On Tuesday night, La Salle officially announced the hiring of Fran Dunphy as head coach of men’s basketball. The university is his alma mater.
Dunphy, already the first men’s basketball head coach at two Big 5 schools after long runs at Penn and Temple, is set to make it three schools. Thus, what is already a unique coaching career in Philadelphia veers into territory that will never be repeated.
“During my time at La Salle, I have met many former enthusiasts who personify what it means to be an explorer,” said La Salle sporting director Brian Baptiste. “Fran Dunphy is at the top of this list, and to be able to feature him as the 20th head coach in La Salle men’s basketball history is an honor and a privilege. In my conversations with Fran, he made it clear that he always had a passion for coaching and a burning desire to help his alma mater. I know he is thrilled to get to work and I know our student-athletes will benefit from having him as a leader in our program.
The news was first reported by The Inquirer. According to multiple sources, Dunphy takes the job after himself trying to convince several others, including former assistant Matt Langel, now a successful Colgate head coach, to take it. Dunphy’s concern, said a former student close to him, is with the institution itself, beyond the basketball program.
If that sounds high, consider it in the context of a Tom Gola Arena renovation fundraising project that needs to reach the finish line. Also, don’t forget that Dunphy, now 73, agreed to be Temple’s interim athletic director at the start of the pandemic. This is not the man’s first difficult mission.
Heading La Salle’s program is considered the toughest mission in basketball. Between the lack of Atlantic 10 quality facilities and most of the current squad now in the transfer gate, this is the heaviest of lifts.
Dunphy will replace Ashley Howard, dropped after a 13-19 season, his fourth at the helm of the Explorers. In 30 seasons as a head coach at Penn and Temple, Dunphy had 24 winning seasons, appearing in the NCAA Tournament 17 times. But it’s not about sprucing up a resume. It’s about a country boy who goes back to his school, trying to make it relevant or keep it from sinking further. A source said Dunphy would only take the job if the school listened when he told her the program needed something, no questions asked. Multiple sources said Dunphy was the one who could make phone calls and get former students from the old guard back into supporting the program.
“La Salle has given me so much over the years,” Dunphy said in the statement. “It gave me the chance to play on multiple teams as a student-athlete, the opportunity to make lifelong friendships, and helped me grow into the man I am today. J look forward to working with the young men on the team, introducing myself to the campus community again, and helping my alma mater in any way I can.
On the day Howard was fired, La Salle sent a memo to alumni in the president’s office noting that La Salle’s board had approved “the next phase of the design process for an arena project”, the external fundraising continues. Then the key element: “In 2013, the University received a limited planned gift, generously donated by John Glaser, 1962, specifically to support an arena project. In order to utilize this estate gift, currently valued at $6.2 million, an arena project is expected to begin in calendar year 2023. The University would fund this project exclusively through philanthropic contributions.
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Dunphy had been an assistant to La Salle for some glory years under Speedy Morris. He himself came off the bench as a sophomore and junior for the Explorers. In his senior season, Dunphy averaged 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game.
From the beginning, this research was not limited to basketball. It was also about waiting to see if Dunphy could be persuaded to take it. There is a precedent, pointed out a former de La Salle close to Dunphy, and Dunphy is well aware of it. When Dunphy’s former coach Jim Harding left after a turbulent year for the pros, and also left La Salle with NCAA issues that kept them out of the playoffs in the 1968-69 season , Tom Gola, the greatest former basketball player in school, and at the time the Philadelphia city comptroller, took charge. The Explorers finished 23-1, with Dunphy as a key reserve in his junior season.
“La Salle needed him,” Dunphy himself said in 2014 in the days following Gola’s death. “He probably didn’t have the time, but he had this way of him helping anyone who needed him.”
This time, multiple sources said a large number of La Salle graduates contacted Dunphy, urging him to return home to his alma mater. A phone conversation, according to someone who heard an end of the call, was with Morris, his former boss. Morris told Dunphy he had earned the right to a nice retirement, to play all the golf he wanted. Morris said he was sure Dunphy heard all kinds of people saying either “Take it” or “Are you crazy?” Morris said, your decision.
So Speedy couldn’t help himself: “But I need you to take this job!”