ON THE PLAQUE: 1985 Ivy League Player of the Year, just the third defensive player in history to win the award. Started on three Ivy League championship teams and graduated with an 18-2-1 record against Ancient Eight competition. Two-time first-team All-Ivy, second-team All-Ivy as a sophomore. Co-captain of the 1985 squad, earned George Munger Award (MVP) and Chuck Bednarik Award (top lineman). Graduated as the program’s all-time leader in sacks and TFLs. 1985-86 recipient of the Class of 1915 Award.
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 25, 2017
Tom Gilmore C’86 only grew up about 10 miles from Penn’s campus but, as he puts it, he may as well have been “halfway across the world.” He lived in the Frankford section of Philadelphia and went to North Catholic High School in Kensington, rarely venturing from either of those two neighborhoods.
West Philly? The Ivy League? These were never things on his radar.
“Halfway through my senior year in high school, I didn’t even plans to go to college,” Gilmore admitted. “And even though I grew up across the city in Philadelphia, I had never even heard of the University of Pennsylvania.”
Even when a Penn coach came to pay him a visit, it didn’t immediately take because he didn’t think he was good enough to play football at the next level. In fact, after that initial meeting, he remembers telling one of his friends, “Hey, did you know Penn State has a campus in Philly?” — something he laughs about today.
But that coach, then-assistant Ed Zubrow, was persistent in his recruiting, and only a few months later Gilmore found himself on the foreign land known as University City. Four years after that, he graduated as a three-time Ivy champion and an Ivy League Player of the Year. And now, three decades later, he’s entering the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I think I was the luckiest guy in the world,” said Gilmore, who went on to a successful college coaching career and currently runs the Holy Cross football program. “So many things fell into place for me. A lot of unlikely things happened to an inner-city Philly kid who never even heard of the place and didn’t think he would ever play college football. And I wound up starting every game of my career. It’s just a very unlikely deal.”
Many things certainly had to go right for Gilmore. Although his old brother, Jim, was a highly touted recruit who a young assistant coach by the name of Nick Saban lured to Ohio State—and who went on to briefly play for the Eagles—Tom didn’t have the same kind of size. He was so undersized, in fact, that he was listed sixth on the defensive lineman depth chart going into his sophomore season—just on his side of the field.
And then there was the team itself. When Gilmore arrived on campus, the Quakers were coming off three straight brutal seasons in which they combined for a total of two wins. Things were so bad that Gilmore remembers Sports Illustrated rating Penn as the worst program in the country.
But the trajectory dramatically changed in 1982 when the Quakers stormed to a piece of their first Ivy League championship in 23 years thanks to a dramatic win over Harvard in their home finale. Freshmen, though, had their own team and were not permitted to play on varsity then, so Gilmore was “going nuts with everyone else in the stands.”
It wasn’t until 1983 when Gilmore got in on the action, charging up the depth chart to become a starting defensive lineman on a team that once again won a share of the Ivy title. He remained the starter through the 1984 and 1985 campaigns, guiding Penn to outright championships and winning the Bushnell Cup, given to the Ivy League’s top player, in ’85—one of only two linemen to claim the honor before it was divided into offensive and defensive awards in 2012.
“I always looked at him as the perfect teammate—more than anybody else,” said defensive back Tim Chambers C’85, who won the Bushnell Cup a year before Gilmore did. “You want teammates who are great football players, that are disciplined, that are fun to be with.
“We were a band of misfit toys down there. Guys were undersized, a half-step too slow. But there was something magical about that team.”
Gilmore was certainly a big reason for the magic, as he proved to be both an incredible leader (he was a co-captain in 1985) and a terror for opposing quarterbacks (he ranks fourth on Penn’s all-time sack list with 20). The Quakers went 18-2-1 in the Ivies during his three-year tenure.
“He was a flat-out technique guy, a brilliant mind with a really great work ethic,” Chambers recalled. “All of those things really became the foundation of why he was such a great football player for an undersized defensive tackle.”
Because Gilmore was such a good student of the game and a hard-working leader who “didn’t tolerate fools,” Chambers wasn’t surprised that his teammate went into coaching after graduating. Gilmore, though, credits Penn’s coaches for his evolution from player to head coach, pointing out that Jerry Berndt and his staff made it feel like they weren’t entitled to anything and “we had to outwork people to get it done” — something he appreciated as a blue-collar Philly guy.
“I always felt we were a very well-coached team,” Gilmore said. “And I was able to make the transition into coaching very easily because of how well-coached I was as a player at Penn.”
Only a few months after graduating, Gilmore began his coaching career at his alma mater under Zubrow, who took over for Berndt as head coach that year after five seasons as the defensive line coach. After that Penn team went a perfect 10-0 to win its fifth straight Ivy championship, Gilmore spent three years at Columbia, returned to Penn in 1990 and headed to Dartmouth in 1992, where he remained for eight years, working his way up the ranks. After serving as a defensive coordinator for both the Big Green and Lehigh (2000-03), he got his first head coaching at Holy Cross in 2004—a job he has held over since.
Of course, he still often thinks about his time at Penn, using many of those memories to motivate or rally his own players. Some of the memories are funny, like the time he tipped a pass that led to a Joe Lorenc C’86 interception in Penn’s title-clinching win over Dartmouth in 1983 and then accidentally tackled Lorenc in the ensuing commotion. Some are great, like the time in 1984 when Penn pummeled Harvard in a Top 10 showdown after the Crimson offensive line had been talking trash about the Quakers’ “tiny defensive line.” Some are painful, like the time Penn lost to rival Harvard the following year. “Statistically that was the best game I played, but it was by the far the worst experience I ever had on a football field,” he said. And some are bittersweet—like when Penn responded the following week of that ’85 season to beat Dartmouth and win the title outright (thanks to Yale beating Harvard the same day) before Gilmore sat there at Franklin Field “overcome with emotion” as he realized his playing career was over.
But Gilmore never really moved on from Penn—not entirely. He remains good friends with several of his teammates and coaches, emailing as many as possible to come to the Hall of Fame banquet as soon as he found out he was being inducted. And he’s particularly close with Zubrow, the guy who recruited him before he knew what Penn was, served as his position coach when he was an undersized player, and then was his head coach when he was a first-year assistant learning on the job.
These days, Zubrow goes to every Holy Cross game with his wife, rain or shine, no matter what, just to cheer on Gilmore.
“That relationship never ended,” Gilmore said. “Everything I think about Penn revolves around those relationships with my teammates and coaches—and the memories of winning those championships.”