ON THE PLAQUE: Won 310 games over 17 seasons at Penn, the most by a coach in program history. Won 10 Ivy League titles including five undefeated campaigns, more than any other coach in Ivy history. His teams from 1991-92 to 1995-96 won 48 straight Ivy League games, still the longest streak in conference history and the second-longest conference winning streak in NCAA history. Won three Big 5 titles. Coached seven Ivy League Players of the Year, three Ivy League Rookies of the Year, and had 41 All-Ivy honorees.
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 17, 2017
After two years in charge of the Penn men’s basketball program, Fran Dunphy could have been in trouble. Both the 1989-90 and 1990-91 teams finished with losing records and Dunphy would be the first to admit that he was learning on the fly in his first head coaching job. Or, as he put it, in his trademark self-deprecating style: “You quickly understand that you don’t know anything.”
But there were several things working in his favor. For starters, he didn’t panic or change his genuine personality. Steve Donahue—the current Penn head coach and a young assistant at the time—remembered Dunphy’s speech at the banquet following the 1990-91 season revolving around him personally thanking every single person in attendance (and making sure to know everybody’s name). Secondly, he had the unwavering support of then-athletic director Paul Rubincam, who surprised him with a new three-year contract even though he had a year left on his current deal. (Dunphy’s response when Rubincam handed him the piece of paper: “What’s wrong with you?”) And third, and perhaps more important, a program-altering talent in Jerome Allen W’09 was set to arrive on campus that fall.
Every Penn basketball fan knows what happened next as Dunphy guided the Quakers to an incredible amount of success, winning a staggering 10 Ivy League championships between 1993 and his departure for Temple in 2006 (half of which were perfect 14-0 seasons) and winning a school-record 310 games. Fittingly, he is set to enter the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame alongside Allen, his first of his many star players and the one who helped him become one of the nation’s premier coaches.
“I’m so grateful for what Paul Rubincam did for me in terms of giving me the sense that I was going to be OK,” Dunphy said from Temple’s basketball office. “The combination of Rubincam and Jerome Allen sort of gave me credibility.”
Dunphy certainly had plenty of credibility before then, starring for La Salle as a player in the late 1960s before enjoying successful assistant coaching stints at Army, American and La Salle. He arrived at Penn as an assistant in 1988, thrilled for an opportunity to work at a place where he went to so many Big 5 games as a kid and where his cousin Phil Procacci W’72 played quarterback on the football team. And when head coach Tom Schneider resigned the following year, Dunphy’s eyes grew wide at the opportunity to take over—even if, in his mind, he wasn’t “the first, second or even the third choice” and as he watched other candidates come in for interviews. But, in the end, Rubincam chose Schneider’s assistant rather than anyone from the outside.
“I can still remember the phone call,” Dunphy said. “I can still remember calling my parents afterward and telling them I was the next head coach at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a pretty emotional time.”
After those first rocky couple of years under Dunphy, the Quakers turned a corner in 1991-92 when Allen was a freshman, finishing with a 16-10 overall record and a 9-5 mark in the Ivy League. Heading into the next season, with transfer Matt Maloney C’95 joining Allen in the backcourt, Dunphy was optimistic but admitted he “wasn’t sure what we had because we hadn’t tasted a whole lot of success.” But the Quakers took an incredible leap, enjoying three straight perfect seasons in league play—a streak that continued well into the following season before Ira Bowman W’96 and company were upset at Dartmouth. After winning a piece of its fourth straight Ivy crown, Penn lost another heartbreaker at the end of that 1995-96 season, falling to Princeton in a one-game playoff with the automatic NCAA Tournament berth on the line.
The Penn-Princeton rivalry only grew from there, with the hated Tigers taking the crown in both 1997 and 1998 and then stunning Penn at the Palestra in the rivals’ first matchup of the 1998-99 season—a game in which Penn famously led by 27 points in the second half. But that only set the stage for the “most gratifying win” of Dunphy’s career as Penn routed Princeton on the road, 73-48, in the final game of the regular season to win the Ivies and return to the NCAA Tournament.
For many, coaching Penn to seven straight Ivy victories after such a crushing loss was a perfect encapsulation of Dunphy’s poise and level-headedness. For Dunphy himself, it was a learning experience he’s always held close.
“I would have sold my soul to the devil at the end of that game for two more points,” Dunphy said of the game now known as “Black Tuesday” in Penn circles. “And now, 18 years later, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. That particular group showed me unbelievable resolve that I’ve treasured.”
From that point on, Penn had a stranglehold on the league, winning all but two Ivy titles (in 2001 and 2004) until its reign ended in 2007—a year after Dunphy left. Sure, Dunphy wishes Penn could have won more games in the NCAA Tournament aside from its memorable triumph over Nebraska in 1994, often wondering what more he could have done for his seniors, calling the abruptness of their college careers ending a “haunting” experience. But, aside from a loss to Boston College in 2005, the Quakers came close to pulling an upset in most of their NCAA appearances, particularly in Dunphy’s final game vs. Texas in the ’06 tourney. So the fact that Dunphy is disparaged by some for not winning more NCAA Tournament games—a criticism that’s followed him to Temple—is a silly one for those that know him best.
“No one’s even close to him at this level,” said Donahue, pointing to the fact that Penn hasn’t won the league over the last 10 years as one big indicator of how remarkable Dunphy’s tenure was at Penn. “He was in a one-bid league that won 10 championships? That’s nuts. No one has done that that in the history of college basketball in a one-bid league.”
Much of Dunphy’s success at Penn stemmed from his ability to recruit historically dominant Ivy League players every few years, from Allen to Michael Jordan C’00 to Ugonna Onyekwe W’03 to Ibrahim Jaaber C’07. And he remains very proud that Allen, Maloney and Bowman all went from the Ivies to the NBA in the mid-90s. But as he reflects back at his time at Penn, he remains thankful to all the lesser-known players he helped develop, pointing to guys like Cedric Laster C’96 and Jan Fikiel W’05 who bloomed very late in their college careers.
“As I’ve said to all kids when I recruited them, my job is to provide for you memories and experiences,” said Dunphy, adding that his pitch to high school players was that he was recruiting them for 40 years, not four. “Whether that’s helping you be the best player you can be or taking you on a foreign trip, taking you to Madison Square Garden, taking you to a tournament in California—I have great memories for all those young men who helped me grow as a person and a coach.”
According to Dave Duke, his longtime deputy at both Penn and Temple, Dunphy’s recruiting prowess is predicated on the kind of person he is: affable, honest and humble. And even if he can get pretty intense on the sideline and be hard on certain players, he consistently displays all of those personality traits in games, practices, around campus, and in his many philanthropic missions, including the extensive work he’s done for Coaches vs. Cancer.
“He’s a down-to-earth guy,” Duke said. “He doesn’t talk about himself a lot. He doesn’t brag. It’s not about him; it’s always about the program. He’s part of the program—he just happens to be the head guy.”
“How he treated people was eye-opening to me,” added Donahue, one of Dunphy’s many former assistants and players who went on to successful head coaching careers. “The selflessness of Dunph is pretty remarkable.”