By Dave Zeitlin | The University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team trailed by five goals heading into the final quarter of its 1994 NCAA semifinal game against top-ranked Syracuse when the improbable rally began.
Mike Murphy GEd’04, then an assistant coach for Virginia, had already grown captivated by the big crowds and pageantry of the lacrosse Final Four. But his eyes grew even wider as the Cavaliers came all the way back to win on a sudden-death goal.
“That was pretty dramatic,” says Murphy, now entering his fifth year as head coach of the Penn men’s team. “There were 35,000 people there and every time we were in a transition situation they would all stand up and start going crazy. Your blood starts flowing a little more when that stuff happens.”
A former captain at Duke who’s been coaching college lacrosse for more than two decades, Murphy hasn’t been back to the Final Four as a coach since his tenure at Virginia from 1993 to 1997.
He’s ready for that to change. And he’s building a program at Penn that just might make his wish a reality.
“I do believe very sincerely we are on the cusp of being a championship-caliber team—Ivy League champion and national champion,” Murphy says. “We can compete for a national championship here in this sport.”
Of course, winning the Ivy League is the first goal of the 2014 season for a Penn program that hasn’t accomplished that since 1988. But considering that the league is perhaps the strongest in the country, it’s not a stretch to put both of those objectives in the same sentence.
Consider: Inside Lacrosse’s preseason poll ranked four Ivy League teams in the top 20 nationally, with Penn coming in at No. 11—behind Yale (10th) and ahead of Princeton (13th) and Cornell (18th).
“The fact that there is no lucrative professional outlet in our sport leads some of the best high school players in the country to choose places like Penn because that’s the best thing for their future,” Murphy explains. “That’s why the Ivy League is so competitive.”
The Quakers perennially play one of the toughest schedules in the country, and 2014 will be no different. Penn will face eight nationally ranked teams. The idea is to boost the team’s Strength of Schedule (SOS) and Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), two important factors in determining the 16-team NCAA tournament field in May.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you play that schedule?’” Murphy says. “I don’t really understand the question. I don’t understand why you would not do that.”
The Quakers have proven they can beat the nation’s best teams. Last season, for the second time in three years, Penn upset Duke—which went on to win the national championship.
The 2013 Quakers also pulled out a dramatic one-goal win over Princeton, which was ranked seventh at the time. That victory marked the second time in three years Penn defeated its Ivy League rival—a remarkable accomplishment considering that the Quakers lost every game to the Tigers between 1990 and 2010.
But Penn’s goal isn’t to beat Princeton; it’s to win the Ivy League and contend for a national title. And led by seniors Zack Losco (midfield), Maxx Meyer (defense), and Brian Feeney (goalkeeper)—all named preseason All-Americans in multiple publications—the Quakers might have the talent and experience to finally do it this season. Murphy also plans to speed up the team’s style of play and shift the emphasis to offense.
But even with his veteran players and lofty preseason ranking, Murphy is trying to “balance some humility with some confidence” as he tries to bring the program to the next level.
“To sit here and presume we can just dominate this league is a little bit naïve,” he says. “But I’ll be a little disappointed if we haven’t won a couple of Ivy championships and been to a Final Four and hopefully a national championship game in the next five years.”
A Big (5) Honor
Mike Jordan C’00 remembers not being able to hear anything except the whistle, because it was so loud inside the Palestra. The former Penn point guard couldn’t feel much in his legs, either, after having played all 40 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime. And as fans rushed the floor to celebrate Penn’s first win over Temple in 16 years, he couldn’t easily find his way back to the locker room.
In other words, it was the perfect Big 5 basketball game.
“Playing in the Palestra is a great experience in itself,” says Jordan, who scored 22 points to lead the Quakers to that stunning 73-70 upset over seventh-ranked Temple early in the 1998-99 season. “And then when it’s a packed house and a Big 5 rivalry, it just makes everything surreal.”
To this day, that win remains Jordan’s favorite Big 5 memory. But the star guard enjoyed many other impressive performances in the Big 5—the famed in-season round-robin tournament featuring long-standing Philadelphia college basketball rivals Penn, Temple, Villanova, Saint Joseph’s, and La Salle.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that Jordan will be inducted into the Big 5 Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Palestra on April 14.
“I was ecstatic when I found out,” says Jordan, who now coaches at Colgate alongside former teammates Matt Langel W’00 and Dave Klatsky W’03 [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2012]. “There are a lot of very good basketball players that went through the Big 5. I was really honored.”
Jordan becomes the 22nd Penn men’s basketball player to make the Big 5 Hall of Fame, and the first of anyone who’s suited up for the Quakers in the past 19 years.
A three-time first-team All-Big 5 selection during his career, Jordan ranks fifth on Penn’s all-time scoring list with 1,604 points, behind Ernie Beck W’53, Ugonna Onyekwe W’03, Zack Rosen W’12, and Keven McDonald C’78. Jordan is also third all-time in career assists, and led the Quakers to back-to-back Ivy League championships in 1999 and 2000.
He never won a Big 5 title, though, which Jordan admits is “something I definitely wanted to have.” Still, Jordan led Penn to three Big 5 wins in his junior season—including the stunner versus Temple—and closed his Big 5 career by beating Saint Joseph’s in 2000.
That last win over St. Joe’s was especially gratifying because Jordan had strongly considered going to school there. The Philly native also had another city school—Drexel—near the top of his list.
“Growing up going to the Palestra and watching Big 5 doubleheaders, seeing the electricity of all of those games, why wouldn’t you want to stay home and play in that type of environment?” Jordan says.
It wasn’t just going to games as a kid that shaped Jordan’s view of Big 5 history and tradition. He also got the chance to work out alongside many of Philly’s star players from the early-to-mid 1990s. Every summer, Jordan followed Philly hoops guru John Hartnett to gyms around the city and absorbed all of the basketball knowledge he could from guys like Alvin Williams, a guard at Villanova who later played for 11 years in the NBA.
“Instead of going to South Street and hanging out, they’d be in the gym,” Jordan says. “That’s the road I followed.”
At the time, Jordan was usually too young to play in those pickup games. But during summers in college, he’d often go to a gym with a few Penn teammates and end up scrimmaging with a few players from another Big 5 school—which is part of the unique fabric of Philadelphia basketball. Sometimes, those games were even more intense than the real ones during the season.
“Probably even better, because we weren’t stuck in a system,” Jordan says. “You could just go out and play.”
But for Jordan, the best games of all were usually at the Palestra. And because of his many achievements on that floor, he’ll visit the historic building again in April for his official Hall of Fame induction.
“It’s one of the best gyms in the world, I think,” he says. “And it’s home.”
Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette.