Wisdom: Tuesdays With Frannie

It looked like a clear career move when Penn hoops coach Fran Dunphy left the Ivy League for Temple. But the change really had to do with wins and losses of a different kind.

When legendary Temple basketball coach John Chaney announced his retirement last spring, the buzz was all about how hard an act he’d be to follow. The last of the nitty-gritty coaches, Chaney still made his players haul themselves out of bed for 5 a.m. practice, still hewed to an outdated slow-down offense, still demanded that team members check in for tutoring every day. He even looked like an Owl, with his round face and wide eyes. Who would be crazy enough to try to put his own stamp on a program that had been Chaney’s for almost a quarter of a century?

Just four weeks later, when Temple named Chaney’s successor, all those furrowed sports brows cleared. Penn’s Fran Dunphy was one of the only coaches in town to cast a shadow almost as formidable as Chaney’s. In the deal, Temple got the cachet of poaching from the Ivies, and a man who is universally respected, even adored, by the city’s basketball elite. For his part, Dunphy could finally throw off the shackles that had kept his teams from stretching much higher than the top of the Ivy League. He’d be able to award athletic scholarships. (The Ivy League bans them.) He’d be free to recruit players who spent their high-school years more focused on points per game than on their SATs. And he’d be liberated from Penn’s daunting academic standards, so he could sign players who might not be able to decipher Schopenhauer but could read a defense.

So Dunphy’s switch to Temple was really a no-brainer, for the school and the coach; both got to move up. However, there’s one small problem with this nice, neat conventional wisdom: It’s wrong. What was really behind Fran Dunphy moving across town into a different world was a book he read, one that changed his view of what his career should be about. The powers-that-be at Temple will likely be surprised to learn what that book is. At Penn, they may be appalled.

DUNPHY HAD AN OVERALL 310-163 record at Penn, with nine NCAA tournament appearances, 10 Ivy League titles, five undefeated Ivy League seasons, and a host of other honors. He was an institution, a ­dynasty-builder, on his way to becoming like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, with his name on the hardwood floor and a lifetime contract. Asked about Dunphy’s legacy, Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky sums it up: "He’s the winningest basketball coach of all time at Penn — a school that has a storied basketball history." John Chaney adds, "If Frannie had stayed at Penn, he would have overtaken [Pete] Carril’s record at Princeton" — as the winningest Ivy hoops coach ever.

The only job that might have lured Dunphy away from Penn — head coach at his beloved alma mater, LaSalle — had been offered to him in 2004, after Billy Hahn left, and he’d turned it down. No to LaSalle, where in 1969 he co-captained what’s been called the greatest team in Big 5 history, but now yes to Temple? Why?

Go ahead and ask Coach Dunphy. He won’t tell.

"I’m a very private person," he says, and he isn’t kidding. In interviews, he doles out words as though he’s paying for them. All he’s willing to say about why he left Penn for Temple is, "It was just a gut feeling I had." And why he turned down the LaSalle job? "It was just a gut feeling I had."

St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli, a longtime friend of Dunphy’s, is more forthcoming about the latter decision. "I know he agonized over what was right for LaSalle and what was right for Penn," Martelli says. "In the end, he put what was right for the schools ahead of what was right for him. He’s a loyal guy." It’s an adjective this town’s basketball coaches — "It’s a brotherhood, ­really, a fraternity," says Dunphy, "we all play golf together" — consistently use to describe Dunphy, who hasn’t got a single negative thing to say about Penn, or anyone or anything else, for that matter. He’ll talk about the joys of golf. He’ll talk about his charity work with Coaches vs. Cancer and Big Brothers Big Sisters. But when it comes to his big move, Dunphy clams up — and then, almost as a way not to talk about himself, suddenly reveals a great deal: "Have you read Tuesdays With Morrie? You have to read Tuesdays With Morrie if you’re going to write about me."

Tuesdays With Morrie is the slim memoir by Detroit Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom (a Trenton native who graduated from Merion’s Akiba Hebrew Academy) that tells how he reencountered an old Brandeis University professor, Morrie Schwartz, as Morrie lay dying from ALS, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease. The book has sold more than 12 million copies, spent 205 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and, it says right on the cover, "changed millions of lives." Fran Dunphy’s was one of them. "It got me to think about how life is," he says — so much so that he’s bought dozens of copies and handed them out to players and friends.

What Morrie teaches his former student Mitch is pretty homespun stuff. "As you grow, you learn more," Morrie says in the book. "Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth." And "As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away." And this: "Part of the problem, Mitch, is that everyone is in such a hurry. People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it." This resonates with Mitch, whose life before Morrie fell back into it was a headlong rush. "I buried myself in my accomplishments," Albom writes, "because with accomplishments, I believed I could control things."

At Penn, Dunphy was buried in accomplishments. At some point, though, he decided that accomplishments weren’t enough — and it happened to be just about the time that Chaney, who’s 74, was ready to hang up his clipboard. Penn’s Steve Bilsky says there are rumors Temple offered Dunphy a "tremendous" financial package. "Fran thinks about a lot of things ahead of compensation," Bilsky adds, "but if those rumors are true, you’d have to think long and hard about it."

Phil Martelli, though, discounts the notion that money made the difference. "I believe Fran was looking to be reinvigorated," he says. "I know for a fact he is working longer and seems to be fresher than he has been in the last several years. He’s really excited. And it’s something, to be that excited this late in a career, an accomplished career." He pauses a moment, then adds, "He’s anxious, too."

A PENN GAZETTE ARTICLE in May about Dunphy’s leave-taking referred to "the obvious forces at work here." The common wisdom as to why Dunphy made his move goes like this: Though Temple’s been pretty much dormant of late, it has a history of past basketball greatness. The school’s been working feverishly to dress up its campus and scale up its image — and how better to do that than by snagging an Ivy League coach? Last winter, Temple dumped its roundly loathed president, David Adamany — "In my opinion, he was a disaster," John Chaney says, citing Adamany’s cancellation of a long-standing program of mandatory tutoring for student athletes — and hired a woman, Ann Weaver Hart. Applications and enrollment are way up, the school has poured $400 million into new buildings and renovations, and academic and tenure requirements have been tightened. Temple is a university on the move.

Ivy League sports, though, are stagnant. The rivalries may be famous — Penn vs. Princeton, Harvard vs. Yale — but the last time an Ivy made it to the Final Four was Penn in 1979, and that was an anomaly. (They got creamed by Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team, 101-67.) It’s upstart schools like George Mason University (and restart schools — maybe Temple!) that are clawing their way into the Big Dance these days. The Ivies remain what they are: an eight-team league with super-geek academic requirements that doesn’t allow sports scholarships. Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw claims Dunphy won’t find recruitment at Temple all that different from at Penn: "We want what everyone wants — the top student athlete who can be successful in the classroom and on the court." But there’s not much overlap between the two schools’ applicant pools. Temple’s average combined math/verbal SAT score is 1098; Penn’s is 1437.

The upside to that discrepancy — and we’re just talking common wisdom, remember — is that where Penn ballers have brains, Temple ballers got game. Ivy League fans are wildly inventive, but the team contests tend to be scrappy rather than balletic. If the fates of a lot of Penn students seem predetermined — by where they grew up, where they went to high school, who their parents are — so do those of their sports teams. Crew will rock. Squash will kick ass. Football … well. And in b-ball, "I don’t mean this as negative to the Ivy League," says Phil Martelli, "but while Fran has been there, it’s pretty much been Penn and Princeton." In the Atlantic 10, Martelli points out in contrast, "You have Temple, UMass, St. Joe’s, Xavier, all taking turns playing top dog. It’s a much deeper pool." Dunphy said much the same in an interview with the Daily News‘s Dick Jerardi after he took the Temple job: "In the Ivy League, we were all going after the same 100 players. The pool of players has just increased a thousandfold." A deeper pool, with much faster swimmers.

So there you have it: Fran Dunphy left Penn for Temple so he could coach better athletes. Trouble is, Dunphy flat-out refutes the suggestion that he came to Temple seeking better basketball. "The game isn’t going to be any different," he says dismissively.

Temple A.D. Bill Bradshaw, though, believes the game will be different — not just for Dunphy, but for Temple as well. "He’ll attract a different sort of player," Bradshaw says, then when pressed to say different how, turns it into a joke about John Chaney’s penchant for predawn practices: "I imagine he’ll attract a higher percentage of late sleepers." Clearly, though, Bradshaw sees Dunphy’s hiring as part and parcel of the big changes going on at Temple. "I think Coach Chaney thought it was important to give an opportunity to young men who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity," he says. "A lot of people thought of Chaney like Father Flanagan, only in another geographic environment." The implication is that Dunphy won’t go in for charity cases — won’t let a big heart lead him astray.

But Bradshaw has bought himself an enigma. In going for the anti-Chaney, Temple failed to consider that Dunphy might be hell-bent on turning into Chaney II. What made Tuesdays With Morrie a life-changing book for Fran Dunphy isn’t what happens to Mitch Albom (who, hot on the heels of his book’s wild success, was suspended from his sports-columnist gig for pretending to have interviewed two NBA players at a Final Four game neither player attended). What makes TWM irresistible to Dunphy is the portrait it paints of Morrie, a real-life Yoda, a loving master who patiently and selflessly imparts to his pupil the lessons he has learned. Fran Dunphy is bursting with this sort of wisdom. And he wants to pass it on.

What’s important in life, Dunphy says over breakfast at the Marriott in West Conshohocken, is "getting it." By which he means? "The way the world works." In other words, it isn’t just lessons in basketball that he longs to impart. "I can teach them that when you shake hands, you have a firm handshake," he says earnestly of his players. "You look the person in the eye. You speak clearly." He practices what he preaches. Dunphy greeted the Marriott hostess with a double-forearm squeeze, and chatted animatedly with her for several minutes. He has an amiably intense conversation with the waiter about whether it will cost him less to order his spartan ­repast — ­oatmeal, juice and fruit — à la carte or from the breakfast buffet.

Alas, there aren’t too many Penn student athletes who need Dunphy’s level of remedial learning when it comes to "getting it." Tuesdays With Morrie made Dunphy yearn to make a real difference in his players’ lives; it’s no coincidence that Mitch Albom called his old teacher "Coach." "Life isn’t fair," Dunphy acknowledges at breakfast. "There are kids who are born into wealth, who have both parents, a stable environment, all those advantages. And there are kids who don’t have any of those things." The pedigrees of this year’s Penn hoops team — recruited by Dunphy — are peppered with elite prep schools: Peddie, Philips Exeter, the Brentwood School, Malvern Prep. Black faces are (um) a minority. Temple’s team hails from grittier ground: Simon Gratz, Woodrow Wilson in Camden, Martin Luther King High. The two Temple tokens are white — and one is seven feet tall, and from Spain. If you’re Fran Dunphy, and you’re 58 years old, and you get it, and you long to pass it on, which do you find the more fertile field?

But there was one more dynamic at work. Morrie, Mitch Albom writes in Tuesdays With Morrie, "was always ready to openly display the emotion so often missing from my baby boomer generation. We are great at small talk: ‘What do you do?’ ‘Where do you live?’ But really listening to someone — without trying to sell them something, pick them up, recruit them, or get some kind of status in return — how often do we get this anymore?" Morrie might be dying and in agony, Mitch says, but visitors flocked to him because he "listened the way they always wanted someone to listen." And then:

"I told him he was the father everyone wishes they had," Mitch says.

FRAN DUNPHY IS A father. His only child, his son J.P., is a dreamy troubadour, a singer/songwriter whose MySpace pages offer clips of his love songs and wisps of poetry: "scenic landscapes are ballooniful to me. … " J.P., who graduated from his dad’s alma mater, Episcopal Academy, in 2005, starred as Nathan Detroit in the school’s production of Guys and Dolls that year, and won Episcopal’s award for greatest contribution to the drama program. He was accepted at Penn, but decided he’d be happier majoring in musical theater at DeSales University near Allentown. And while — and I say this as the parent of a high-school senior — the popped balloon of a next-to-free Ivy League education must have been just a bitch, Fran Dunphy is a loving father who wants his son to be happy. Even if, Dunphy says, "I can’t tell him anything. He doesn’t listen to me."

You have one son. You have hopes and dreams for him. His hopes and dreams are different. With accomplishments, I believed I could control things. It just so happened that J.P. Dunphy was leaving the nest at the same time his father was handing out copies of Tuesdays With Morrie at Penn, and John Chaney was contemplating retiring at Temple.

When Morrie has very little time left on Earth, he gives Mitch the greatest gift of all: "If I could have had another son," he says, "I would have liked it to be you."

"Is a team like a family?" I ask John Chaney, who comes back instantly:

"A team is a family."

Back at the West Conshohocken Marriott, Fran Dunphy insists on paying for my bagel and coffee, even though he knows I’d expense it to the magazine. ("You’re on my turf," he says.) He holds the door for me as we leave. He walks me to my car. Of course he walks me to my car. On our way there, he spots an empty potato chip bag on the sidewalk. He turns back to a doorwoman who is at her post only a few feet away.

"Are you going to pick that up?" he asks. Startled, embarrassed, she snaps toward the offending bag. Fran Dunphy bends low at the waist and plucks it from the ground: "Here, let me get that for you." He hands it to the blushing doorwoman, then strides into the parking garage. "I spend half my time at Temple picking up trash," he says. He always does the right thing.

But it’s a tough job, maintaining order in the universe. Almost as hard as finding a second son — a boy who’s lost and needy and could use a mentor to help him get it, to understand what matters in life. Fran Dunphy considered the time he had left and the lessons of Morrie, and he decided that the pickings would be better at Temple — even the spiffy new Temple — than they were at Penn.

It was time to move on. After all, who would remember Morrie if it hadn’t been for Mitch?