Q&A/College basketball has seen a lot of changes since Fran Dunphy took over as Penn’s men’s basketball coach in the late 1980s. One thing that hasn't changed? Dunphy is still among the nation's best.
When his alma mater came calling last summer with the opportunity of a lifetime, Fran Dunphy had to listen.
Because he’s one of the nation’s most successful coaches, Dunphy is often mentioned when top head coaching jobs come open. Last year, the job in question was the spot at LaSalle—the school Dunphy starred at in the late 1960s.
Taking the LaSalle job would have taken Dunphy back to his roots and given him the chance to make his alma mater great again.
It would also have meant leaving Penn, where he’s coached since 1989 and built the Quakers into the Ivy League’s most dominant team.
“It was a very, very difficult decision,” Dunphy said recently, sitting in the historic Palestra while taking a break from his hectic off-season schedule. “I spent a long time mulling it over. And I really appreciate the patience both institutions showed to me.”
In the end, and after a summer’s worth of speculation in the press, Dunphy decided to stay right here at Penn. He then put the great Penn-LaSalle debate behind him and led Quakers to another successful season, just as he has for most of his 16 years as Penn’s coach.
Q. The LaSalle situation was big news last summer, but your name has also come up in association with other top coaching jobs in recent years—including such big-name schools as Ohio State, Penn State and Georgetown. How do you handle that attention, and how do you think your players feel about it?
A. I think it just comes with the territory. When you’re asked to consider an opening, Iíd like to think that’s just a statement of respect, in a way, for the program we have here. I think the kids are terribly resilient. I think it concerns them that there might be a change, but I also think they understand the culture of college basketball at this point.
Q. You came to Penn in the late 1980s. How is college basketball different today than it was when you first arrived?
A. The scrutinizing that takes place is constant. I think that ESPN mentality is out there, and the talk-radio mentality is out there. That just comes with the territory, but you’re always “on” today. It’s really much more of a 24/7 job anymore, but I enjoy the work.
Q. How much of your job is actually spent coaching, and how much of it is spent on all the other stuff coaches have to worry about today?
A. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and put a percentage on it. But the other things we have to deal with are, obviously, the recruiting process, which is a large part of what we do. And obviously for that we need great cooperation from the University itself, from the admissions office, and the financial aid office. Our assistant coaches work very hard to bring the very best possible student athletes to the institution. We are the face of Penn a number of times in the year, whether from being on television or in the newspapers. We also think community service is something that’s very important to the total education of our students, so we want them to be involved with that.
Q. Recruiting here at Penn must be different than the way recruiting is handled at some other colleges.
A. Yes, it’s different. It’s much different. There are academic restrictions we have to pay attention to. There’s a financial aid restriction we have to pay attention to. But the product here at Penn is such that, if you are truly looking at this as an investment in a young man’s future, then you have to look very carefully at the opportunity that Penn presents.
Q. So when you’re competing with those other schools for a player, how do you sell your program?
A. Again, you have to sell the institution as a whole, and you have to sell the future.One of our favorite lines is, “We’re not recruiting you for four years, but more like 40 years.” The first thing we talk about is the future, and the education you’re going to get, and then after that we talk about the history and tradition of this basketball program.
Q. Tell me about the experience of playing in the NCAA tournament—the biggest stage in college hoops. How do the younger kids handle it?
A. I think you can absolutely be overwhelmed by it. You see it so often when you’re a youngster on television, and you wonder what it would be like, and then you find out when you get there that the attention is just enormous. It’s just a much different feel to it, and you have to be ready for that. I don’t know how much preparation you can give to a kid to be ready, though. I think you just have to go through it.
Q. What, specifically, makes it so overwhelming?
A. The press is different, but I also think everyone around you is different. You’re seen in a different light. If you make the tournament, you reach what is, really, that ultimate goal. So then once you’ve reached that ultimate goal, you have to refocus yourself and set a new goal for yourself—specifically, winning games in the tournament.
Q. You’ve been to the tournament many times now. Is it still a thrill for you?
A. Oh, it’s fantastic. It never gets old. Selection Sunday is as good a day as there is all year when you’re in [the tournament]. And it’s just as bad a day when you’re not in it.
Q. Looking back on this past season, how do you feel about the team and what it accomplished?
A. This particular group won 16 of 17 games to end the season, and it was a remarkable run, in all honesty. I did say at one point that this group had overachieved, but I think that’s a misnomer. You can’t possibly overachieve, really. What you can do is reach your full potential, and I would say we came as close to that as we possibly could.
Q. I imagine that Princeton game, and the big comeback win from 18 points down, was a big highlight for the team.
A. That was just one of those extraordinary games that, if you’re in this business long enough, are going to happen. They’re going to happen to you, and they’re going to happen against you. And I’ve been in this long enough now that it has happened both ways to me.
Q. When was the time it happened against you?
A. That was back in 1999, and we had a game against Princeton, here at home, where we had a huge lead and then gave it away. We lost at the buzzer, and it was one of the most heartbreaking games. At the time it was devastating. But then if you asked me, “If you could erase that memory from your profile, would you?,” I would not do that, because of what happened afterward. That group went on to win six of their last seven games and won the last game of the year that year at Princeton to be Ivy League champions. It showed a tremendous amount of character and integrity on their part, and I’ll never forget that team for what they accomplished.
Q. Looking back over your time here at Penn, is there one particular moment that stands out as the best?
A. There are hundreds of moments I won’t forget, but if you’re putting my feet to the fire, I would say there were two: The one we lost here to Princeton in 1999, and then the one we won at Princeton later that season to be champions, just because I think [that season] was a microcosm of what careers are made of. There are many highs, and many lows, and in our business you must be able to overcome both of them. To handle adversity is the most important thing sports can teach you. You are in some ways blessed when adversity hits, because you are blessed with an opportunity. And how you handle that opportunity is a measure of the person you are, and the person you will be.