On a typical day, room 109 in Steinberg-Dietrich Hall is used for classes in the Wharton School — its students often defined by their big dreams and specific plans to achieve them. But for one Wharton alumnus, that was not always so.
On Wednesday evening, Taylor Jenkins — a 2007 Wharton graduate and head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Memphis Grizzlies — visited his alma mater in an event hosted by the Wharton Undergraduate Sports Business Club. Jenkins presented a noticeably different appearance than he did in past times in SHDH as an undergraduate — marking his evolution from a college student searching for answers to one of basketball’s most revered leaders.
“I actually had no clue what I wanted to do when I was at Penn after my first two years,” Jenkins said. “All my roommates [and] best friends are going to these wining [and] dining events trying to get jobs in New York and in [investment banking] and all that, and I had no clue what was going to be my pathway.”
After coming to Penn with the intention to major in political science, Jenkins flipped to psychology, then again to economics at Wharton. He had many passions, and many dreams he sought to chase. He wanted to help others. He wanted to teach. He wanted to lead. Eventually, Jenkins discovered the path that would allow him to pursue all his passions at once: Sports.
After a conversation with his family during December of his junior year, Jenkins began to “put all his eggs in one basket” in order to pursue a career in basketball — the sport he had played and loved throughout his life. He interned with the San Antonio Spurs' front office during his junior summer and applied to franchise after franchise hoping one would give him a chance at a full-time gig. Yet, he heard nothing. On his graduation day, Jenkins received his diploma without any idea what his next step would be.
Then, a breakthrough.
“I got a call the day I graduated, at my family’s celebratory lunch, that I got a job with Spurs,” Jenkins said. “I got extremely lucky. I started off on the front office side, doing everything from [the drafting] process, to cutting up film, driving vans, being in meetings, taking all the notes.”
Working for a professional basketball team, Jenkins had finally found his purpose. Yet, something was still missing. There was a certain detachment about his role in the front office — a removal from the essential grit of the game. That was what had made Jenkins fall in love with basketball in the first place, and it was what drove him to make another career-altering gamble.
“Midway through the year I realized, I love being on the front office side, but I’d rather roll up my sleeves and be on the hardwood than sitting in the stands in a suit,” Jenkins said.
So roll up his sleeves he did. Jenkins met with then Spurs President R.C. Buford — whom he had interned under all those years — and informed him that despite Buford’s high hopes for Jenkins’ career as an executive, coaching was where he belonged. It was a move Jenkins described as the biggest risk he had ever taken. While Buford left the meeting in fumes, “pissed” as Jenkins puts it, the aspiring coach left with a renewed purpose.
Jenkins secured a job with the Austin Toros, San Antonio’s Developmental League affiliate, where he worked as an assistant for four years and a head coach for one. There were long nights and early mornings, meager pay, and endless tasks. He was doing “whatever the f**k the team wanted,” grinding toward a dream while his classmates seemed to have already submitted the mountaintop.
“I was a little jealous of a lot of my friends,” Jenkins said. “They’re up in New York making half a million, bonuses, and all that. My first year coaching was $18,000. When I was with the Spurs, I made $137.50 every two weeks after my paycheck. I didn’t give a shit because I was f**king going for my passion.”
That dogged pursuit of his dream ultimately paid off for Jenkins. After five years with the Toros and six years as an NBA assistant coach, Jenkins was offered the head coaching position with the Grizzlies, submitting his own mountaintop and vindicating his winding route toward success.
In the years since, Jenkins has turned Memphis into a perennial contender in the Western Conference. He finished second in Coach of the Year voting in 2022, and the Grizzlies currently own the second-best record in the West. While Jenkins says he does not remember much of his Wharton curriculum, he credits his time there with instilling his competitiveness and remembers the years spent in Philadelphia with fondness.
“I just wanted to travel and find my passion through those four years,” Jenkins said. “Looking back, I loved my school environment … Coaching was just a destiny of mine.”
Though there are many paths one can tread from a school like Penn, Jenkins serves as proof that the greatest destination can often lie on the other side of the most difficult journey.