By Chris Murray
Special for the Sunday Sun
ABOVE PHOTO: Coach Allen on the court with his Quakers.
Photo courtesy of Penn Athletics
If you want to get an idea of Penn’s storied basketball tradition in the Big 5 and the Ivy League, all you need to do is look up at the bright red and blue banners hanging from the rafters at the Palestra or take a walk through Weightman Hall and look up at the team photos from the various teams that captured Ivy League crowns hanging from the hallway near the sports information office.
In the here and now of the 2009-2010 season, the championship banners are almost a distant memory in light of the Quakers recent struggles. They’ve had two straight losing seasons and started off the season 0-7 and fired Glen Miller as their head coach back in December.
Enter former Episcopal Academy and former Penn star, 36-year-old Jerome Allen. After ending the last five games of his professional career as a player/head coach with Snaidero Udine of the Italian League, Allen came back to his alma mater as an assistant coach. After the team fired Miller, Allen was named the team’s interim head coach.
Allen, who led the Quakers to three straight Ivy League titles as a player from 1993-1995, is hoping to restore Penn to the team that was a perennial Ivy League powerhouse throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s.
Though he was surprised that he was picked to take over the team, Allen said he was motivated by the challenge of turning the Quakers around and returning them back to the teams that once dominated the Ivy League.
“I was surprised, I was excited and I was in awe a little bit,” Allen said. “There was only one answer and that was ‘yes.’ Whether I was ready for the move or prepared, I felt obligated because this place has given me so much and so why wouldn’t I want to right the ship so to speak.
“The biggest thing though is that I felt really bad for the kids because I know what this place is like when teams are winning and I know what the atmosphere on campus is like and the overall support from the alumni, you’re always going to have a winning experience. That’s what I want us to get back to.”
As it stands now, the Quakers are coming off their first Ivy League win of the season with their 55-54 road win over Brown last Saturday. It was their second win overall against 14 losses and the second win in Allen’s tenure as coach. Penn is 1-1 in the conference. Despite their record, Penn’s players said Allen has made a huge difference in their mindset and approach to the game.
“It’s the work ethic, the energy, the accountablity and the way things are run and the way we go about things has changed and it bodes well for future success,” said sophomore guard Zack Rosen. “You don’t see it immediately in the win column yet. You see it (during practice) when guys are tucked in on the line at the time they’re supposed to be there, clapping it up waiting for him and not him waiting for us. You’ve got to be ready to go.”
Rosen said Allen’s credibility as a coach comes from the fact that he has done the very things they aspire to as players to be the best team in the Ivy League. During Allen’s tenure as a college player at the campus in West Philadelphia, Penn won 48 straight Ivy-League games and went to the NCAA Tournament all four years including a first-round upset of Nebraska.
As a player, Allen was a two-time Ivy League Player of the year. He was a three-time first team All-Ivy League and Philadelphia Big Five selection during his career. Allen was inducted into the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 2009.
“His word becomes bond, his word is gold because we know that he’s done many of the things that we would hope to do,” Rosen said pointing to the rafters inside the Palestra. “With those banners right there, he’s responsible for them along with other people. He was part of that. What he says is gold, there’s no question about it.”
Though Penn has won just two of their last nine games, Allen said he prefers to see the glass as half full. He said he has seen improvement in the team even in the losses. More importantly, he wants them to know he cares about their development as people.
“We try to hold on to small victories, whether it’s five-minute segments, a 10-minute segment or half the game or certain possessions,” Allen said. “You can’t necessarily reflect on the negative stuff too much when you’re trying to gain the confidence of the young men. Kids don’t care about how much you know, but how much you care.”
At the same time, Allen wants to instill an atmosphere at Penn of a team that expects to win every time they step on the court.
“I believe that it’s our responsibility as employees of the University of Pennsylvania to prepare these kids to expect to win,” Allen said. “That’s the type of mentality I’m trying to usher in. The power that five individuals have when they come together can amount to doing whatever it is you want because you’re on the same page.”
Throughout his high school and collegiate career in Philadelphia, Allen has been a winner. At Episcopal Academy, he led his squad to four straight Inter-Academic League titles. Temple head coach and former Penn head coach Fran Dunphy said the same qualities that helped Penn win back in the early 1990s will the be things that will help him as a collegiate coach.
“He was a great, great leader and somebody I think you valued every day. He was the same guy every day he came to work,” Dunphy said. “You can’t beat that kind of consistency. Jerome will be a terrific coach. It’s not an easy situation to be thrust into, but I think if anybody can do it Jerome Allen can. I think he’s a man of great character and great integrity. He has a great work ethic and I think all of those things will enable him to bring Penn back to where the university thinks they ought to be.”
Allen said the thing he learned from Dunphy was to be aware of all the details in running a program and building relationships with players beyond their four years at Penn.
“A lot of the things he instilled in me as a player, he not only preached them, he lived them,” Allen said of Dunphy. “There’s a formula to building a winning program from covering every detail to demanding respect from your players in terms of effort, energy, and promptness to how you tuck your shirt in, all that stuff adds up in building a winning program. He was the best at being selfless and having a sense of humility and pushing people forward.”
If Allen becomes the permanent head coach at Penn, the challenge he faces is finding athletes who are gifted academically and athletically as he was during his playing days. Ivy League schools do not give athletic scholarships.
“It’s our job as a staff to really to get out there and get to the gravel and get involved with those kids,” Allen said. “I believe whole heartedly in the product I’m selling because I lived it. I’m passionate. When I go out on the road recruiting, it’s a lot easier to sell something you believe in.”
Allen said he would love to take the position on a continual basis if the university makes the offer. Rosen hopes Penn will make Allen the school’s permanent head coach.
“There’s no doubt about it, you can put it in your papers and quote me,” Rosen said. “He’s the man and he’ll get the job done. He works way too hard and has way too much experience to not do the job.”