As he was sentenced Monday to probation for accepting $300,000 in bribes in a college admissions scandal involving the son of a Florida businessman, former University of Pennsylvania basketball coach Jerome Allen received support from a surprising corner — past members of the program whose reputation his crimes has tarnished.
Former Penn players and coaches urged U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams in Miami to look beyond the graft that landed Allen in court, describing him as a role model and advocate for underprivileged youth and offering testimonials to how he had shaped their lives and careers.
In a letter, former Temple University basketball coach Fran Dunphy said he didn’t hesitate to come to Allen’s defense, despite being “fully cognizant of the fact that the reputation of a program and institution was damaged by [his] conduct.”
“I have no doubts about the true character of Jerome Allen,” wrote Dunphy, who recruited Allen to play at Penn in 1991 during a coaching stint there. “It was Jerome’s character, even more so than his athletic ability, which formed a cornerstone of the men’s basketball program in my early years at Penn.”
Miles Jackson-Cartwright, a former Quakers team captain under Allen who now plays professionally in Germany, credited the coach with teaching him to be a man.
“As appreciative as I am for all of the pick-and-roll tactics and defensive schemes that he instilled upon me, I will always be indebted to him for how crucial he was in my [personal] growth,” he wrote.
Allen, 47, attracted national attention as a player at Penn in the ’90s, then had a journeyman career in the NBA before returning to the school as head coach from 2010 to 2015.
He pleaded guilty in October to charges stemming from his acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, luxury accommodations, and trips to Florida from Philip Esformes, a Miami Beach businessman seeking to get his son into the Ivy League school.
Allen testified at Esformes’ trial earlier this year that he lied to the school’s admissions department about the young man’s qualifications and put him on a list of five high school basketball recruits to ensure his acceptance at the expense of more worthy candidates.
With Allen’s endorsement, Morris Esformes was admitted to the school as part of the 2015-16 recruiting class but never appeared on the team’s roster. He graduated in May.
“I got his son into Penn. I got his son into Wharton,” Allen told jurors at the trial. “None of that would have happened without me.”
The consequences of that confession — both to Allen’s own career and to the reputation of the Penn athletic program — were swift. When news of the charges surfaced last year, Allen was suspended for two weeks from his current job as an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. University officials hired a consultant last year to conduct an internal investigation.
But many of the supporters who wrote to the judge in advance of Allen’s sentencing hearing Monday said they didn’t recognize the man they knew — who rose from impoverished circumstances and insisted that his players give back to the disadvantaged in their community — in the crimes he detailed on the witness stand.
Dan Leibovitz, who worked as an assistant coach at Penn under Allen and is now associate commissioner for men’s basketball for the Southeastern Conference, met him in 1988 when they were 15-year-old teammates at Episcopal Academy.
In his letter to the court, he recalled being taken aback the first time he visited Allen’s home in Germantown, which Leibovitz described as “a tiny, roach-infested row home” where 12 to 20 of his relatives lived at any one time, with some using drugs on the property.
Allen’s sports prowess offered him a way out. But while basketball powerhouses came courting with offers of a full ride, he chose to attend Penn, the school that didn’t offer him anything.
“Jerome was wise enough at an early age to recognize the value of education in providing the best for his future and the future of his family,” Leibovitz wrote. “While athletes at other institutions lived a somewhat pampered existence, Jerome carried out work-study duties, often doing laundry and helping with facility maintenance and other tasks for the Penn athletics department.”
Several of the players Allen later mentored said that even after he had achieved a measure of career success, he never forgot his background.
Some cited H.O.O.D. (Helping Our Own Develop) Enriched, the charity he founded to provide basketball camps and travel opportunities for underprivileged Philly teens. Others — like Dau Jok, who played for Penn between 2010 and 2014, after immigrating to the United States as a refugee from the Sudanese civil war — cited the lengths to which Allen went to help his players deal with personal struggles.
“I went to Penn to break three-point records but graduated having grown into a complete student-athlete — a man inspired to lead a life of service,” he wrote. “I am the man I am today in part because of his leadership.”
Williams, the judge, cited those testimonials Monday — and Allen’s early decision to plead guilty from the moment he was confronted by FBI agents in 2017 — in her decision to spare him from a possible prison term.
Still, she said, he should bear some consequence for the reputational damage he inflicted on the school. In addition to four years’ probation, she ordered Allen to serve six months’ house arrest, pay $220,000 in court fees and criminal forfeiture judgments, and perform 600 hours of community service.
“If there is any lesson here, you can’t pay your way in and you shouldn’t be able to pay your way out,” said Williams, according to the Miami Herald. “There is a debt owed — it’s more than just a reputational cost to you.”
For his part, Allen told the judge he had accepted Esformes’ bribes because he was struggling with financial issues.
“This [was] a self-created storm,” he said, according to the Herald. “I had an opportunity to say no and I didn’t.”