Tuesday evening, La Salle officially announced the hiring of Fran Dunphy as head men’s basketball coach. The university is his alma mater.
Dunphy, already the first to be head men’s basketball coach at two Big 5 schools after long runs at both Penn and Temple, is about to make it three schools. So what is already a unique Philadelphia coaching career is veering into never-to-be-repeated territory.
“During my time at La Salle, I have met many passionate alums who personify what it means to be an Explorer,” said La Salle athletic director Brian Baptiste. “Fran Dunphy is at the top of that list, and to be able to introduce him as the 20th head coach in La Salle men’s basketball history is an honor and privilege. In my conversations with Fran, he has made it clear that he still has a passion for coaching and a burning desire to help his alma mater. I know he’s excited to get to work and I know our student-athletes will benefit from having him as the leader of our program.”
The news was first reported by The Inquirer. According to several sources, Dunphy is taking the job after he himself tried to convince several others, including former assistant Matt Langel, now Colgate’s successful head coach, to take it. Dunphy’s concern, one alumnus close to him said, is for the institution itself, beyond the basketball program.
If that sounds lofty, consider it in the context of a Tom Gola Arena renovation fundraising project needing to get to the finish line. Also, remember that Dunphy, now 73, agreed to be Temple’s interim athletic director early in the pandemic. This is not the man’s first tough mission.
Heading La Salle’s program is considered to be the toughest of basketball missions. Between the lack of Atlantic 10-quality facilities, and most of the current team now in the transfer portal, it’s the heaviest of lifts.
Dunphy will replace Ashley Howard, let go after a 13-19 season, his fourth in charge of the Explorers. In 30 seasons as a head coach at Penn and Temple, Dunphy had 24 winning seasons, going to the NCAA Tournament 17 times. But this isn’t about sprucing up a resume. This is about a native son returning to his school, trying to lift it into relevancy, or prevent it from sinking further. One source said Dunphy would take the job only if the school listened when he told it the program needs something, no questions asked. Several sources said Dunphy is the one who could make phone calls and get old-guard alumni supporting the program again.
“La Salle has given me so much over the years,” Dunphy said in the statement. “It gave me a chance to be a part of multiple teams as a student-athlete, an opportunity to form life-long friendships, and helped mold me into the man I am today. I can’t wait to work with the young men on the team, re-introduce myself to the campus community, and to help my alma mater any way I can.”
The day Howard was let go, La Salle sent a note to alumni from the office of the president noting that La Salle’s board of trustees had approved “the next phase of the design process for an arena project,” with external fundraising continuing. Then the key part: “In 2013, the University received a restricted planned gift, generously donated by John Glaser, ‘62, specifically to support an arena project. In order to use this estate gift, currently valued at $6.2 million, an arena project would need to break ground during the 2023 calendar year. The University would finance this project exclusively through philanthropic contributions.”
Dunphy had been an assistant at La Salle during some glory years under Speedy Morris. He came off the bench himself as a sophomore and junior for the Explorers. In his final season, Dunphy averaged 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game.
From the start, this search has been about more than basketball. It’s also been about waiting to see if Dunphy could be persuaded to take it. There is a precedent, one La Salle alum close to Dunphy pointed out, and Dunphy is keenly aware of it. When Jim Harding, Dunphy’s former coach, left after one turbulent year for the pros, and also left La Salle with NCAA problems that kept , them out of the postseason that 1968-69 season, Tom Gola, the school’s greatest basketball alum, and at the time the controller for the city of Philadelphia, took charge. The Explorers finished 23-1, with Dunphy as a key reserve during his junior season.
“La Salle needed him,” Dunphy himself said in 2014 in the days after Gola died. “He probably didn’t have the time, but he had that way about him, to help anybody who needed him.”
This time, multiple sources said huge numbers of La Salle graduates hit up Dunphy, urging him to come home to his alma mater. One phone conversation, according to someone who heard one end of the call, was with Morris, his old boss. Morris told Dunphy he had earned the right to a nice retirement, to play all the golf he wanted. Morris said he was sure Dunphy was hearing from all sorts of people saying either “Take it” or “Are you nuts?” Morris said, your decision.
Then Speedy couldn’t help himself: “But I need you to take this job!”