the first half. A last-second buzzer beater put the Wildcats ahead 30-29 at intermission. As one fan said, those first 20 minutes of play “may have been as good an advertisement as Big 5 Basketball can offer.”
It was the second half, however, that “dissected the Red and Blue like they were some lifeless corpse,” as a fan said after the game. Penn's defense collapsed and senior captain Kenny Hall only scored eight points and found himself in foul trouble.
“The kids played hard,” a drained Weinhauer said after the game. “They just didn’t play well.”
The key takeaway from the game was that the Quakers needed consistent and efficient defense.
“Any player can beat any other player one on one at this level," Hall said. "But the thing that separates the good team from the great team is defensive rotation from the weak side."
The Red and Blue had an 11-day break before they had the chance to rebound against St. Joseph's. But as the team tried to regroup, they were hit with shocking news. Just two days before they faced the Hawks, junior center Tom Leifsen suddenly quit the team.
The Quakers fought hard, but none of the bounces seemed to go their way. Down by two points with three seconds left on the clock, Penn's best shooter, forward David Lardner, stepped to the line with a chance to send the game to overtime. Most spectators assumed that Lardner, who boasted a free-throw accuracy of 83%, had the tie on lock. But his first shot hit the rim, and the Quakers lost 63-61.
Now on a two-game losing skid, the Red and Blue headed to Jadwin Gym to face off against Princeton, their longtime rivals. While invading Penn fans neutralized the Tigers' home court advantage — turning it into the "Palestra East" — the Quakers weren't able to come away with a win. Princeton's 62-61 victory put it a game ahead of the Red and Blue in the race for the Ivy crown.
The Quakers were finally able to snap their skid with a 67-51 win over Columbia. They continued on to a 12-game win streak, with a noticeably improved defense. A month later, Penn even got revenge against the Tigers with a decisive 52-43 victory.
That matchup had been a must-win for the Quakers to stay in contention for the Ivy League title. Consecutive wins against Dartmouth, Harvard, Cornell, and Columbia officially clinched a share for the Red and Blue. The stage was set for an extra playoff game against the Orange and Black.
Penn entered the game confident after going undefeated for the entire month of February, but they were quickly brought back down to earth. The Daily Pennsylvanian described the game as "a nightmare with no end", and the Quakers lost by 14 points, their biggest margin all year.
Penn found itself in a hole early, and its offensive production wasn't enough to dig it back out. The Red and Blue shot a dismal 44% from the field, and sophomore star Paul Little put up just two points.
The Quakers went on to the National Invitational Tournament, losing to West Virginia in the first round, 67-64.
Looking back, it was a turbulent season. The team rallied back after their losing streak, but decisive moments like the Villanova game and Princeton losses called for change.
"Last year, we were still controlled, but we’ve always been a transition team," Weinhauer said. "The degree is what changes. We’ll press or present the threat of the press but we were slow. That’s got to change and it starts with me as coach.”
Weinhauer brought five Ivy League titles to the Palestra, and his success was largely due to his adaptability.
“I realized long ago you can’t be someone else's coach. You have to coach within your own personality,” Weinhauer said. “I’m not passive as a coach. You have to be working within the framework of your personality. I want my team to be hard-nosed, aggressive; the sort of team that would back down to no one.”
It was this adjustment that would keep the Red and Blue in winning form.