By Dave Zeitlin | Of all of the words people might use to describe Penn’s 2013-14 men’s basketball season, good would not be too high on anyone’s list.
But seven months after the Quakers concluded their second straight 20-loss campaign with a 71-58 loss to rival Princeton, that’s exactly how head coach Jerome Allen W’09 described the lessons he learned during a particularly challenging season.
“We didn’t come together like we were capable of from a talent standpoint because, first and foremost, I didn’t do a good enough job of getting it together,” Allen said shortly before beginning official practices for the 2014-15 campaign. “But as painful as last season was, selfishly speaking, for my own personal development it was a good season—because I became a much better coach.”
The fact that Allen has a chance to utilize those hard-earned lessons while still at Penn is probably surprising to some, considering that the head coach has been squarely on the hot seat for failing to bring the Quakers back to the heights he achieved as a player (when he captured three straight Ivy League championships from 1993 to 1995).
But for Allen, who enters his fifth full season in charge with an unflattering 56-85 overall record, hearing people call for his job—“noise from the periphery,” as he likes to call it—doesn’t bother him. It simply shows that “a lot of people care about the program,” he insists.
In many ways, this season—which opens on November 15 with a home game against Delaware State—presents Allen with a fresh start. On top of the five seniors who graduated—including All-Ivy players Miles Cartwright C’14 and Fran Dougherty C’14—four younger players also hit the exits. Role players Henry Brooks and Julian Harrell both quit the program, and Tony Bagtas was dismissed from the team after being arrested for a string of campus burglaries. Dave Winfield Jr., the son of the former Major League Baseball star, is also no longer with the program after sitting out his entire freshman season.
But the cupboard isn’t quite bare, thanks to the talented inside-outside combination of juniors Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry. And though he was close friends with some of the departed players, Hicks is enthused by the possibilities that a clean slate brings, admitting that last year’s team “looked like individuals out there instead of one unit.”
“It’s a new feeling, and it feels good,” Hicks said. “I would say we’re much more cohesive and we’re a lot more together than we have been in the past.”
Hicks, who led the team in scoring last season with an average of 14.9 points per game, thinks he can do much better in his final two seasons. Last year he often looked frustrated on the court—and that frustration boiled over when he was ejected in a late-season loss at Columbia for an altercation.
Now that he’s an upperclassman, though, the high-scoring guard says he’s more aware that he has to keep his composure, be more consistent, and become a leader for the large group of freshmen and sophomores.
His coach has seen him take great strides in that direction.
“His body language wasn’t the greatest at times,” Allen reflected. “Some guys come in and get it right away. Other guys evolve into it. The most encouraging thing is that he continued to work and continued to trust things will get better.”
Hicks’ relationship with Nelson-Henry, a 6-foot-11 center who averaged 10.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season, should also give Penn fans reason for optimism. Not only are they arguably two of the top players in the league, they’re also best friends and roommates—a friendship that Hicks believes will play out nicely on the court.
“I think it’s going to be great,” Hicks said. “We love each other. So I’m excited.”
Hicks also sees potential in some of the freshmen, specifically pointing to hard-nosed power forward Mike Auger as “a player I think this program hasn’t had in a long time.” Also in the freshman class, Sam Jones is expected to contribute from behind the three-point arc, while Darnell Foreman and Antonio Woods figure to battle junior Jamal Lewis for the starting point guard spot.
Allen believes some of the newcomers are “talented enough to help us immediately,” adding that he “would be quite shocked if the Penn community isn’t surprised by what these young men offer the program.” Of course, given the exodus of players after last season, he really has no choice but to lean heavily on his underclassmen.
The key for Allen now is doing what he failed to do last season and figure out a way to mold a promising collection of players into a team that can contend for an Ivy League title. The jury is still out as to whether he can do that, and the clock is certainly ticking. But Allen believes he can still accomplish great things at Penn, pointing to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Tom Izzo at Michigan State as examples of people who were nearly fired after some early hiccups before going on to become two of the premier coaches in college basketball.
“Everybody doesn’t get it right from a win-loss standpoint right off the bat,” he said. “But they get it right from being stubborn, from being humble, and from being a hard worker. If you get enough time, you’re going to get it right.”
New coach takes over wrestling program
Alex Tirapelle was a sophomore in high school when his wrestling teammates pegged him with a new nickname.
“They called me Coach Alex,” Tirapelle remembers with a laugh. “I just really enjoyed helping guys on the team. I think there’s something really rewarding about helping someone accomplish something they aspire to do.”
Tirapelle has since proven his old teammates prophetic, ascending quickly through the coaching ranks and landing the head coaching job at Penn this July at the young age of 31.
The California native became the 19th coach in Penn wrestling history after taking over for Rob Eiter, who resigned in May after six seasons in charge.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Tirapelle from his office in late September.
But despite his youth, Tirapelle seems uniquely qualified to handle the rigors of being a Division I head coach at a nationally renowned program.
He comes from a wrestling family. His father, Stephen, was a Division II All-American and a high school head coach, while his brothers Adam and Troy are both involved in coaching after standout wrestling careers.
“I was brought up in a family where it was school and wrestling,” Tirapelle said. “I’ve been around it my entire life.”
He has certainly enjoyed a lot of success on the mat, winning a high-school national championship and twice being named an All-American at the University of Illinois, where he stayed on as a graduate student and academic advisor after earning his undergrad degree.
From there, Tirapelle assistant-coached at UC-Davis for two seasons before the program folded due to athletic budget cuts, and then at Stanford for four seasons.
Now that he’s a head coach, he hopes to bolster the identity of a Penn program that he says is a “national name” in the Midwest and in California, where he’s previously spent all of his time.
“I think the big thing I learned is that people feel it’s really the blue-collar Ivy,” he said. “It’s very gritty. It’s very much about hard work, discipline, and accountability—the things that feed right into wrestling.”