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Steve Donahue takes aim at Penn basketball's biggest challenge

Without any prompting, Steve Donahue directly addressed one of the most important challenges he will face as the 20th head coach in the 115-year history of the Penn men's basketball program.

"The days are over in this league where you can rely on this building and the Big 5, and it's going to take you to the NCAA tournament," he said. "This league has changed. It has changed over the last 25 years, the last 10 years and the last five years... We just cannot afford to think this is enough."

Donahue remarks were a none-too-subtle reference to the rise of Harvard as the Ivy League's new superpower.

In addition to Tommy Amaker's recruiting skills, the Crimson have been able to use the school's unrivaled endowment; fundraising support from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and former Staples chairman Tom Stemberg; and an athletics-friendly admissions department to become an unstoppable force in ways that extend beyond the walls of Lavietes Pavilion.

Donahue was also describing the Ivy League as a whole, which is stronger from top to bottom now than at almost any other point in its history.

"What I think happened as Penn and Princeton had such dominance in this league - and I was on the other side of that for a long period [at Cornell from 2000 through 2010] - the other schools in this league recognized how important it was to win at college basketball," he said. "Every single program made huge investments - that's not just financially, but that's in every aspect, to make sure that basketball was a priority."

Indeed, it's not just Harvard that has surpassed Penn in recent years. Columbia offers further proof of Donahue's point.

For decades, Levien Gym was a wasteland, save for the annual visits from thousands of Penn and Princeton alumni. The school's students boasted about how little attention they paid to their sports teams. Now, under current coach Kyle Smith, the program has improved, and there's a legitimate student section at every game.

But when Donahue said that the rise in quality across Ivy League basketball "has a lot to do with changes in financial aid at all of these institutions," the message was clear. It was a shot aimed straight from the banks of the Schuylkill to the banks of the Charles.

If Donahue is to end Amaker's reign atop the Ancient Eight, he won't be able to do it alone, and he knows it.

No one is going to directly ask Penn to lower its admission standards for the men's basketball team. But there are legitimate questions to be asked about how the university administration should support the athletic department and vice versa. As Amaker once told me, only in the Ivy League do secondary recruiting violations become big stories in the New York Times.

I would have liked to ask Penn provost Vincent Price, who serves as the primary liaison between College Hall and Weightman Hall, to answer a few of those questions. He was a key player in the hiring of athletic director M. Grace Calhoun last March. But when I approached him right after Donahue's press conference ended, he told me he had to run out and couldn't talk.

So it was left to Calhoun to do the talking. She did some of it unprompted, including a description of the coaching search during her opening remarks in the press conference.

"After performing a robust and year-long assessment of the men's basketball program, we entered the search process with a strong sense of the background, skills and character traits for which we were looking in Penn's next head coach," she said. "A list of 25 sitting or former Division I head coaches and four assistant coaches was thoroughly vetted. Quite frankly, Steve Donahue set a bar that no other candidate could overcome."

Donahue set that bar over the course of a five-and-a-half hour in-person conversation with Calhoun. Whether or not that time precluded substantive interviews with the other 28 candidates isn't known, and may never be. But I do know that Penn hired the well-known basketball coach search firm run by Eddie Fogler.

I also know that Yanni Hufnagel, the former Harvard and Vanderbilt assistant who's now at California, was contacted by Fogler's firm. His candidacy was championed by a sizeable caucus of Penn alumni, especially younger ones. But the search firm decided to go in another direction.

"We were also acutely aware that coach Donahue had multiple suitors, and that Penn would need to move swiftly to stay in front of other searches," Calhoun said. "While some may conclude that Steve was the obvious choice, or even go so far as saying that I read the newspapers and selected him, nothing could be further from the truth. Countless hours, conversations and negotiations went into making this happen."

(The author of one of the newspaper pieces in question, Mike Jensen, was sitting just a few feet away from Calhoun's podium. In his story for the Inquirer on Donahue's introduction, Mike Jensen paid particular attention to Donahue's remarks about recruiting, and for good reason.)

After the press conference ended, I asked Calhoun what priorities she set for Fogler's consultants.

"It has to begin with integrity - this is a place where character flaws will not be accepted, where winning in any other than the right way will not be accepted," she answered. "I then asked them to find me a proven coach, someone who was a known developer of talent... certainly a seasoned recruiter, someone who had a seasoned track record for being able to land prospects and really close the deal... and then I went through things that are really kind of Philly- and Penn-specific."

Calhoun may not be from the Philadelphia region, but when the Palestra hosted big crowds for Penn's games against Villanova and Saint Joseph's in January, she got a good helping of what the building is supposed to be like.

"There's something so special about Philadelphia basketball and Big 5 basketball that I really wanted someone who had some appreciation of that, who could recruit locally and had a good name locally," she said. "The Ivies are a different kind of recruiting war."

I also asked Calhoun for her perspective on the financial aid question. She cited an Ivy League policy which allows schools within the conference to match each other's financial aid offers, and said "there truly never should be a student-athlete that we lose out on because they got a more favorable package elsewhere."

But she also acknowledged that "there are some improvements we can make in how we administer that, and how we get peer-competitive packages immediately."

For as much has changed in the Ivy League over the years, the sense of familiarity that Donahue brought to the Palestra was impossible to miss. Whether or not you believe he was the safe choice, there's no question that he was the most familiar. You knew it from the accent, from his love of the Palestra, and from the first of his classic, razor-sharp whistles that shot across the floor as he chatted with old friends.

The first three words out of Calhoun's mouth as she began to recite Donahue's accomplishments at the start of her prepared remarks were "as you know."

Whether those words were intentional or not, everyone in the Palestra on Monday did indeed know.

"I wholeheartedly believe that Steve is the ideal leader to return Penn men's basketball to prominence," Calhoun said. "You can expect to see an exciting brand of basketball, and where players are left to play. He'll create a great environment at the Palestra, and his Quaker team will win games."

Those italics were Calhoun's, not mine. She is not one for speaking forcefully, but she put some oomph into that particular word.

"I was taken aback by his humility in describing his failures when he could have instead described circumstances beyond his control," Calhoun said. "After all, we are ultimately defined by our response to adversity."

I asked Donahue about one of the challenges he will face in addition to building a winning team: restoring basketball's pride of place in the Penn community, especially within the student body. No matter which City Six school you root for, you've surely seen attendance at the Palestra wither away over the last decade.

Donahue, much more than I ever heard out of Glen Miller or Jerome Allen, takes a personal interest in fixing that.

"Coaches forget, and I think players forget as well, that the main purpose of us being a basketball program is to enhance the experience of the student body," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can - if I have to drag them out, knock on their doors 10 minutes before the game, to get them down here. We're going to try to play - a lot of my reasons for the way we play is because it's fun to watch."

He also acknowledged that for as much as he wants his team to play a style of basketball "that mirrors what they try to do in their classrooms," results will matter most.

"You've got to have a winning team for the students to jump on," he said. "I'm pretty sure they will."

Donahue also addressed the struggles he has endured in his career, especially at Cornell and Boston College.

"When I went to Cornell in 2000, I thought I had all the answers," he said. "I was a bad basketball coach for a good stretch."

At Boston College, Donahue said, he "figured out an incredible growth in my personal development," incluidng the lesson that "failure isn't fatal."

"To land here with all that experience behind me can make me a much better basketball coach," he concluded.

Twenty-one years to the day after Penn's last NCAA tournament win - a game he witnessed from the sidelines as a Quakers assistant coach - Donahue was presented with a new kind of adversity. Now it's time for him and Calhoun to respond, and to create their ultimate definitions.