Anyone who believes that La Salle University can rescue its men’s basketball program by hiring Fran Dunphy as its coach is being unrealistic at best and foolish at worst. You must be either unfamiliar with the problems and circumstances that would lead La Salle to hire Dunphy in the first place or unable to see those problems as they are — enduring and intrinsic, subject to forces that are independent of the strategies he will implement on the court or the players he might recruit.

Dunphy’s return — he’s a 1970 La Salle graduate, was a standout player there, and was an assistant under Lefty Ervin and Speedy Morris — is merely the latest thing that was supposed to end the malaise that has enveloped Explorers basketball for most of the last 30 years. The move to the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1992. Kobe Bryant. The move to the Atlantic 10 in 1995. Donnie Carr. The half-measure upgrade of Hayman Hall into the Gola Arena, into an on-campus venue to host basketball games. The arrival of Billy Hahn. The run to the 2013 Sweet 16. The arrival of Ashley Howard. There’s always a thing.

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Now it’s Dunphy and the promise of an infusion of $6.2 million, a posthumous gift by an alumnus, to help fund the renovation of Gola Arena. As a La Salle grad myself, as someone who has covered Philadelphia college basketball for 25 years, I count Dunphy as a friend, and I respect the hell out of him as a person and a coach. But there’s no way to perceive this decision other than as a desperate move, an attempt to appease older members of the alumni and fund-raising base who still presume that the ghosts of Tom Gola, Ken Durrett, and Michael Brooks will walk into the gym at any moment and that Lionel Simmons — a 21-year-old Lionel Simmons, having stepped fresh out of a time machine — will saunter in behind them.

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Those glory days for the program are gone. Too many trends and truths are working against La Salle, and the university itself has at times hindered its own progress or passed up the opportunity for progress. The Dunphy hire is just another thing.

The role of athletics in building community

Please understand: I love the place. In 1992, the summer before my senior year of high school, I toured two Philadelphia-area campuses on back-to-back days, La Salle on the second. After both tours, my parents asked me what I thought of the schools, and I told them the truth: At the first university, the attitude was, What can you do for us? At La Salle, it was, What can we do for you? That culture, that openness and generosity, particularly from the faculty and the students I befriended, made my four years there a joy.

But once someone graduates from La Salle, he or she tends not to maintain close ties to the school. The university doesn’t inculcate its alumni with enough loyalty to compel them to keep their connections to La Salle strong, to draw them back, and its setting — amid a dense urban trapezoid of duplexes, storefronts, and small-rise apartment buildings in Olney – isn’t much of an attraction on its own. St. Joseph’s, a comparable university in size and mission, has City Avenue. At La Salle, there’s no thoroughfare of restaurants, bars, hotels. There’s no homey, self-contained section of the city to call its own. And there’s little effort made to pull people to campus for a day, a night, a weekend.

The men’s basketball program could be that draw. It should be that draw. Yes, college sports can be a bottomless well of excess and exploitation. At its best, though, college sports can also inspire pride in a school, can cultivate a sense of community and bonded values and experiences, and over the years, La Salle’s leadership has failed to recognize the role that men’s basketball and athletics as a whole could play in that regard.

The easy precedent for Dunphy’s return is 1968, when Gola — Dunphy’s coach, mentor, and hero — came back to coach the Explorers after Jim Harding tarnished the program and the school with NCAA violations. But the more relevant piece of Gola history here is from 1990. The team had just gone 30-2 under Morris and was in the midst of a six-year stretch in which it reached the NCAA Tournament four times and the NIT twice. Gola presented plans to the university’s board of trustees for an 8,000-seat on-campus arena. It would have cost $5 million. He offered to raise the money. The trustees said no. Such a building was unnecessary, and too expensive besides.

A lost generation

That episode isn’t an anomaly. You can trace the decline of the program with the distance at which the administration and, in turn, the students and alumni have kept from it, and that distance is both metaphorical and physical. In the mid-1990s, the Explorers’ intraconference opponents in the MCC were faraway teams such as Detroit Mercy, Illinois-Chicago, and Wisconsin-Green Bay, and La Salle’s home games were at the cavernous Civic Center, a 20-minute ride from 20th and Olney.

Another telling example apart from basketball: After the university reinstated football in 1997, it allowed tailgating on campus. Alumni flooded back for homecoming for a couple of years, to see old friends, to enjoy themselves as adults. But after one minor incident, the university banned alcohol at games, as if no one could be trusted to behave.

This is what La Salle often has done: It has made decisions out of fear.

That decade, from 1990 to 1999, matters, because it led to a lost generation of La Salle alumni — my generation of La Salle alumni — who don’t feel an obligation to keep alive a tradition in which they didn’t fully share. The upshot is that La Salle doesn’t have enough well-heeled grads able and willing to boost its basketball program, and those who think Dunphy, no matter how well he carries out his duties as coach, can restore the Explorers to respectability without those resources are clinging to images of La Salle, of the demographics of the region, and of college basketball that no longer exist.

» READ MORE: Ashley Howard out at La Salle after four seasons as head coach

The landscape and dynamic of recruiting have changed, and they changed long before the sport’s giants started building theme-park-style arenas, long before the words transfer portal became an essential term. The Explorers could attract great local players back when great players were more apt to stay local. They’re not anymore. The parochial high schools in and around Philadelphia that once fed La Salle and other small, Catholic colleges and universities are disappearing.

La Salle is banking that Dunphy’s devotion to his alma mater and the free hand it is giving him to govern the program will be enough to stem those tides. An email, complete with a photograph of Dunphy, went out to alumni Wednesday, urging them to put down a $25 deposit for season tickets. It’s the latest thing. And if you know anything about La Salle, you know how these things usually turn out.

» READ MORE: Before he became a Big 5 legend as a coach, Fran Dunphy was a Hall of Fame player at La Salle