By John Feinstein
Sunday, January 28, 2007
At the end of a long day and a long night, Fran Dunphy got almost exactly what he wanted.
"I understand why the focus is on me," he had said, standing a few feet from his locker room before his new team, Temple, faced his old team, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday night at the Palestra. "But it really should be on the kids playing the game. It should be on those kids from Penn I got to coach, and it should be on the kids I'm coaching now. I know pregame it won't be that way, but once the game starts, that's the way it ought to be."
Amazingly, on a historic night in college basketball's most historic building, that's the way it turned out. What made the night unique was Dunphy. Last April, he became the first coach to jump from one of Philadelphia's Big Five schools to another. After 17 wildly successful years at Penn -- 10 Ivy League titles and 310 victories -- he couldn't turn down the chance to almost triple his salary and take over a program that has been one game from the Final Four as recently as 2001, all without having to move.
Which is why, when he walked into the Palestra on Wednesday, there were camera crews and photographers recording his every step and every word. The first person to greet him was his successor, Glen Miller, who was standing a few feet from the home locker room when Dunphy walked in, no doubt wanting to be sure Dunphy didn't take a wrong turn en route to the tiny visitors' locker room at the other end of the court.
"The funny thing is, Fran and I have coached against each other in this building a bunch," said Miller, who spent eight years at Brown. "The difference tonight is, I get the good locker room."
Dunphy didn't seem to mind, even if the visitors' locker room at the Palestra is slightly smaller than a walk-in closet and considerably darker. He is 58, someone who always has been respected by his peers, and finds himself facing a new challenge at a time in his life when he could have kept coaching Penn and contending for the Ivy League title every year until he was ready to retire. But there was a sense that he had maxed out, that making the NCAA tournament, perhaps winning a game, was the best he could expect.
"It just seemed the right fit," he said of the move to Temple. "It isn't all that different a job. I still have to recruit, I still have to watch a lot of tape, I'm still working with kids. I've always felt that coaching, getting paid to coach, was a privilege. I felt it at Penn. I feel it now."
Of course, he is being paid considerably more (reportedly close to $800,000 annually, compared with about $300,000 at Penn), and he will be expected to take Temple back to the heights it climbed during John Chaney's highly successful and equally controversial 26 years at the school. Five times, Chaney took Temple to a region final of the NCAA tournament, never making the Final Four. But the Owls hadn't been to the tournament since 2001, and Chaney had been involved in numerous eyebrow-raising incidents -- including his admission two years ago that he ordered one of his players to hurt an opponent in a game against Saint Joseph's.
Enter Dunphy, the anti-Chaney in many ways. If he has an enemy in college basketball, no one knows who he is. Jack Scheuer, the venerable Associated Press basketball writer who has covered every coach in Big Five history, says simply that Dunphy is "my all-time favorite -- and that has nothing to do with his coaching ability."
For years, Scheuer has organized pickup games played at the Palestra on Wednesdays at noon.
"One year during Christmas break, we're playing and I looked up and here come the Penn kids walking in for practice," he said. "I look at Fran, he looks at me and he puts a hand up and says: 'Jackie, don't worry. I know it's your court right now. We'll use the auxiliary gym.' "
Dunphy had both dreaded and looked forward to his return to Penn. He knew he would see many old friends and have many memories stirred. He wasn't sure how the Penn people, especially the students, would react to him.
"It'll be interesting," he said with a smile.
Before he found out the answer to that question, Dunphy had to attend a pregame alumni function -- for Penn.
An alumnus recently agreed to endow the basketball coach's position, and Athletic Director Steve Bilsky threw him a pregame party. Dunphy was asked to drop by and say hello.
"Why not?" he said. "I still have a lot of friends here."
That was apparent as he made his way around the building. It was more apparent when he walked on the floor three minutes before tip-off to a rousing ovation. It was even more apparent when he was introduced, and everyone on the Penn side of the floor, including the students and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (an alum), stood and applauded. Dunphy reacted with a shy wave, standing at the end of his bench as if hoping to avoid the spotlight for as long as possible.
"This is a tough night for a lot of us," said Vince Curran, Penn class of '92 and a former Dunphy player who now does color commentary on the Penn radio network. "How do you decide who to root for when your father or your brother comes back to coach against your alma mater? That's how we all feel about Dunph."
Dunphy certainly appreciated all those feelings, but once the game began, he didn't want any nostalgic thoughts creeping into his mind. "The fact is," he said, "this is a game we need to win."
His team entered 7-10; Penn 10-6. Big Five games are always important because there is no city rivalry like this one. Unlike in Washington, where most of the local teams avoid each other like the plague, the Big Five -- Penn, Temple, Villanova, Saint Joseph's and La Salle -- play each other every year. No one understands Big Five tradition better than Dunphy. He is a Philly kid who remembers attending a tripleheader with his father at the Palestra in 1962. He played at La Salle, coached at Penn and now at Temple. He gets what games like this one mean.
The night was everything anyone could have hoped for. Temple took a 38-19 lead, mostly on the blazing shooting of Dionte Christmas, who would end up with 34 points. Penn rallied to tie the score early in the second half, and the lead then began to change hands as the noise continued to build. Christmas hit a jumper with eight seconds left to give Temple a 74-73 lead, but Penn pushed the ball right down the court and Mark Zoller, one of three seniors Dunphy had talked about emotionally before the game, was fouled shooting a three-pointer with 1.4 seconds left.
"I've never been so nervous in my whole life," Zoller said later. "My knees were shaking on each shot."
It didn't show. He made all three shots, and when Temple's last-second heave from midcourt fell short, Penn had a memorable victory on a memorable night.
"I'm disappointed for our kids," Dunphy said. "They played very well. But I'm proud of the Penn kids. They played just the way I would have wanted them to in a game like this."
It was a special game on a special night. In the end, it was about the kids, just as Dunphy wanted. Of course all of them are, in a sense, his kids. And they gave him plenty of reason to be proud.