When it comes to judging coaches and players, we all have our biases - professional biases, not talking personal. My first college hoops beat at The Inquirer consisted of covering an Ivy League team that never lost an Ivy League game for three seasons. A team that featured a star player named Jerome Allen, who was Penn's head coach for the last time Tuesday against Princeton.
My bias stems from covering that era of Penn Quakers, 1992-95. The guards went on to the pros. The assistant coaches went on to be head coaches. The head coach is still doing his thing on North Broad Street.
The reason I always felt Steve Donahue would be a terrific head coach at Penn stemmed from watching him up close during his time at Penn. Yes, Donahue went on to somehow take Cornell, a hockey school, to the Sweet 16. Yes, his tenure in charge at Boston College wasn't what he wanted it to be.
My feeling, then and now, that Donahue would be a strong fit at Penn mostly comes from observing him there. A street-smart personality full of hoop acumen, a fine teacher, Donahue also was involved in the heavy lifting of getting players to the school.
Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun, about to make the most important decision of her tenure, will find all sorts of constituencies with an opinion, based on all sorts of perspectives, and plenty are smart, professional opinions, reflective of their own time at or observing the school.
I know a former Penn Quaker who played under Matt Langel when the current Colgate coach was a Quakers assistant. This former player believes this is the right time for Langel, that Langel is the perfect fit right now at Langel's own alma mater. (My own professional bias toward Langel is entirely positive.)
Others look around the Ivy League and see schools having success with coaches who had no previous ties to that school, believing Penn shouldn't tie itself down by limiting a search to those with Penn ties. (Does the fact that Jim Engles at overachieving NJIT is the nephew of a Quakers star count as a Penn tie?)
If Calhoun is to reach out beyond the first ring of candidates - Donahue (who could be a Holy Cross target), Langel, Quakers alum Andy Toole, now head coach at Robert Morris, which made the NCAA tournament Tuesday night - she'll be passing on completely qualified men. (Sorry, Dawn Staley fans, Penn can't afford her. And by that way, I'm not so sure Penn women's coach Mike McLaughlin wouldn't be a home run. But then Penn would be taking a chance with two programs.)
Whatever direction she chooses to go, Calhoun simply has to hit that home run. Her predecessor went outside and there was no home run. As it happened, Glen Miller hit his dinger after being fired at Penn, as a Connecticut assistant. Miller absolutely had a big role in UConn's winning last year's national title. Ask anybody in Storrs. But that merely reaffirms how tricky it is to get it right.
Fran McCaffery is a Penn alum who has gotten it done at every level, including at Iowa right now. (No, he's not coming home.) I heard from plenty of people over the years that former Penn AD Steve Bilsky tried to get McCaffery at various times. I believe it, and believe it would have been a home run, but the timing and other factors were never quite right.
It's easy to say now, and plenty thought so then, that Allen's era as head coach started too soon, when Miller was abruptly fired after an 0-7 start in 2009-10, the Palestra practically on fire from all the discontent. When Larry Brown took over at Southern Methodist three years ago, according to Brown he wanted to bring in Allen as his top assistant, or "head coach in waiting" as the school preferred to call it.
Allen's own loyalty to the alma mater that had given him a chance may have factored into his decision to stay, and he was handsomely rewarded for his loyalty. It's not a great leap of faith to say Allen's coaching home run is still in his future. Any NBA or college team would be lucky to have Allen on its staff right now. He'll have a range of possibilities.
Calhoun has swung and missed in one regard already in this search. She could have waited one more week until the end of the season to tell Allen his tenure was ending. Clearly, nobody at Penn leaked the news, but the news leaked out anyway. That's on Calhoun, and Allen and his players didn't deserve it.
Her next swing will be the one she's remembered for, though.