Category Archives: Alumni Interviews

Athletic Director Steve Bilsky discusses upcoming honor, state of Penn athletics

Steve BilskyOn Sunday, Penn’s Director of Athletics, Steve Bilsky W’71, will be inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s a big honor for Bilsky, who was a standout point guard for Penn, where he captained the famous 1970-71 team to a perfect regular season, and has been the athletic director at his alma mater for the last 19 years. Leading up to Sunday’s induction ceremony at the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack, N.Y. (near where Bilsky grew up), I caught up with the Penn AD to discuss the honor and the state of Penn athletics under his watch.

What does it mean for you to get inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame?

It’s a great honor. Any time you’re selected to a Hall of Fame, obviously it’s a lot of pride, you’re humbled and so forth. And then you look at all the people that have previously been inducted and it’s not just a who’s who of great Jewish athletes and media types, but for me personally it represents household names growing up: Sandy Koufax, Dolph Schayes, Howard Cosell, Red Auerbach, who I got to know when I was at George Washington. To think I’m going to be enshrined into something that includes them, it just makes you real humble.

How does this honor compare to some other Hall of Fames you’ve been inducted into – like the Big 5 and Penn Athletics?

Well, any time there’s a plural attached to it, it tells you you’re getting a little older. They’re each so unique. If you look at the Penn Hall of Fame, it’s a century-plus of great athletes who played here at Penn. If you think of the Big 5, it’s such a unique culture; there’s nothing like it anywhere in the country and to be enshrined into something like that makes that special. You don’t really compare them. You’re just flattered and honored that you would be selected for both.

What are you most proud of in your past 19 years as Penn’s athletic director?

It goes back to what I said when I was hired. You really have to concentrate on some major themes because at a place like Penn, it’s so vast and you can get drawn in so many directions that you could find yourself at the end saying, ‘I really didn’t accomplish anything.’ So when I started, I indicated things like a major overall upgrade of the facilities was the number one priority – because that happens cyclically. You have great old buildings like the Palestra and Franklin Field but if you don’t do anything with them every 20, 30 years they become relics rather than functional facilities. We also settled a Title IX complaint that was brought in before I was hired, which has really led to some great growth of our women’s teams. So gender equity was important. And then we really tried to create a culture of leadership in hiring good coaches and maintaining good coaches. And that’s all been culminated through a large degree by the success of our campaigns. The first athletic campaign that’s ever existed at Penn we raised over $120 million, which is a tremendous amount of money. That not only upgrades our facilities but it puts us in really a very healthy financial position going forward. So I would say those four things.

What has the feedback been so far for some of the new projects like Weiss Pavilion, Penn Park and Shoemaker Green?

They’ve been phenomenal. They’ve been phenomenal from the coaches, from the athletes, from recruits, from people who come here who remember this part of campus looking the way it once did and now all of a sudden they come back and they say, ‘Wow.’ It’s been really even beyond what are hopes would be. And you also include the Pottruck Center up on 38th and Walnut. People now tend to forget that. We didn’t have any fitness facility on campus and that also is an award-winning, state-of-the art, top-of-the-line place. It’s not just going to help our athletic programs, which is obvious. It really was as important that this part of the campus was developed the way it turned out to be.

The new tennis courts at Penn Park are one of the many things that has Bilsky excited about the future.

The new tennis courts at Penn Park are one of the many things that has Bilsky excited.

What’s the next big project you’re excited about?

Well, you’re always thinking about things. I think what you do now is you enter another planning stage. There are probably three or four projects that will be done in the next decade that I think will continue to add momentum to this. Right now, the two that are being developed are the renovations of Hutchinson Gym; that will be finished in August. And we’re going to start renovation on Rhodes Soccer Field and building a new field hockey facility right next to us. Those things are keeping us busy right now.

As far as Penn’s teams go, which ones are you happy with right now?

It’s so competitive in the Ivy League. In this year, you have not only teams that have done well within the league and even in the region – but you have Princeton winning the national championship in field hockey and the national championship in men’s and women’s fencing. And this past weekend, Yale won the national championship in men’s ice hockey. So this kind of tug-of-war of what Ivy League athletics look like … there are people that think we have to make sure whatever it is, it has to be different than the rest of the world because the rest of the world is crazy. And then there are those that are saying we’re Division I teams with outstanding student athletes, we should excel in athletics just like we try to excel in everything else. So there’s that tug-of-war going on and I think in the end you can’t keep good athletes down and I think we’ll continue to be a strong presence in Division I.

And I think at Penn, the football championship this year was great because it was a great human-interest story and guys stepped up and the team really got better and played this phenomenal game when very few people gave us a chance to beat Harvard. And we beat them soundly. In the spring, our women’s lacrosse team is always good. Our men’s lacrosse team is nationally ranked and  yet we’re .500ish in the league, so that shows you how strong lacrosse is in the Ivy League. Our softball team is doing great. In the winter, we were one bout from winning an Ivy championship in fencing and then we had a national champion. What we try to do is we try to maintain a broad-base program rather than pick a handful of sports and say those are going to be the sports we care about. And it’s hard to do that. But I think that’s the right thing to do.

You mentioned the hockey national championship. Is there any chance that Penn resurrects its program at some point in the future?

It gets asked about every two or three years. As I understand the policy, in order to come back as a sport, you have to be fully funded from external sources. The University is not going to contribute dollars. And that basically means that in order for Penn to have hockey, we’d have men’s and women’s hockey and we’d have to make multi-millions of dollars of improvements to the facility. And so to endow hockey would probably mean 40, 50 million dollars. And when people hear that they say ‘OK’ and kind of move on to something else. I think in a lot of ways if you turn back the clock, maybe there were other alternatives rather than dropping the sport back in 1979. Maybe in hindsight that wasn’t the best decision. But to bring it back would cost that much money and I just don’t think that exists right now. And our club programs are very successful and the participation is great. So I think we’re probably in a pretty good place with the number of sports right now.

What was your reaction to Harvard winning a basketball game in the NCAA tournament?

You’re proud for the league. You wish it was us. You know, we had such a complicated year because there we were beating Harvard a couple weeks before that and had some other really good games against nationally talented teams where we showed we could play with them. I know a lot of people don’t want to use youth as an excuse and I don’t either, but the question will be, ‘Will these guys that played all these minutes that were mostly freshmen and sophomores learn how to win games when they’re juniors and seniors?’ If they do, I think we’ll be very good. And if we don’t, then we’ll continue to be frustrated. The jury is out.

Bilsky says it's only fair to judge Jerome Allen after the men's basketball coach brings in at least two more recruiting classes.

Bilsky says it’s only fair to judge Jerome Allen after the men’s basketball coach brings in at least a couple of more more recruiting classes.

Is next year kind of like a make-or-break year for the men’s basketball team?

No, it really isn’t. When Jerome [Allen] was hired, as any coach would be, you say that you can’t really define any success until the person’s had a chance to have four full recruiting classes. If you didn’t do that, you’d see coaches like Bobby Knight and Digger Phelps and Mike Krzyzewski [fired] in their first two of three years. So I think probably in fairness, two years from now you’ll have a good sense what Jerome’s able to produce.

You have to be pretty happy about the other basketball program and the job Mike McLaughin has done so far, right?

Yeah, it’s very heartwarming because they’re good people and they’re good coaches. As much as you like to speed things up – everyone wants to win now, whether you’re a coach or a player or a fan – you have to develop a program. And Mike’s really done a good job of developing a basketball program. And they play good fundamentally sound basketball. And the results showed it this year for sure.

In general, as far as the next few years in Penn athletics go, are you feeling pretty good about everything right now?

I am because I think this campaign and what we’ve been able to do with it has just given us such an opportunity to kind of take off from where we are now. So when you have recruits visiting and they see the phenomenal facilities, it speaks to commitment the University has to the programs. I think we’ll be in a position to take off. There are a lot of dynamics that go into the Ivy League. I mean everyone else is trying to be good too. And there’s financial aid dynamics and admission dynamics that are at work, so you really have to be exceptional to win. But we’ve probably never been in a better position in terms of facilities and financially as we are right now.

Are you going to keep doing this job for a while?

I’ve said this for a long period of time: you’ve got to assess it every year. You look for new goals and you look for new challenges in life – whether it’s doing this or doing something else. I’ve never really had much of a chance to think about that because this campaign was so consuming, but at some point I’ll hang it up. And I’ll feel good about it because I’ll be able to pass it on to somebody in what I consider really good shape.

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Another star comes home: A chat with new hoops assistant coach Ira Bowman

College basketball season is still more than four months away but the Penn men’s hoops program made its way into the news this week with the hiring of two new assistant coaches: Ira Bowman W’96 and Jason Polykoff.

Many Penn fans are probably unfamiliar with Polykoff, who comes to Penn after a successful stint as a high school head coach at Friends Central, but everyone who follows the Quakers knows about Bowman.

After transferring to Penn from Providence College, Bowman helped the Jerome Allen-led Quakers to their third straight Ivy title in 1995, before emerging as the senior leader on the 1995-96 squad that won a share of the league crown and lost to Princeton in a one-game playoff. He was named the Ivy League Player of the Year that season.

After a short NBA career in which he played for the 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks, Bowman eventually transitioned into coaching. Most recently, as an assistant at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, he helped turn around a program that went winless in 2007-08 (the year before he arrived) into a respectable squad that competed for its conference title.

When the chance came to coach at his alma mater under his ex-teammate in Allen (following the departure of Mike Martin to Brown), Bowman jumped at it. And now, he says he’s itching for the season to get started.

Recently, I caught up to Bowman to talk about, among other things, his professional transition, his memories of Penn, and his friendship with Jerome Allen:

What have your first few days been like back at Penn?

It’s been great to be back on campus and basically see how the campus has grown. And to interact with the players, it’s been a good experience.

What’s your favorite part of being back at Penn? Are there a lot of memories?

Everything means a lot. You come back in and walk into the Palestra, a building you have so many fond memories of and you’re just excited about the new memories you’re going to make. The nostalgia of this place and just being back around campus, it brings all the tradition back. It kind of gets the pit in your belly churning a little bit.

How did this opportunity come about for you? Did Jerome Allen reach out to you after Mike Martin left for Brown? Or did you reach out to him?

He reached out to me and I was excited about the opportunity. Obviously, any time you get the chance to work for a program that you have so much invested in, it’s a unique opportunity.

How much have you kept in touch with Jerome over the years?

A lot. We talk regularly. Besides being basketball teammates, we’ve also been friends for the past 20 years.

Did you go to many games at Penn when you were the head coach?

A few. Not a lot because obviously I had my own season at the same time and it’s hard to get out.

What was your reaction when you found out Jerome got the head coaching job three years ago?

I was excited. It’s always good to have someone that’s in the family at the helm. You know that if someone has something personally invested in the program, they’re going to do everything they can to make sure it’s going in the right direction at all times.

Have you been following Penn basketball closely since you left?

I’ve always followed them. It was hard for me to get out to games but I’ve definitely always followed them. And I’ve always gotten together with alumni in the summer. It’s not something that’s foreign to me at all.

Your first year playing at Penn was Jerome’s senior season – what was he like as a teammate?

He was tremendous. Transferring in and sitting out the prior year and watching how he worked and interacted with teammates … they had a special class where basically five guys came in together and had the opportunity to be pretty special in terms of the Ivy League and with their undefeated record in the span of three years. Being able to watch that firsthand and pick up a lot of stuff, that actually helped me my senior year.

Do you remember first meeting Jerome and what your first impression of him was?

I do. I remember visiting after my sophomore year at Providence. He struck me as the same way he is now – a very humble person and a hard-working person. I remember being on campus for four, five hours. And when I first got to campus he was in the gym; in the middle of my tour, he was in the gym; and at the end of my tour, he was in the gym. You pick things up like that. He took time to talk to me and let me know what he and his teammates were expecting to do and the level of commitment the guys in the program had. [Talking to him] was one of the deciding factors of me coming here.

When you were a senior, that 95-96 team kind of surprised some people because it didn’t have Allen or Maloney, right?

Yep. We were fortunate. Tim Krug was a big part of that. A couple of guys who hadn’t played as much got an opportunity. It’s hard when you have that kind of class ahead of you– guys like Jerome, Eric Moore, Shawn Trice, Matt Maloney and Scott Kegler that pretty much played their whole careers. But new guys had the opportunity to play and that year we did OK.

Bowman averaged 16.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game as a senior in 1995-96.

How often do you think about your last game? A one-game playoff against your biggest rival to get to the NCAA tournament, that’s not something you see every day.

No, not at all. I think about it often, I do. We played at Lehigh when I was at NJIT, and I thought to that game because that [Ivy playoff] game was at Lehigh that year. You think about it all the time, how things could have been different.

And that was your last game at Penn, so now that you’re back with the program, you probably want to push that to the backburner, right?

Exactly. But my time was my time and now it’s these kids’ time. As long as they understand the tradition of Penn basketball, that’s fine. I’m definitely someone that’s helping them get there but they have to make their own memories and their own tradition.

Do you also think about your time in the NBA often?

Yeah, definitely. A lot of kids’ dream is to play professionally. And obviously to get that opportunity is something you cherish for the rest of my life. Having the opportunity to play for Larry Brown is something that’s dear to my heart.

Why did you decide to make the transition from playing to coaching?

When you’re a player, you have the excitement of playing games. I think the next best rush you can get is being able to coach and inspiring youth and letting them know what it takes to be successful. With my experience, I thought it was a logical step.

Talk about your time at NJIT. You got there right around the time when they were pretty bad.

To say the least. But it was good. It was a unique experience in that you got a chance to really build something from the ground up. It’s one thing to be at program that has the tradition like Penn and another thing to be at programs that have no tradition and have basically just started out at Division I. And to be able to build that was something I’ll never forget. I felt like if you could do it there, you could do it anywhere.

Bowman took over as an assistant at NJIT a year after they became the first team to ever go 0-29.

What do you think you’ll bring to the Penn basketball program?

Experience. Desire. Commitment. Hard work. Those are things players need to be have reinforced. And obviously I can be an example and a role model, as someone who’s walked in their shoes and understands what it takes to get through school academically and what it takes to push basketball to the highest level.

Are there any specific roles you’ll have in terms of recruiting or coaching certain players?

No, I’m sure it will be all encompassing. Whatever capacity Jerome needs me, I’ll be willing to do. I’m sure it will involve all of the duties of recruiting, coaching, scouting, everything. I don’t think it will be one specific area.

So what are your impressions of the team so far? Do you know much about the players yet?

I haven’t met them all yet. A lot of freshmen are coming in over next couple of weeks or so. So far, they’re what I expect them to be – high character kids. They seem like kids who want to be coached and understand what’s expected of them at the University of Pennsylvania.

Do you feel like you’re almost starting from the ground up again because the team lost so many seniors from last year?

I think we’ll be young. But we talked earlier about my senior year, about the guys who hadn’t played and got the opportunity. Now it’s their opportunity. I’m excited for them. There’s nothing like hope, and those guys have the whole summer to put in a lot of work.

Is this your dream job?

Yes. It’s where I wanted to be when I’m started and now I’m here. I’m happy. It’s rare that you get to coach at a place you have so much passion for.

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Catching up with … Mike Jordan C’00

If you’ve been in the Palestra much this season, you’ve probably seen Mike Jordan C’00. Back from Europe, the former Ivy League Player has spent a lot of time in the gym where he led the Quakers to back-to-back Ivy League championships in 1999 and 2000, often with his 10-month-old daughter Eva – who he calls a “gym rat” – in his lap. That makes sense because while his professional basketball career has spanned the globe – from Germany to Spain to Italy to Belgium to Greece to Latvia to Israel – Jordan has always felt most comfortable in his home city of Philadelphia, cheering on his beloved Quakers (who he often tweets about).

Leading up to tonight’s big game against archrival Princeton, I caught up with the former Penn guard, who discussed, among other things, his favorite Penn-Princeton memory, why his playing career might be over, what he hopes to do next and what he really thinks about Harvard. Check it out:

What does the Penn-Princeton rivalry mean to you personally?

It means a lot. You want to beat everybody but you definitely want to beat them year in and year out. You know, it’s been an intense rivalry throughout the years and definitely a game that everyone looks forward to. It’s up there with the Duke-Carolina rivalry, I think.

I think I know what your worst memory is but what are your best memories from playing Princeton?

Every time we beat them. Obviously the worst memory was when we gave up that big lead at the half [the “Black Tuesday” game on Feb. 9, 1999] but later that year we beat them at their place, and then the next year we beat them twice. I guess the most memorable moment was when we were winning [in 2000], we got a steal, we kicked out to Ugonna [Onyekwe] and he did a 360 dunk on the break. [See video below.] That was pretty funny. Dunph [then-Penn coach Fran Dunphy] got on him about that.

You lost your first five games to Princeton but then beat them your final three en route to those back-to-back Ivy titles. How nice was that turnaround?

Well, our first two years, we weren’t very good. They were just better. Once we got older and mature, it was payback time.

Has it been a little weird seeing other teams like Cornell and Harvard rise up when in your day it was really just Penn and Princeton competing for Ivy championships every year?

It was disheartening but I couldn’t really root against Cornell when Coach D [former Penn assistant Steve Donahue] was there because he coached us. He’s a good friend and I wanted to see him do well. I wish they would have given him the job at Penn;  that would have been a best-case scenario. I’m not too sold on Harvard. Cornell has gotten it done and Harvard hasn’t won yet, so I don’t see why everyone is giving them so much credit. They haven’t won yet.

What do you think Penn’s chances are of winning the Ivy title this season?

I think they’re pretty good. They have a lot of shooters. If they can come out and play in the league the way they played the Temples, the St. Joe’s, I think they’ll have a good shot at winning. If they can come out with the intensity they come out with in a Big 5 game, I think they’ll be right in the race.

Do you think the Ivy League is more competitive now or back when you played?

I think back when we played it was a little bit more competitive. It’s a different generation. I think basketball was a little different back then. You could play a little rougher and get away with more things like you can now.

Jordan scored 1,604 points at Penn, the fourth highest total in program history.

How close are you with these current players at Penn and how often do you try to see them play?

I try to get down to as many games in the area as possible. Rob [Belcore] and Zack [Rosen], when they came in, we all played together up in the King of Prussia League. So I’ve developed a really close relationship with those guys and I would come down to work out with those guys in the summertime and before the season started. I think I have a solid relationship with all the players on the team.

Do they ever turn to you for advice?

I talk to Zack a lot, Rob, Tyler [Bernardini] – those guys. They’ve seen me play. They know I have their best interest at heart and I would never steer them wrong in any aspect. If they have any questions, they’ll give me a call, just to get a different perspective sometimes.

Has it been hard for alums like you to watch Penn fail to win a title for four straight years, given the program’s past success?

Yeah, it’s definitely tough because we had a tradition of winning, and if we didn’t win we were right there finishing second. And then to watch them not make it to the tournament, it’s a little disheartening. But I think [head coach] Jerome [Allen] is getting them back on the right track. I think they’ll have a good shot of winning it this year and he’s recruiting well, so they’ll be competitive in years to come.

Are you still playing in Europe?

I was hoping to try to finish out a season but it’s not looking good, so I think it’s time to probably hang ’em up. The deadline for transfers is March, so once that rolls around it will be time to do something else.

Do you feel like this is the right time for you to retire?

No, actually I feel good. I thought I could play a couple more years. But with my age and everything and the market being the way it is, I’m just not getting the opportunity to get out there and show that I still can go. It’s a little bit upsetting because I think I’ve got some gas left in the tank. And I was playing well, so I figured I would get another opportunity to go out in play. But, you know, it is what it is.

How would you rate your experience in Europe?

I think overall it was a very positive experience. I got the chance to get paid to play basketball, in another country. I got to meet all different kinds of people and experience all different kinds of cultures. So overall it’s definitely been a positive experience. [Watch some of Jordan’s European highlights below.]

What do you hope to do now that you’re back in the states?

I’m hoping, once everything dies down with March Madness, to get into coaching. I want to stay around the game. I think I can help some of the younger players and teach them some things. Hopefully that will work out for me. And, if not, I have to figure out something else.

Have you talked to your old backcourtmate Matt Langel C’00 at all about that? [Langel, a former assistant at Penn and Temple, is the first-year head coach at Colgate.]

I think Matt knows my intentions. I think he – and a lot of people – thought I would continue to play. That was probably an issue. But as it’s looking now, it’s out there that I’m done. Even if I do finish a season out, I probably won’t get a job over there after this year.

I’m sure the chance to coach at Penn would be great for you, right?

Yeah, that would be awesome. I wouldn’t have to move around with the wife [Katie] and kid. That would be a perfect opportunity but you have to go where the opportunity presents itself.

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Pitcher Paul Cusick C’11 talks about being drafted by Phillies

Cusick signs his first professional contract (Chas Dorman/Penn Athletics)

Fresh off a brilliant 2011 campaign that landed him the coveted Ivy League Pitcher of the Year award, Penn baseball’s Paul Cusick C’11 was riding high. And then he was riding even higher. On June 7, not long after graduating from Penn, Cusick was drafted by his favorite team – the Philadelphia Phillies – in the 29th round of the Major League Baseball Draft. The ace right-hander was the first Penn baseball player to be drafted since Brian Winnings in 2004, but, remarkably, the Quakers kept the momentum rolling when fellow Penn righty Vince Voiro was picked by the San Diego Padres in the 47th round and then catcher Will Davis C’11 was signed by the Phillies, joining Cusick in Clearwater with the Gulf Coast League Phillies. The Gazette caught up with Cusick just hours before he signed the contract with the Phils from his Wilmington, Del. home and a few days before he reported for duty in Florida.

So where were you when you heard the news?

I was actually watching the Phillies game with my family in our living room. And [Phillies scout Eric Valent] gave me a call. My dad saw it on the computer, and right when he saw it I got the call.

What was your family’s reaction?

We were all pretty excited. I got hugs from my parents. And my two little brothers were there and they were excited about it. One of my brothers, he’s a year younger than me, he was giving me a hard time. He said, ‘You know this is all fun and games until I get taken in the 27th round next year.’ He doesn’t even play baseball. It was pretty funny.

What was the reaction from your Penn coaches and teammates?

They were all super excited. Growing up playing baseball, it’s something you always dream about. Me and [Penn baseball coach John Cole] were talking about it at the beginning of year. It was definitely a goal – after, of course, winning an Ivy championship and other season goals. It’s been a goal for me since I started playing baseball, and it’s pretty awesome to achieve that. The coaching staff was ecstatic.

When did you first think playing pro ball was a realistic goal?

I started talking to scouts this summer while playing out in California [with the Atwater Aviators of the Pacific West Baseball League]. I had a pretty good summer, and then carried that into a strong short fall season. I started receiving things from scouts and that’s when I started to think this is a real possibility. It was a really cool feeling.

How much sweeter is to get picked by your favorite team?

I would have been ecstatic for any team to take me. But growing up a Phillies fan, living 30 minutes away, it was just a dream come true.

How big of a Phillies fan are you?

Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I went to ballgames all the time as a kid. Going to school, any time I had an off day, I would try to go down to the ballpark. I’ve been to some playoff games, some World Series games. I went to games at the Vet growing up, and I’ve been to the new ballpark a ton of times since it opened. Being able to join that organization is surreal.

What’s been the best moment for you as a Phillies fan?

I had an opportunity to go to game when they clinched the 2008 World Series against the Rays. That’s got to be the pinnacle for most Phillies fans. It was pretty awesome.

Cusick was at Citizens Bank Park when this happened

Who’s your favorite Phillies player, both now and ever?

I was a big fan of Brett Myers when he was on the Phillies. He’s a hard-throwing righty with a good curveball. Growing up, that’s how I was in high school. I really liked him. The pitching staff now is unreal, but Chase Utley is a real good player. I like him a lot.

The minor leagues can be a grind and unglamorous – are you prepared for long bus rides and everything else that comes with minor league ball?

I played in summer ball leagues the past three summers and it’s basically the same thing. We were packed into these vans, 16 of us, and we’d go on eight-hour bus rides. That was a glimpse, a taste, of what minor league baseball would be like. I love baseball, I’m sure like everyone else in the minor league system does, so I have no problems sitting in the back of the bus for a couple of hours to go play some games.

Do you feel like you really put it all together this past season at Penn [he went 5-3 with a 2.70 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings]?

I think a lot of things went right for us this year. It would have been nice to win an Ivy championship before heading out there. But we had a lot of individual success on our team this year. It’s a shame it didn’t translate to more wins.

Cusick had a big senior season but the Quakers went just 19-21

What do you think you need to improve on to make it to make your way through the minor league system?

Every pitcher, their main goal is consistency and being able to show up every single start and consistently make good pitches. That’s something every pitcher struggles with and every pitcher works on.

What do you think you do best?

This season I had a lot of success striking people out and I was able to get ahead in the count. I have the ability to throw not just fastballs but off-speed pitches for strikes, which really helps with putting hitters back on their heels.

Is there a certain pitch that can carry you through and also a certain pitch you’re trying to improve on?

I mean, I’m gonna need all of my pitches. I had good success this year with my fastball, curveball and slider. I feel like my changeup is definitely something I’ll need to develop more and work on going forward as a good fourth pitch.

You graduated with a degree in economics so you have a pretty good backup plan if you can’t make it to the Big Leagues, right?

Yeah, but I mean I’m gonna try to play baseball for as long as I can. If someone is going to offer me to play something I’ve been playing since I was 8 years old, why not milk that until it runs dry? One of the reasons I wanted to go to an Ivy League school is to obtain that degree, but I want to play baseball for as long as I can.

Is it also nice a fellow Penn teammate got drafted too?

Oh yeah, it’s awesome. Vince is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met in my entire life. To see him have the chance to further his career, it’s an awesome feeling. I’m so happy for Vince.

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Catching up with … Andy Toole

Andy Toole C’03 is only 30 years old, but in a few days he could be headed to his fifth NCAA tournament. Toole, the head men’s basketball coach at Robert Morris University outside Pittsburgh, went to the Big Dance twice as a point guard with the Quakers (in 2002 and 2003) and twice more as an assistant at RMU (in 2009 and 2010). Now that he’s in charge, he’s hoping to guide the Colonials to their third straight NCAA berth. Under the direction of Toole, the youngest head coach in Division I basketball, Robert Morris finished the regular season on a six-game win streak before opening the Northeast Conference tournament with a 78-74 win over Wagner. The Colonials, seeded third in the conference, next play second-seeded Quinnipiac in Sunday’s semifinal round, and with a win would play for their third straight crown. I caught up with Toole (who, you might like to know, was in my graduating class at Penn) two days before RMU’s semifinal game.

It’s March and you’re the head coach of a Division I college basketball team – how exciting is this?

It’s absolutely exciting. We’re getting on the bus right now to go to our NEC semifinal game and it’s a great experience for all of our guys. We want to keep playing for as long as they’ll allow us to play. We were fortunate to win last night and we want to continue the season as long as we can.

Has your first year as head coach been at all what you expected?

It’s been great. I don’t know if you really know what to expect or how it’s going to go. I think our guys have been great through my transition in becoming a head coach and have been very supportive. And I have a great staff of guys that do a great job with our decision-making, helping with every little thing that comes up. When you surround yourself with really good people and you have good kids to work with, that makes the transition much easier.

What are some of the challenges of being the youngest head coach in Division I?

You know, I’ve said all along that I think my job is the same as everyone else that’s a Division I head coach. You try to prepare your team the best you can, give them all the information necessary to help them be successful. It’s not just me; it’s my staff and the guys on the team who take an active role in making sure everyone’s at their best.

Does your old coach, Fran Dunphy, give you many coaching tips?

He doesn’t give me a ton but if I need him I know I can call him. I text him and ask him questions about certain situations that come up. Obviously he has a wealth of experience and has been so successful himself. I’d love to follow in his footsteps and have half the career that he’s had.

Dunphy trades texts with his former player

As an assistant the last two seasons, you helped Robert Morris win back-to-back NEC crowns. What’s the key to going back to the NCAA tournament for a third straight year?

I think the best teams win in March. Teams that play together and teams that play for each other are the ones that are successful. Really what we’re stressing is making sure we’re always there for each other defensively, playing as hard as we can. And then on the offensive end, we’re just making sure we share the ball and take high-percentage shots so that we can get the most out of each and every offensive possession. If you don’t care who shoots it or who makes it, then you end up having better success than if you’re relying on one or two guys carrying the load.

How tough was it losing leading scorer Karon Abraham for the season? Are other guys ready to step up?

It’s always a challenge but every year there are challenges. There are things outside of your control. Obviously losing Karon, as talented as he is, is extremely difficult, but I think all we did was continue to focus on the things we can control and the things that can make us successful – and that’s defending and rebounding. If you can defend and you can rebound, you have chance to win a lot of games. Offensively, we have to understand that it was a luxury at times to have Karon, who could break a play off and create something for his teammates. Now maybe we just have to work together a little more to find that great shot on each possession.

Have you had many sleepless nights thinking about how close Robert Morris came to stunning Villanova in the first round last year?

I don’t know if I had any sleepless nights because I know that we did everything that we possibly could. Would I have wished it had been different? Yeah, without a doubt. But we have an opportunity to get back and play in that kind of situation again. When we sat down in our first meeting, our collective goal as a team was to put ourselves in that same situation where you have the chance to be in the NCAA tournament and have a chance to compete against a great team like Villanova. I said to the guys that with the experience we have from last season, I’m confident the outcome might be different if we have a chance to go back and do it again.

Robert Morris gave Villanova a serious scare in the NCAA tournament last year

How much would it mean to you personally getting to your fifth NCAA tournament?

It would be incredible. I think it’s one feeling to go as a player and I don’t think there’s anything better. Obviously being part of a championship team as an assistant coach is also extremely special. But to be able to say that you’re in charge of a program that was able to make the NCAA tournament and win a conference championship – there’s a lot of people that have coached college basketball and haven’t had an experience in the NCAA tournament. So it would be something that would be unmatched.

What about being a player really helped you coach?

I think being a player and being one who’s not too far removed from being a Division I athlete, I can understand what they’re going through really well. I think a lot of us when we leave college, we all of a sudden believe that we never took a day off in practice or we started all of our papers three weeks in advance – and that’s not necessarily the case. So I think being as young as I am can allow me to relate to some of the things that they’re going through and I have a real pulse on exactly what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

Do you keep up with what Penn is doing much? And when is Robert Morris going to play Penn at the Palestra?

As soon as we can. I’d love to get back to the Palestra, and we have a bunch of guys from Philadelphia. I follow all their games. I’ll text with (Penn coaches) Jerome Allen or Dan Leibovitz or Mike Martin or any of their guys and wish them congratulations when they win. I’m always rooting for them to be extremely successful because I know there are so many people who care about the program and put so much time and effort into the program. And we need to see it back in its rightful place – and that’s atop the Ivy League.

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A championship unlike any other

It’s not an uncommon occurrence for Penn to win an Ivy League football championship on a cold November day at Cornell’s Schoellkopf Field, nor is it rare for the Quakers to run through their conference schedule undefeated under head coach Al Bagnoli.

But when the 2010 Penn football team captured the program’s 12th outright Ancient Eight crown on Saturday, it meant just a little bit more.

The Quakers won it for C.T. Alexander, who retired after 50 illustrious years as Franklin Field’s public address announcer.

They won it for Dan “Coach Lake” Staffieri, the indefatigable spirit coach who died in April but was probably there in spirit over the weekend.

They won it for Owen Thomas, who should have hoisted the championship trophy with his teammates if not for the unthinkable tragedy last spring that shook the team – and campus – to its core.

But beyond the motivation generated from trying to win for old friends is another theme that makes the 2010 championship even more significant: overcoming the stress caused by Thomas’ suicide and the subsequent revelation that it could have been caused by playing football.

In a recent interview with the Gazette, New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz C’90, who broke the story on Thomas being the first amateur player to be found with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to football concussions, said, “Whoever the first school was going to be unfairly seen as somehow responsible.

But it should be noted that Penn is in no way responsible. To start with, Thomas never even suffered a concussion throughout his football career. And even if he had, Penn’s training staff would have been diligent in preventing another.

After talking to Schwarz, I also caught up with former defensive back Rudy Brown W’04, who had four concussions through high school and college. He told me it was only during his high school playing days where there was any negligence dealing with his injuries. At Penn, it was nothing but professional.

“Penn has a training staff around the clock,” said Brown, who received a special air helmet after sitting out an entire season from his fourth concussion. “There was a more dedicated effort to making sure their players are treated well. My first concussion (in high school), I sat out part of the game but I did go back into the game. Looking back on it now, it was a decision made in ignorance. Even saying that, that was my best game ever in high school. After the concussion, I had like three touchdowns.”

Of course, that’s what makes dealing with head injuries so difficult: the gray area. Players can look fine when they really aren’t.

“I think ultimately they had my best interest at heart,” Brown said of Penn. “It’s a tricky subject when it comes to athletes in general – wanting them to play or not wanting them to play. In football, contact is inevitable. There’s some level of injury you have to play through. If anything, coaches want to be able to give you the mindset that you need to be able to play through injury but not through something that would progressively get worse.”

For Brown, there were effects of his concussions, including disorientation and a little bit of memory loss. But these days, he’s doing perfectly fine. He owns a real estate company in Philadelphia and plays intramural basketball with former teammates Roman Galas, Chris Kupchik, as well as ex-basketball standout Jeff Schiffner, who, he says, is still a “ridiculous shooter.” And, he added, he’ll have no problem letting his kids play football if that time ever comes.

“Part of my problem was my development into the sport; I didn’t start playing until my junior year of high school,” Brown said. “I didn’t use some of the fundamental protective measures in place, like not leading with my head. If my son were to play, I’d show him the proper way to protect himself from other people and how to be protected from getting hit the wrong way as well.”

There are always lessons that can be learned. But like winning championships, safety is something that the Penn football program has always valued.

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Catching up with … Alan Schwarz

In the most recent issue of the Gazette, I wrote a story on Owen Thomas W’11, the former Penn football player who committed suicide last April. In it was the revelation that Thomas was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to depression and playing football – a discovery first reported by Alan Schwarz C’90, a Daily Pennsylvanian alum and renowned journalist. Recently, I caught up with Schwarz, who has done a tireless job writing about concussions for the New York Times, to delve further into the issue that has been enveloping the sport of football. Here is the interview:

DZ: Obviously concussions have been in the news a lot recently. As someone who writes about the issue extensively, what have these past few months been like for you as a journalist?

AS: Frankly, most of what has been written and discussed is what we’ve been writing about at the Times for almost the past four years. It’s just taken this amount of time for people to recognize the connection between what they see on Saturday and Sunday and the short- and long-term effects that we’ve been writing about for years.

How did you get started writing about concussions?

I was exclusively a baseball writer. In the summer of 2005, a friend of mine was also friends with Chris Nowinski – the former Harvard football player who became the wrestler who had to retire because of concussions and has done a lot of research in the field – introduced me to Chris. To make a very long story short, when Chris later did the work to discover Andre Waters’ situation – the fact that he had killed himself and had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy – Chris called me because he wanted advice on what to do with this. And I set up a meeting with the New York Times, where I knew a lot of people. I didn’t work there; I had done some freelance work for them but I set up a meeting and they let me report and write it. I did the story on Andre Waters and I got a call from Ted Johnson, saying he wanted to tell me all about his post-concussion syndrome. I wrote that story. It appeared two days before the (2007) Super Bowl and basically all hell broke loose. Everyone was wondering, Who’s this Schwarz guy causing all this trouble? Isn’t he just a baseball writer? But it was clearly a very significant issue and the Times wanted to invest in pursuing it and they basically hired me on the spot.

When Ted Johnson came calling, Schwarz listened

And now you’re basically one of the leading experts on the subject. Do you feel that way? Is it kind of surreal how it all happened?

My job is to gather information from lots of places. And I interface every day with the people who are the experts. That leaves me with a very broad but not particularly deep knowledge of everything that’s going on. There are many people far more expert than I in specific areas. But I have to say, in terms of understanding and knowing all the different stars in the constellation – whether it’s players or doctors or legislators or parents or researchers or physicists or coaches or athletic directors or school-district people or other journalists or advocates or wives of former NFL players or mothers of current high school players – all those different groups are kind of spokes that connected through me. That can be a little overwhelming at times but it makes for pretty good work.

Is this now essentially your main job for the Times?

It’s my primary responsibility. We’ve always treated this as a public health issue and the fact that the National Football League may or may not have policies that are not in the best interest of their 2,000 grown men making grown men’s decisions – I don’t think a whole lot of people would find that particularly compelling. I think the reason that it matters so much is what they do on Sundays does affect 4.4 million children who play tackle football on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. That’s why it matters. And also to the extent that the NFL tended to downplay effects on concussions both short and long-term; their findings in their research were very dissonant with other research done at various levels. So when they would come out and say it’s OK to put a player back in a game after he’s been knocked unconscious and even went so far to say that schools look at that research and consider policies based on it – that’s pretty bold stuff. You know, it really mattered, not only to young tackle football players but also to girls who appear to sustain concussions in basketball and soccer at rates higher than boys do. Rather than make people aware of how important it was to take injuries seriously, they sort of swept it under the rug. The NFL has only recently realized that was not a particularly prudent course of action.

I know you just wrote a story on helmets. From your experience, what do you think needs to be changed and what do you think will be changed in terms of basic safety procedures?

That’s not for me to say, it really isn’t. All I wanted to do is let people know that what many think helmets do is not what they do and that the standards to which helmets are held are not really what people think they are – and also to let people know that throwing a helmet on a kid because that’s what’s always been done and assuming it’s a helmet that will provide the protection you think it will is a very dangerous exercise. No one has really been minding the store when it comes to helmets.

As a Penn grad, was it more personal breaking the story on Owen Thomas?

No. I’ve written about college players all across the country. It could have happened anywhere. It’s just a coincidence that the first active college player diagnosed with CTE happened to go to the same college as the reporter who has been doing the most work on the issue. It was 100 percent coincidence. I wouldn’t wish that on any school. It could have been anywhere. Whoever the first school was going to be unfairly seen as somehow responsible. What happened with Owen Thomas is a manifestation of the possible effects of youth and high school and college football. There’s no reason to think it’s specific to the leagues or teams in which or for which he played. And I would say the exact same thing if he played for the University of Idaho.

Owen Thomas was the first amatuer player diagnosed with CTE

How much do you think the findings in Thomas’ case will change safety procedures at the amateur level, if at all?

I don’t know, I really don’t. I think it did scare a lot of people but, you know, football has an awful lot of momentum in the direction that it’s going. I mean, think about it. Let’s just play this out: If college football is that dangerous, so ridiculously dangerous that there a thousand Owen Thomases out there, we’d probably know by now. So in some ways, the problem in football is that isn’t dangerous enough. If it were more dangerous, everyone would know and everyone would deal with it. But it’s just safe enough that you can kind of not deal with it and hope that it goes away. But it’s not going away. What if college football is really dangerous and what if it becomes much less popular because of that? I don’t think that’s going to happen, but let’s say it does. That would have an indescribably huge effect on universities because their entire athletic department basically depends on the revenue generated by football. And that is a real snag that schools would have to deal with. I don’t think it’s going to come to that. Maybe football will become a little less popular because of this stuff. It doesn’t matter – it will still be the most popular sport in the country in terms of viewers.

So will you go back to writing about baseball at some point?

I doubt I’ll be writing about baseball for another 6-12 months. People have no idea how much is going on in this arena right now. People are getting an idea because of what we’ve witnessed in the NFL. But recently hockey seriously discussed the possibility of banning all hits to the head, baseball discussed the possibility of a special disabled list for players with concussions. And there are a lot of things I can’t tell you about. These are very good things. They’d be considered very positive steps. But there are lots of other things that aren’t being done for various reasons, like liability, like money. No one wants to step on the legal land mine.

Coming soon: Penn Gazette Sports speaks with Rudy Brown W’04, who suffered four concussions during his high school and college football career.

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