Jerome Allen was one of the great players in Penn history. When he committed to coach Fran Dunphy after a decorated career at Episcopal Academy and started playing at the Palestra, Penn became Penn again, the dominant program in the Ivy League and a player on the national scene. In Allen's final three seasons, Penn went 42-0 in the Ivy League. What he helped start in the early 1990s continued going strong for 15 years. And then it stopped.
Allen finished his Penn career with 1,518 points, 504 assists, 482 rebounds and 166 steals. More than the stats, he really was the player who started Penn back on the road to the glory days. Now, he is being called upon to try to do it again, this time as the interim coach.
"I brought a picture into Mike Mahoney [Penn's Director of Athletic Communications] the other day," Allen said yesterday at Weightman Hall, just before conducting his second practice. "It was a picture of me when I was 14 years old with a Little Quakers uniform on, playing in a football game at Franklin Field . . . I also had another picture of me cutting down the nets my senior year . . . I just took a step back and said this is amazing for this university to be part of my life some 20 years plus."
After a long professional career that ended last February, Allen was hired as one of Glen Miller's assistants in August. When Miller was let go Monday, Allen became the head coach, at least through the end of this season.
"I don't have a magic wand," Allen said. "I don't have all the answers, but what I do have is the capacity to work to try to find the solutions."
After consecutive un-Pennlike seasons, these Quakers are 0-7. When their first win might come is not terribly obvious.
Sophomore point guard Zack Rosen said this is now about something bigger than wins or losses.
"This is [about] giving more of yourself," Rosen said. "Jerome's committed. He's not worried about the wins or the losses, none of that. He's worried about how the wins look and how the losses look."
When Fran Dunphy left Penn for Temple after the 2006 season, athletic director Steve Bilsky had several options, including Cornell coach Steve Donahue. He went for Miller, which turned out to be the wrong hire at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Donahue has won the last two Ivy League championships at Cornell and is a heavy favorite to win a third this season.
But you can't go back to 2006.
You can look forward to 2010.
You can try to undo what has gone wrong.
And, Rosen agreed, it does feel different now than it did a week ago.
"No one's happy about a man losing his livelihood and his job," Rosen said. "And it's going to take a little while for that cloud to just totally pass over, especially for some of the older guys. But it's a different environment."
The normally enthusiastic Penn fan base had all but disappeared over recent games. The alumni were not happy. The students were staying away in record numbers.
Penn had been especially bad at the Palestra, going 1-6 in Ivy games there last season and 0-3 in home games this season.
Before he got to Penn, Rosen watched tapes of the Penn teams, featuring the man who is now his head coach. He saw the crowds, felt the excitement.
"I've seen what it looks like," Rosen said. "I've seen what the Palestra looks like. That's why I came here. That's what I came here for.
"Now, there's no more barriers in the way. There's no more excuses. Now, there's no one to point at. Now, it's us and what we do with the new opportunity."
Allen was not hired because of a long college coaching resume. He does not have that. He was hired to recapture the good feeling that was Penn basketball. The on-court coaching, in practice and games, will have to come over time.
Most coaches become what they've been taught. How well they can express that to their players determines their success level.
"I had the opportunity to play for Dan Dougherty, Larry Brown, Fran Dunphy, Fran O'Hanlon, Gil Jackson and Stevie Donahue," Allen said. "If you can't learn anything from that group, then you're not going to learn anything at all."
Whatever happens is not going to happen overnight, just as 0-7 did not happen without warning.
"He or nobody else is a miracle man," Bilsky said. "The reality is that we're struggling as a team right now, and we're asking him to begin the rebuilding process."
So what happens in March when this season is over?
"We're going to see [Allen's] talents coming forward," Bilsky said. "It's very important to have a good basketball program here. I wouldn't want to go so far as to say this is a trial. But we're going to watch everything. Then, when it comes time to decide the more permanent situation, we'll look at the options at that point." *