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As Fran Dunphy’s time at Temple runs short, former Owls and Penn players reminisce about their ‘complicated’ coach

“If your foot is supposed to be in the paint, it better be there.”

It was the last Big 5 game for Fran Dunphy of Temple and against Penn, the school he coached at the first half of his career on Jan. 19, 2019.
It was the last Big 5 game for Fran Dunphy of Temple and against Penn, the school he coached at the first half of his career on Jan. 19, 2019.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

His mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and Stephen Danley, a Penn freshman basketball player in 2003-04, told his head coach but didn’t really want his coach to tell anyone else about it. Danley hadn’t been playing much. He didn’t want anyone to think he was blaming that on his worries about home.

Quakers coach Fran Dunphy obliged Danley’s request to treat him just the same. Maybe those words didn’t need to be spoken.

“One practice, I turned the ball over. He kicked me out of practice,’’ Danley said. “Told me, `Don’t come back tomorrow.' ”

To anyone who experienced Fran Dunphy’s boot camps, especially catered to newcomers to his squad, they couldn’t be surprised by the tale.

“He’s a little more complicated than his public image,’’ said Danley, now an assistant professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers-Camden. “He is so unbelievably competitive, and he just hates to see people not giving effort. He would just not play you, and ride you.”

As Dunphy’s historic and continuous run as a Big 5 head coach — 30 seasons — finishes up, the stories his Penn and Temple players tell tend to be slightly different but fundamentally the same.

As Danley suggested, the public image is of a thoughtful, unusually civic-minded coach, able to see outside his own window, even a professorial type — announcers love to point out the class Dunphy teaches.

The reality? Dunphy’s teams didn’t win more than 575 games because he was the touchy-feely type. When Dunphy got the job at Penn in 1989, Quakers players had a better idea of what to expect than Temple players did after Dunphy replaced John Chaney on North Broad Street in 2006. What they all found out? Same as Danley found out.

Vince Curran remembers going to Penn’s athletic director at the time, Paul Rubincam, to advocate that Dunphy, then an assistant, get the top job.

“The third backup power forward didn’t have a lot of pull,’’ Curran said. “I was young and didn’t know any better.”

‘A half-hour of hell’

Not everybody on that team wanted Dunphy to take over after Tom Schneider was let go.

“Part of the reason we weren’t winning enough, we weren’t tough enough,’’ Curran said. “As an assistant, before practice, he would grab guys, work them out for like a half-hour. It was so draining, it was like two practices. There were guys hiding out in the locker room making sure they weren’t the guy he grabbed. It was a half-hour of hell.”

As a new head coach, Dunphy had to play different notes, but he would return to that chord every now and then.

“The one that we tell all the time — I don’t think it was his first year, think it was his second,’’ Curran said. “We had a particularly bad loss at Yale. We were playing Brown on Saturday night. We had a shootaround the next day [earlier before the game]. Dunphy decided to make it an hour-and-a-half toughness drill. We hadn’t rebounded well or defended well at Yale.”

The drill was everybody at halfcourt, the head coach slamming the ball to the court, “Everyone go get it. Everyone swarming.”

If you wanted to play, Curran said, you went and got it.

Years later, after Dunphy got the Temple job, Dionte Christmas remembers calling former Penn great Jerome Allen, a mentor of his, asking what to expect.

“When I heard we were getting a coach from Penn, I thought he would be like laid-back, conservative,’’ Christmas said.

Allen set him straight, saying how Dunphy would expect more out of him than he thought he could give, he wasn’t going to take any guff. “If you don’t play no defense, you won’t play. Just like, he’s not going to take no ----."

In person -- sure enough.

“He’s jumping my face, Mark Tyndale’s face,’’ Christmas said. “Face to face, nose to nose. On the flip side, he told me great things I needed to hear. It wasn’t just certain people he singled out. He talked to me like he talked to walk-ons and talked to walk-ons like he talked to me.

"Even now, I hate to just be on time. Ten, 15 minutes early, that’s on time to me. I changed drastically from freshman to senior year.”

Some choice words

How the message was often delivered, we can’t fully get into specifics.

“He has the worst mouth,’’ said another Penn player, Brian Grandieri. “When he covers his mouth, it’s the worst.”

“We used to pretend we couldn’t hear him,’’ Danley said. “It drove him crazy.”

It was unspoken, Grandieri said, but you always knew Dunphy would do anything for you — later, after you graduated.

“There were no favorites, no daddy ball, no worrying about this kid was a higher recruit than this guy,’’ Grandieri said. “He didn’t care. Once you put on that jersey, we’re all equals.”

Except, Danley said, “Dunph didn’t want his role players ever to make a mistake. It was so hard. You were in for 30 seconds, you give up an offensive rebound. Why is he calling a timeout to scream at me?”

Tim Begley was just ahead of Danley at Penn.

“Begs for me was the Dunph whisperer,’’ Danley said, explaining to him what was really going on.

Sophomore year, a similar mistake would make Danley nervous.

“You’re in the club now,’’ Begley told him, meaning he’d earned the right to make a mistake.

Not that it got too much easier.

“You used to see how hard a practice would be by how hard he was clapping during stretching,’’ Danley said. “It was almost like he was mad he couldn’t be out there competing with us.”

» READ MORE: Temple coach Fran Dunphy talks about this final season | Q and A

“It starts with the point guard,’’ Mark Zoller, another Penn great, said of a Dunphy team. “I’d watch old tapes. There’s a toughness about the point guard. You can kind of see it through his teams, to today.”

Zoller wasn’t a guard, but he had played for Speedy Morris at St. Joseph’s Prep so he might have been more prepared than most for Dunphy’s demands. Playing in the Palestra every day, he said, he felt as if he owed it to the basketball gods to go hard.

“Guys who rose up did it through pure effort level,’’ Danley said. “There was a stretch without any games, he was like, let’s roll it out and see who plays harder. That’s when Mark Zoller got on the court. He would just outwork everyone.”

Luis Guzman was one of Chaney’s last Temple recruits, but he didn’t get to play for Chaney. He decided to follow through on his commitment.

Of his first season: “I’ll be honest, it was a little tough. In high school, I was pretty good, I was top-100 [national recruit]. I wasn’t playing. But my mom always says, ‘Life has a funny way of working itself out.’ ‘’

What Guzman meant: “Dunph taught me how to play the game and see the game the right way. Playing high school, AAU, I wouldn’t say I was selfish, but it was, how can I better myself?”

Dunph guys

As the years went on, Guzman said, the game got easier.

“I saw things the way he wanted me to see it,’’ he said.

He became one of those tough point guards. He remembers coming back and telling Josh Brown, “Hey, I’ve been through it. This is how it goes. XYZ.”

Brown evolved into one of those point guards. Dunph guys, they call themselves.

» READ MORE: A big award for Fran Dunphy, and why he got it

There is a common regret for these players from both schools, how for three decades of success, there wasn’t a big NCAA Tournament run to top it off.

They all have specific memories of specific games that could have turned out differently. These are Dunph guys, so they think it’s a crock — they used different words — when people start to question what kind of coach Dunphy has been.

“If you’d told me going to college, we’d win three Atlantic 10 championships, I would have said you’re lying,’’ Guzman said. “I admire him in so many ways.”

“I won two championships with him back-to-back,’’ Christmas said. “If you ask me the highlight of my basketball career, that was it, even more than playing in the NBA. That was everything to me.”

He just knew how it was accomplished.

“He’s a very attentive guy,’’ Christmas said. “The littlest thing, he would get mad. If your foot is supposed to be in the paint, it better be there.”

“There were all these things Dunph did every day that we really didn’t realize not everybody did,’’ Danley said. “The spacing better be just so. I didn’t notice what it was until he left. It was so deep into the program, seniors were telling freshmen, you’re going to come to the elbow, this is what the actions are going to look like. I didn’t even realize it was a Dunph thing.”

Pilates in the playbook

“A Pilates class at 5:30 in the morning?’’ Grandieri said. “What does a Pilates class have to with college basketball? But it wasn’t about that. He wasn’t begging you to do those things. You’re either on board or you’re not. This is the road map, this is the blueprint, it clearly works, and if you’re not up for it, I’ll find someone else who is.”

At practice, Grandieri said, it might be David Duke putting in the offense — “I wasn’t a good shooter. Dunph could care less if the ball went over the backboard, hit the shot clock. But if I sulked, there was an immediate whistle. ‘Everyone on the line.’ Or, ‘Brian, sit down,’ and everyone else would run.”

One season, the Quakers beat Princeton and locked up the Ivy League. On to the NCAA Tournament.

“On Selection Sunday, we always had a practice,’’ Grandieri said. “We’re all excited. Our parents are all across the street. He says, ‘Guys, come here.’ ‘’

They were expecting some team-bonding words. Dunphy pointed to the cameras that had shown up.

“See all those [expletives],’’ Grandieri remembers Dunphy saying. “They think I’m a good guy. I’m a [expletive] bad guy. I don’t care about those guys. I care about you guys, and giving your best.”

“We were all like, whaaat? We don’t even know who we’re playing yet,” Grandieri said.

After their careers, his former players said, the public Dunphy basically became the real Dunphy. Guzman, a former graduate assistant under Dunphy after his playing days, is now an assistant coach at Monroe College, a junior college in New York.

“Before the season, I told him I got the job,’’ Guzman said. “He knew more about the job than I did. Coach Dunph is, I’ll say, a basketball maniac.”

Dunphy had told him to shoot him a text when his team was going to play Harcum College in Bryn Mawr.

“I thought he forgot about it,’’ Guzman said. “Dunph surprised me. The whole staff came.”

Lessons learned

As a coach, Guzman hears himself saying you’ve got to be a tough guy, you’ve got to be focused. He doesn’t want to hear any complaints from Temple fans.

“That man is a legend,’’ Guzman said.

There were methods even in the madness.

“Begs was convinced he would kick the starters out on a fairly regular basis so he wouldn’t ruin their legs,’’ Danley said.

If maybe Dunphy has evolved over time, “his way has changed,’’ Curran said. “Doesn’t mean his fire has changed.”

But the coach who once kicked a freshman out of practice knowing the kid was dealing with a parent with cancer?

“He circled back, came into the locker room,’’ Danley said, recalling that he began apologizing to his coach.

Dunphy cut him off.

“No, I just did that so you could go home and visit your mom,’’ Danley’s coach told him, and so Danley did, hustled right out of there.