Fran Dunphy (above, in 2017) won 580 games during a 30-year career in the Big 5. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
Last Saturday morning, a couple of hours before tipoff of the Penn-Temple game, a familiar and friendly face sat comfortably on one of the Palestra benches.
Yes, Fran Dunphy was watching the Penn Alumni Game. Amazing, right? Only if you don’t know Dunph.
“At one point of the game I went over to the bench and said something to [former Penn player] Brian Grandieri and I could hear Dunph’s voice, ‘how you doing there big fella?’“ said former Penn 6-foot-11 center Geoff Owens. “He was like 10 feet away and I was like, ‘holy goodness.’
“It’s kind of a microcosm of who he is,” Owens continued about Dunphy attending the Alumni Game.
Owens, who played for Dunphy from 1997 to 2001, understands he is just one of many former players who are continued to be touched by their old coach.
“A couple of guys have kids who play on an AAU team together and last year he went out to one of their games,” Owens said, “like a couple of 11-12 year-olds playing in an AAU game somewhere and Dunph comes in to watch.”
Another example of Dunphy’s modesty was earlier this season when Dunphy attended Temple’s first game. A picture of him was taken and put on Twitter of him sitting alone in the upper deck of the Liacouras Center and eating popcorn.
“Yeah, that was a good picture,” quipped Colgate coach Matt Langel, who played for Dunphy at Penn and was an assistant under him at Temple. “He is the best.”
Langel said Dunph, ‘meant everything to my basketball life.”
Dunphy’s retirement was announced before last season. Still, he coached until the very end, until the Owls’ last dribble. Owens said last February, he was talking with his brother Kevin, who is an assistant coach at Camden Catholic, and Dunphy was at the high school game recruiting a player that he would never coach.
“It’s unbelievable,” Geoff Owens said.
Owens recalled when Dunphy recruited him out of Bishop Eustace Prep in the mid-1990’s, remembering that Dunph’s goodness and genuineness separated the Penn coach from the pack.
“On the home visits, when the coaches come to your house and they do their whole show, and they have all their materials and videos and they are usually there doing it for a couple hours, it was a big production for a lot of the schools, and here comes Dunph and he sits down and it wasn’t more than a half hour and he gives his message that he ‘would give you an opportunity to play high level basketball and give you an opportunity to get an unbelievable education and we would love to have you,’ “ Owens said. “It was so simple and it was so different from anyone else and it was that from the start there was something special.”
That uniqueness of Dunphy and fond relationships with his players, which remain as sturdy as the Palestra, was far from buddy-buddy, though. Dunphy transformed players into men.
“It is funny, a lot of the stories we laughed about at practice are the ones that are most meaningful and the ones who helped you as a person,” Owens said.
“I meet people at work and I can tell you hundreds of other stories of people who have interacted with him in some way, whether I met him at a game or at Coaches vs. Cancer and what a person he was and how “I met him two weeks later and he remembered my name,’ “ Owens retold of conversations he has had with people touched by Dunphy. “Those types of stories you hear constantly and it never surprises me.”
Dunphy’s lasting impact on Owens was fortified when he sat out his freshman year after he was initially diagnosed with a heart ailment.
“It was hard, but he made sure I was part of everything,” Owens said. “I went to practice every day, I couldn’t play, but I would help the managers and I would go to the games and I felt involved.
“If I didn’t have that at that time just with that family around me, I don’t even want to think about the place I was in emotionally having lost all that, going through testing , trying to confirm the misdiagnosis, it was a difficult time and he made sure I was always part of the family, part of the team, and that routine really helped me through that few month period.”
Penn honors former Quakers and Temple head coach Fran Dunphy (above, right) before their game with the Owls on Saturday, Jan. 25. (Photo: Kevin Callahan/CoBL)
After the Alumni Game, Dunphy was honored before tipoff of the main event. He receiving a resounding standing ovation that shook the old building and current Penn coach Steve Donahue.
“When we were at center court, just watching the place erupt, I got chills,” Donahue said about standing alongside Dunphy, who he assisted at Penn. “Everybody in that building who knows him understands what a great person he is.
“He means a lot to us coaches. Me personally and Aaron, I’m sure,” Donahue added about the Temple coach Aaron McKie, who replaced Dunphy this year. “It was special to have both teams out there and to be able to honor him.
“He probably hated it.”
An hour after the Quakers defeated Temple for the second-straight year with a 66-59 Big 5 win, Dunphy stood at half court again, this time chatting with former Temple great John Baum.
“It was really special for him, but anyone who knows Fran Dunphy knows he would rather not have that attention toward him,” Baum said about the ovation. “But, I’m sure when he gets home at night and is by himself, he will think about it and it will be special to him.”
Actually, the magnitude of the emotional event had already hit Dunphy.
“It was really nice, it was really nice,” Dunphy said after the game. “I was very appreciative of it.”
Truly, how many people in the competitive world of sports can receive a standing ovation from both teams and fans.
“It was great,” Dunphy added. “It was just very, very nice and I appreciated how warm everyone was.
“It meant a lot.”
Timely, too, was the honor since it was the start of Coaches vs. Cancer Suits and Sneakers Week. Dunphy has been on the forefront of this nationwide event raises funds and awareness on the fight against cancer.
“He was so much more than how many wins and losses,” Owens said, “he’s always measured how many people he has helped at Penn and Temple, Coaches vs. Cancer and students of his at Penn and Temple, it’s unbelievable.”
Remarkably, Saturday was the first time in 31 seasons Dunphy was not on the sidelines coaching during a Temple-Penn game. Dunphy was an assistant coach at Penn (1988-89) before taking over as the head coach of the Quakers for 17 seasons (1989-2006). Moving up North Broad Street, Dunphy coached at Temple for 13 seasons (2006-19).
“I think he should still be coaching,” Donahue said. “He looks the same. He sounds the same. He has the same energy.”
Before entering Saturday’s postgame press conference, McKie spoke with Dunphy.
“He is always positive,” McKie said. “He just encouraged me as much as he can and I appreciate that. He is a wonderful man and he has done a lot for this program and I appreciate his words of wisdom.”
Dunphy led Temple to 10 postseason appearances, including eight visits to the NCAA Tournament. He guided Penn to 10 Ivy League Championships and nine NCAA Tournaments.
McKie said he either talks or texts with Dunphy after every game.
“He will ask me how I’m doing,” McKie said, “You know, he’s not going to jump right in and say, ‘you should do this or that.’ ”
Dunphy is the all-time winningest coach in Big 5 history.
“He is just an incredible mentor and man,” Donahue said. “Who ever he runs into, he makes you feel like an all star. It’s a special trait. I’m sure we all wish who could have that impact on people.”
Although Dunphy boasts 580 victories to lead all coaches in the city, in so many ways he is the same person who was playing basketball in the suburbs at St. Dot’s in Drexel Hill as a grade school kid.
“He hasn’t changed, he is the same guy when he was at LaSalle playing basketball to the guy who is now the winningest coach in Big 5 history,” Baum said. “He is the same guy.
“Yeah, he is the same guy and that is why everyone loves him.”
Which is why Dunphy sat on a bench and watched the Quakers’ Alumni Game on a Saturday morning in an otherwise empty Palestra.