After he was introduced as Penn's head basketball coach, Steve Donahue looked up at his larger-than-life photo on the scoreboard of the Palestra. Asked for his thoughts, Donahue said, "That's nuts." Then Donahue made fun of his tie up on the big screen.
The new man in charge at this place began ticking off names, "Chuck Daly and Jimmy Lynam and Jimmy Boyle - it's just amazing, the legacy of coaches that have coached here. It's surreal. It really is. . . . I've been very fortunate in my career to be in a lot of different situations. I've never been more excited and nervous than I was today."
Let's get this out of the way. The former Quakers assistant (1990-2000) and Cornell and Boston College head coach, now 52 years old, is not the "safe" choice for Penn, as some have suggested. There is no such thing as a "safe" choice at Penn. After 14 games, or maybe one more game, one Ivy League team makes the NCAA tournament. If you're not in the hunt at the very top of the standings at a place such as Penn, someone else will get the chance to try. There is no nestling into a comfortable spot.
Donahue knows the lay of the land. He can talk all the Big Five and Palestra talk - growing up in Delaware County, he was brought by a teacher to his first doubleheader when he was in seventh grade - but he also is very much a brass-tacks recruiter. There were early land mines in place at Boston College that Donahue didn't overcome - at one point early on, he was down to one scholarship player before he began to rebuild - but he also knows this isn't the same Ivy League as those days when beating Princeton could get it done for Penn.
Replacing Jerome Allen is probably the toughest part of the deal. Donahue called it bittersweet and spoke very highly of both the Penn freshman class and the incoming class.
"I know them all . . . I'm out there," Donahue said, adding about his predecessor: "He's made great strides that haven't shown up on the scoreboard yet. But it's a great place for me to jump in and really continue this qualitative thing, so the quantitative stuff, the wins and championships, will be soon to follow."
It was interesting to hear Donahue talk about being "a bad basketball coach for a good stretch" when he began at Cornell: "I thought I had all the answers." That's the team he ending up taking to three straight NCAA tournaments, culminating in a Sweet 16 run. It didn't happen right away. It couldn't happen right away at Cornell, which had little history in the sport.
Donahue spoke about the Midwest's turning out to be his best recruiting territory at Cornell, after he beat his head against the wall trying to get players from this area, his own home base.
Asked about Penn's base, Donahue gave an answer that sounded like something he must have thrown at Penn during his job interview.
"I did a lot of research over the last 25 years of Penn basketball," Donahue said. "One player was first-team all-Ivy from outside 21/2 hours from this campus - Koko Archibong, who we recruited. Ugonna Onyekwe, [from] London, but Ugonna was at Mercersburg Academy. It's critical [the 21/2-hour radius is] where we recruit our hardest. Philly-type kids, gritty, understand the Palestra, their parents understand the Palestra, their cousins understand the Palestra and Penn. . . . You can go anywhere in the world with this institution, but for me, to develop the relationships that we need to get that great player, it's covering that radius."
Donahue said he once mentioned at an ACC news conference - "and they all looked at me like I was crazy" - that the Ivy League is the best-coached league in the country, "and it has nothing to do with the coaching. It's the coachability of the kids you get at these eight institutions."
This wasn't just a rah-rah statement, Donahue made it clear. If accurate, that's also a hurdle for any coach.
"If you're not the smartest, toughest, best-executing team in the league, you don't win," he said. "Obviously, Harvard's done a terrific job [recruiting]. We've got to get them here, coach them here, on both sides of the ball. It's got to be great. It's the lifeline of our program."
He wasn't looking for a "safe" haven, Donahue also made clear. He had opportunities to go after other jobs. He didn't go hard after Penn because it was home, he said. He believes this is the place where you can win.
The new man in charge at the Palestra waxed poetic about the place - "as a fan, you literally have a piece of the outcome" - and he raved about what they had done in recent years with the building and the whole athletic complex.
At the same time, Donahue said, it isn't enough, that Penn's having the Palestra won't carry the day. The new man suggested you have to look forward or get left behind.
Penn fans already know all about that.