Commentary

From the Ivy to the A-10, Dunphy fits just right in Philly

Originally Published: September 16, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Basketball people in this city like to joke that, among the fiery and at times combative personalities among the Big 5 coaches, Fran Dunphy is Sweden. He is the unassuming straight man among mega personalities (Saint Joseph's Phil Martelli) and media darlings (Villanova's Jay Wright). Back when John Chaney was still at Temple and Dunphy still at Penn, Dunphy cleared up more than a few dustups between the old Owl and his city brethren.

So when Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw tabbed Dunphy as the retired Chaney's successor two years ago, it was akin to replacing John McEnroe with Bjorn Borg. Fire-breather to quiet thinker; recruiter of the underprivileged to recruiter of the Ivy League; matchup-zone diehard to man-to-man stalwart, they are polar opposites in personality and style.

[+] EnlargeDunphy and Chaney
Joseph Labolito/WireImageAfter replacing a legend, Fran Dunphy didn't take long to win over his skeptics.

More than a few people wondered whether Dunphy's game could play on North Broad Street.

"I wasn't 'a good fit,'" Dunphy said. "Sure, I heard that, and I think it was a natural thing for people to talk about."

Walk down North Broad now with Dunphy, and you know he fits in there just as comfortably as he did for 17 years in West Philly.

From the students who stop him on the street for a hug, to Liz, the waitress at Plaza Pizza who chastises him for not bringing her a birthday present, to the random students and administrators who wish him well in the season, Dunphy is like a local at Cheers. Everybody knows his name. And he knows theirs.

He is co-teaching an honors business class -- Management, Theory & Practice: From the Locker Room to the Boardroom -- and is a regular on the speaker circuit.

But no one ever doubted Dunphy would win over converts. Universally liked in a profession where backstabbing is a job prerequisite, he remains so wildly popular at Penn that, according to assistant coach Dave Duke, longtime fans buy seats at Temple's Liacouras Center when Penn is off and Temple is at home.

It is on the basketball court and in the living rooms that people had their questions. Could Dunphy take a team that had been coached in such a unique way by such a powerful force and remake the team in his own style? And could the quiet, unassuming man go into homes against Big East foes and win over recruits?

The answers appear to be yes and yes.

Last season, Temple rode a hot finish to a stunning Atlantic 10 tournament title. This year, one preseason publication already has tabbed the Owls -- picked ninth last year -- to finish second.

In December, point guard Juan Fernandez will join Temple; he helped Argentina dispose of the U.S. in the under-19 championships this summer. U-19 and Davidson coach Bob McKillop called Fernandez "Pepe Sanchez with a jump shot," referring to the Owls' former point guard who took Temple to the Elite Eight in 1999.

And next season, Andrew "Scootie" Randall will become the second consecutive Philadelphia Public League Player of the Year to choose Temple, following in the footsteps of Ramone Moore.

"I don't know if it's people protecting their turf or what, but I hear all the time about how guys can't coach at 'this' level," said Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon, who spent six years as an assistant on Dunphy's bench at Penn and is a longtime friend. "Coaching is coaching. People don't know what they're talking about. Dunph can coach at any level, anywhere, anytime."

Somewhere Dunphy is cringing as he reads O'Hanlon's lavish praise.

He will talk to you about anything -- his beloved Phillies, your kids, Coaches vs. Cancer (he's the national chairman) -- to avoid talking about himself. When the notebook comes out and the questions start, he heaves a sigh, then says, "OK, let's get this over with."

Ask him why he's been able to turn things around fairly quickly, and he'll tell you he's fortunate to work for a great university, lucky to have a smart staff, grateful that Chaney made the transition so easy.

He'll credit the janitor for making the court perfect before he credits himself.

"You're going to try to talk to him about himself?" assistant coach Matt Langel said. "Good luck."

[+] EnlargeFran Dunphy
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe quiet and unassuming Dunphy led the Owls to the Atlantic 10 tournament title last season.

But Dunphy's demeanor was exactly what Temple needed. The school didn't need someone who would come in with trumpets blaring to put his mark on a team or prove the naysayers and cynics wrong. It needed someone who could breathe new life into the program.

Truth is, Dunphy took more of a leap of faith than Temple. The Owls got an established winner, a coach who had won 10 Ivy League titles at Penn and turned the Quakers into the pre-eminent program in the Ancient Eight.

The Temple that Chaney left behind wasn't the same as the one he had forged his reputation on. Once the crown jewel of the Atlantic 10, Temple had been overtaken by Xavier and, until Dunphy took the Owls back last season, hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2001.

There was a lot of work to be done and a lot of changes to be made, not to undo Chaney's handprint but to create Dunphy's.

Dunphy went about his business, chucking Chaney's 5:30 a.m. practices, his zone and his handcuffs on the offense, all changes that were warmly embraced by his players.

Dunphy remembers his own playing days at La Salle University, when disciplinarian Jim Harding gave way to more relaxed Tom Gola. It was like a kid being let out from under his parent's thumb.

"Coach Dunphy told us if we gave him 100 percent on defense, anyone was welcome to shoot the ball," said senior Dionte Christmas, an early favorite for conference player of the year honors. "That was a big change from Coach Chaney, who was so structured he only wanted certain people to shoot. That part wasn't hard to adjust to at all. The defense took a while. We made a lot of mistakes. We all worried about our man and didn't do any helping."

Dunphy suffered quietly as the Owls went through the requisite growing pains, particularly on defense, and stumbled to a 12-18 finish in his first season.

In the meantime, he and his staff knocked on doors, searching for players. Skeptics argued that Dunphy wouldn't be able to sell North Philly, that an Ivy League guy couldn't get in with the recruits he needed to get in with, especially when he had to share the doorway with the heavy hitters of college basketball.

Some thought that at the very least Dunphy needed a hired gun, a top-notch recruiter on his staff who would make the pitch.

He ignored such suggestions and instead brought in Duke and Langel, the former his assistant at Penn for eight years, the latter his former player and two-year assistant.

He values a scholarship significantly. Other schools give them out and worry about it later. We don't go see a kid play once and offer him. There's so much more to being part of this program. If we lose a kid because of that, because we wait -- and I'm sure we have -- we'd just say it's not a good match.

-- Assistant coach Matt Langel, on Fran Dunphy

"I never understood it. It's like you've been asking someone to buy a car for 50 grand, and now you're giving it away. Where's the difficulty?" said Steve Donahue, a former Dunphy assistant and now the head coach at Cornell. "You have to be sure you're making the right decisions, but Fran's always been an excellent evaluator of talent. I always thought that was one of his strong suits. A lot of kids at Penn weren't necessarily guys people wanted. He knows what type of kid he can coach."

Dunphy admits it was hard at first -- "We kind of flew by the seat of our pants," he said. He didn't know Temple the way he knew Penn, and players certainly didn't know him as they did Chaney. And where Dunphy and his staff were accustomed to scouring the country for Ivy League talent, they quickly realized they had to hone their focus.

They concentrated on their backyard, working the relationships with local high school and AAU coaches in an effort to keep Philly kids home. They landed Moore as well as highly touted Lavoy Allen from suburban Philadelphia and this year just lost out on Allen's high school teammate, Dalton Pepper, who will play at West Virginia.

They knew the obvious, that the competition was stiffer and the pressure even greater. But if Dunphy has clung to anything from his Ivy days, it his recruiting standards (an oxymoron if ever there was one).

He won't be offering scholarships to middle schoolers any time soon, nor will he promise a kid a ride, then find a way to make that offer go away when different talent comes along.

"He values a scholarship significantly," Langel said. "Other schools give them out and worry about it later. We don't go see a kid play once and offer him. There's so much more to being part of this program. If we lose a kid because of that, because we wait -- and I'm sure we have -- we'd just say it's not a good match."

No one is saying that anymore about Fran Dunphy and Temple.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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