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Penn coach Steve Donahue on a season that wasn’t, and how he’ll change his tactics | Mike Jensen

Donahue used this past year when the Ivy League shut down hoops and the rest of competitive sports to analyze his analysis. “You’re going to see a different team,” he said.

Penn coach Steve Donahue walking off the floor after a win against Columbia at the Palestra on March 7, 2020. Penn had just defeated Columbia to clinch an Ivy tournament berth.
Penn coach Steve Donahue walking off the floor after a win against Columbia at the Palestra on March 7, 2020. Penn had just defeated Columbia to clinch an Ivy tournament berth.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

It isn’t just the people in the Palestra. Or the lack of people in the Palestra. It’s the boxes.

“Thousands of boxes, in the corridor,” said Penn coach Steve Donahue. “The Palestra has been used for COVID testing.”

The whole thing has reminded him of the photos of the Palestra during World War II, when the storied hoops cathedral was used as a Navy mess hall.

“It feels like wartime,” Donahue said of those boxes, “all over the halls.”

This all came up in the midst of a conversation about the last year, what it was like to be a basketball coach without basketball games to coach, to have a season that wasn’t.

“In the beginning, I was actually using it almost like sabbatical,” Donahue said. “Really jumping into different films. Reading books that came into me. I had a year I’ll never get again.”

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Already at the forefront in use of analytics, Donahue used this past year when the Ivy League shut down hoops and the rest of competitive sports to analyze his analysis.

“You’re going to see a different team,” Donahue said.

His bottom line …

“I think we got a little too analytical in my approach,” Penn’s coach said after rewatching film “with a different lens,” reviewing everything, especially the close losses. Not letting himself off the hook.

Maybe this isn’t the right way ... If we did this and this better, we could have been better.

It’s not like Penn has a been a failure in five seasons under Donahue. The Quakers won an Ivy League title, contended for another, were in position last season to maybe get another when the Ivy League shut things down. But why was 24-9 followed by 19-12 and 16-11?

“When I came to Penn, I thought I needed to be really structured in how we play — be real specific, put some rules,” Donahue said. “Allow guys some freedom within it, but stay within that structure, so they didn’t have to think as much. It went slightly past where we wanted it to go.”

Donahue mentioned a book he devoured, Think Again, by Wharton professor Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist. The book is about the power of knowing what you don’t know. It also gave Donahue thoughts about why even great ideas can end up on the rocks.

“If Blackberry had pivoted nine months earlier, it wouldn’t have lost everything,” Donahue said.

He’s not saying Penn has been a failure. Injuries did put a dent in the previous couple of years. It’s easy to What-if ... What if Michael Wang hadn’t gotten hurt? Nope, can’t use that crutch.

“Penn is an incredible place,” Donahue said. “My goal is to take it to a much higher level.”

He asks himself, if Loyola, coached by his friend Porter Moser, can get to a Final Four, why not Penn? Why can’t the Quakers be a Gonzaga? Why shouldn’t Ivy teams, not just Penn, go on consistent NCAA runs?

It’s not like Donahue is whistling so crazy far up in the trees … He’s been on some pretty high branches. He once coached an Ivy hockey school in upstate New York to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA hoop tournament. He’s coached league games against Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams in the ACC, knows why he didn’t get it done at Boston College.

His own life tale could be in one of those books. He’d taken a pay cut from working as an assistant at Springfield High for his own terrific Ursinus coach, Skip Werley, going to work as a Bonner assistant for a little less money under Fran O’Hanlon. He moved on to Philadelphia Textile, to the University of Herb Magee. Then there was another call from O’Hanlon, who had gone to Penn under Fran Dunphy.

“I can get you a job at Penn for nothing,” O’Hanlon told him.

Those were the days when the third assistant job on Division I jobs paid exactly that, by NCAA rule.

“Five years for nothing,” Donahue said.

Except it was everything. Donahue had a full-time job as a sales rep at MAB Paints, and an understanding boss.

“Nowadays, with micromanaging, I don’t know if I could have pulled it off,” Donahue said, suggesting nobody knew how much MAB time was actually spent at the Palestra. (I covered a bunch of those Quakers years. I never remember not seeing Donahue there.)

“Your numbers had to be good,” Donahue said of the sales part of the equation.

All heaven, for a kid from Morton, Delaware County, who first showed up at the Palestra on a Biddy Ball trip, meeting in front of the Ridley Municipal Building, seeing the Quakers beat Yale on a buzzer beater that came after a jump ball with two seconds left, a tip won by Penn, a buried jumper. Years later, Donahue looked it all up, to see if his memory had played tricks with him. Nope, he had it right. Including the bands for both sides of a Big 5 game. One group going with a cowbell, another had the drum. As the streamers came down, how couldn’t a hoops-crazed kid not fall in love?

That was all a different era. Can’t rest in the past. This year, there was another book to read, by Joan Ryan, on the San Francisco Giants, how they had Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent and didn’t win it all, then got to the promised land with a seemingly lesser group.

“There’s talent, there analytics — then there’s team chemistry,” Donahue said. ‘We kind of slid away from team chemistry, towards the numbers. I just want to get back to that.”

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He’s not saying the players didn’t have it, just that he personally needs to facilitate it more. He’s also looked closely at recruiting. He likes the class he has coming in, but don’t be surprised if future classes have more of something specific.

“You’ve got to have size,” Donahue said. “We’ve gotten away from that.”

Maybe you don’t notice so much when you’ve got AJ Brodeur doing his thing in historic fashion as an undersized five man.

“Villanova can do it in different ways because they’re getting, I think, elite players,” Donahue said. “I think we’ve got to be big. Bigger’s better.”

(I’ll insert a warning label here. Faster’s also better. Jay Wright once hit on a similar analysis after years of losing to the likes to Kansas and North Carolina, and things went south for a few years before Wright readjusted. But Donahue is right, of course. Hard to use Villanova as your role model unless the likes of Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges are showing up.)

The Ivy League has disadvantages, forcing players to get financial aid instead of full scholarships and except for this one-year pandemic exception for current seniors, not allowing graduate students to play even if they have eligibility left. But Donahue is purposefully focusing on the advantages in the current changing landscape.

“So different than it was five years ago,’' Donahue said. “So many issues we don’t deal with. We don’t deal with transfers. It just really helps you build teams the right way.”

Don’t get him wrong about this year off. He’s grown as stir crazy as the next person.

“The first two months, I painted the whole inside of my house,” Donahue said.

Sure, there’s pain in not having a season.

“You walk in there in December and there’s nothing up, nothing around, baskets aren’t even up,” Donahue said.

Now, there’s been practice time. Individual workouts are scheduled. Still, all different. Players don’t have access to their locker room, which in normal times is home away from home. Now, in and out is the norm, the requirement.

When is it hardest for Donahue? Right now, March.

“When the days get longer, it’s bright at 6 a.m., you get excited for tournament time,” Donahue said. “That gnaws at you right now. I feel for the guys and the experiences they could have had. It hit me in the last week.”

He sees the roads this pandemic have taken everyone. He sees all the teams managing to finish the season. Those finishing in style. ”I’m happy for all of them,” Donahue said. “I know what that feels like.”

He just sees those boxes in the corridors, the story of the last year, life during COVID-19, joining all the games and that jump shot after a tipped jump ball in one man’s Palestra memories.