STEVE DONAHUE was a kid growing up in Delaware County when Penn dominated the 1970s, going 223-56, 127-13 in the Ivy League, 32-8 in the Big 5, had five players who went on to the NBA or ABA.
He was a Penn assistant coach for a decade in the 1990s when Penn went 42-0 over three Ivy seasons and won 48 consecutive league games.
When Donahue was formally introduced as the 20th Penn head coach yesterday afternoon at the Palestra, he took the audience through a tour of his life (first time in the building, a seventh-grade field trip to watch a doubleheader) and his basketball life (played at Cardinal O'Hara for Buddy Gardler and Ursinus for Skip Werley, coached under Fran O'Hanlon in high school, Herb Magee and Fran Dunphy in college). He also very politely explained that it was not the 1970s or 1990s anymore.
"The days are over in this league where you can rely on this building, the Big 5 and it's going to take you to the NCAA Tournament," Donahue said. "This league has changed. It has changed over the last 25 years, the last 10 years and the last 5 years. You've got to realize that. We're going to do everything we can in terms of work ethic, innovation, thinking outside the box."
Penn lost its way at the exact moment that first Cornell (coached by Donahue) and now Harvard took over the league. Donahue's task is clear, but complicated. Find the way back for Penn.
When Donahue was introduced, he said he was feeling a little old because his first time coaching at the Palestra was 25 years ago.
"I'm going to try not to get emotional," he said while pausing briefly.
Donahue sat for a 5 1/2-hour interview last Friday, just 3 days after the player most responsible for that 1990s success, Jerome Allen, coached his last game at Penn.
"Steve Donahue is first and foremost an educator who will ensure our young men are best positioned for life," Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun said in her introduction of Donahue.
Donahue left Penn in 2000 to start a complete rebuild at Cornell. It took him several swings and misses to find the right formula.
"When I took over Cornell in 2000, I thought I had all the answers," Donahue said. "I was a bad basketball coach."
He recruited Philly and found out he couldn't. He found his recruiting base was in the Midwest. By 2007, the renovation was complete. Cornell won the next three Ivy titles and played in the 2010 Sweet 16.
Donahue was then hired by Boston College. After success and a near NCAA bid in his first season, wins became harder to find in a brutal ACC. The support he got at Cornell in the construction was lacking and he was let go after the 2013-14 season.
"I was taken aback by his humility in describing his failures," Calhoun said.
Donahue took what he called a "sabbatical" this season while doing some TV work for ESPN and Fox.
"I said when I left BC I am going to utilize this year to be the greatest development, growth year of my life," he said.
When he left, he told his BC players "it's about the next play." This is his next play.
Calhoun said 25 current and former head coaches, along with four assistants, were "thoroughly vetted."
"Quite frankly, Steve Donahue set a bar that no other candidate could overcome," Calhoun said.
As awkwardly as Allen's dismissal was handled, this search and hire took almost no time and resulted in a home run.
Donahue learned from some of the very best and has developed his own, unique style. His Cornell teams played fast, loose and smart. And he will get the time at Penn to make this right.
"I would be remiss to say it is not bittersweet for me to replace someone like Jerome Allen," Donahue said. "He taught me a great deal about basketball."
Now, after his journey, he has the keys to one of America's iconic venues coaching one of its legendary programs in his city.
"I would never dream that I could be a Big 5 head coach," Donahue said. "There are only five of us and to imagine that I'm one of them is just incredibly overwhelming."
He gave his vision of how Penn will play and what it will look like. It will be fast, smart and detailed.
"The vision is to get back on top, where we belong," Donahue said. "It's not just win, it's how we win."
As Donahue explained, this will not be easy. It is no longer Penn and Princeton. In fact, lately, it is not Penn or Princeton.
"For most of the '90s, our league was ranked in the high 20s in RPI," Donahue said. "It's now the 13th best league in the country. It is borderline top 10. It has a lot to do with the change in financial aid at all these institutions."
Allen left behind a very strong freshman class, four of whom were starting at season's end. Donahue told the current players Monday night "it was a clean slate."
"As I looked at this over the last week," Donahue said, "I thought over the last 18 months [Allen] has had great growth in the program, type of kid, how they approach the game, skill level, in particular that freshman class."
The Penn recruiting territory is not the Midwest; it is, Donahue said, a 2 1/2-hour circumference from the city.
"We've got to develop and recruit all-league players and player of the year candidates while they fit what we're all about here," Donahue said.