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Time runs out on Allen era at Penn

Jerome Allen’s last game as Quakers head coach will be tomorrow against visiting Princeton.

Penn's head coach Jerome Allen. (Steven M. Falk/ Staff Photographer)
Penn's head coach Jerome Allen. (Steven M. Falk/ Staff Photographer)Read moreSteven M. Falk / Staff Photographer

I WILL NEVER forget the day in 2010 at the Palestra when Jerome Allen went from interim head coach at Penn to permanent head coach. He spoke from the heart about his love for his school, how much it had meant to the kid who left 4601 Germantown Ave. for Penn to become a student and one of the best players in school history during one of its greatest eras and his absolute belief that he and his staff would get it done. I believed him.

Two years later, Penn was playing at Princeton with a share of the Ivy League title on the line. Allen's senior point guard Zack Rosen had put together one of the most amazing, win-games-at-the-end seasons in memory. Senior Rob Belcore played with incredible passion. And if senior shooter Tyler Bernardini had not been playing hurt most of that Ivy season, Penn probably would not have lost that final game and would have been in a playoff with Harvard for the league's NCAA bid.

Those three seniors were unique, especially Rosen. And they could not be replaced. Penn still had some good players, but Allen's next two teams were dysfunctional - too many turnovers, not enough leadership and way too many losses, 9-22 (6-8 Ivy) and 8-20 (5-9).

You had to look closely, but this season's team had moments where you could see potential for future success. By the end, Allen was starting four freshmen. One could have made the case that, with just a little more time, Allen could actually make good on that 2010 promise at the Palestra. He will not get that time. The record trumped the possibilities. Tomorrow's Palestra game against Princeton will be Allen's last.

I am not sure why athletic director Grace Calhoun felt the need to tell Allen last Monday that he would not be back. It surely could have waited until this Wednesday. News like that never keeps for 9 days anymore so Saturday, when word began to leak out, was awkward for everybody. Allen had to tell his players before their game with Cornell.

After a distinguished playing career in Europe with a brief NBA stop, Allen returned to his alma mater in 2009 as an assistant to Glen Miller. He was on a staff with two men who would go on to become head coaches - Mike Martin (Brown) and John Gallagher (Hartford). Penn began that season 0-7 and it was obvious to everybody that Miller, after an Ivy title in 2007 and a 23-36, 14-14 Ivy record the next two seasons, was the wrong fit. And it went way beyond winning or losing.

Then athletic director Steve Bilsky chose Allen more because he would make the Penn community feel good again than because of his coaching experience. He really didn't have any. The 6-15, 5-9 record the rest of the season had little to do with Allen and everything to do with the bad feelings that had been left behind. By the end of the season, alums, fans and players were invested again because of Allen. The Quakers were 13-15, 7-7 in Allen's first full season, 20-13, 11-3 in his second.

The coach obviously has to own the last two seasons. This team is 9-18, 4-9 after sweeping Columbia and Cornell, with the freshmen really improving and showing different, complementary skill sets. It appears Allen has now assembled the right mix of players. Somebody else will coach them.

I am told there is a committee that will be part of the selection process and that only men with head-coaching experience will be considered. Names with Penn connections would include former Quaker assistants Steve Donahue (first Cornell and then Boston College, currently not coaching) and Fran O'Hanlon (Lafayette) as well as former Penn players Matt Langel (Colgate) and Andy Toole (Robert Morris).

The Ivy world has changed dramatically since Allen's final three playing seasons ended 20 years ago with a 42-0 league record. Cornell got serious about basketball and won those three Ivy titles from 2008 to 2010, Then, Harvard got very serious about basketball for the first time and has been the dominant program for 5 years. Now, Yale is a player. Yale and Harvard will play off for the Ivy NCAA bid Saturday at, of all places, the Palestra.

Allen was the transformative Penn player who turned down John Calipari and Massachusetts out of Episcopal Academy and turned the Penn program around in the 1990s. He could have left Penn after that turnaround season in 2012 when Larry Brown wanted him to become his top assistant and heir apparent at SMU. He stayed and signed a 5-year contract. He is still owed $650,000 on that contract.

Should Penn have showed Allen the same loyalty he showed his university and let him finish out his contract? If it is only about the record, it is hard to get past 26-60, 15-26 in the Ivy over the last three seasons. If it is about how he represented his university, he would have been coach for life.

Are this freshmen class and the class coming in the ones that would have turned Penn back into an Ivy and Big 5 factor again? Time will tell on that. The coach who assembled those classes won't get that time. He is down to 40 minutes against Princeton.