Leave it to Dunphy to feel sorry for Penn State

Temple's Fran Dunphy notched his second NCAA victory on Juan Fernandez' last-second shot.
Temple's Fran Dunphy notched his second NCAA victory on Juan Fernandez' last-second shot.
Posted: March 18, 2011

TUCSON, Ariz. - The shot fell, the band played and the postgame events unfolded, as per the custom. Fran Dunphy was still in his locker room, accepting congratulations and interview requests, as Ed DeChellis made his way through an arena corridor and toward a team bus.

Temple guard Juan Fernandez' last-second shot was good and Dunphy was the victor, 66-64. He was the victor after losing an impossible 11 straight NCAA Tournament games in his last 16 years at Penn and Temple. DeChellis was the loser, his Penn State team eliminated in a murderous blink. He carried the glazed look of an accident victim as he made his way out of McKale Center. It is a look that this tournament should trademark.

Minutes earlier, on the interview podium, Dunphy had said, "It's not like Penn State deserves to lose that game. We just happened to win it." But it really was in the locker room where you could not help but be struck, on this greatest of days for Dunphy, by how much of the loser's burden that the winner carried.

"They played great," Dunphy said, quietly. "I feel bad for those guys. I know Ed DeChellis. I know what he goes through. It's not always easy. But that's what college athletics is about.

"I'll take a step back in many, many years and appreciate the hell out of what's happening to me, each and every game and each and every day."

Dunphy does not want this to be about him. He never has. He does the self-deprecation thing about as well as anyone you will meet in his profession, and it is genuine. Ego is an important part of athletic success, and Dunphy has one, but he has always seemed to be a person with a sense of proportion.

He coaches with an intensity that he sometimes manages to hide from the public. At the same time, though, he understands that it is about the players. So before yesterday's game, Dunphy said he abandoned his typical practice of scribbling down a bunch of what he calls "drivel" and going over it with the players. Instead, he showed them a blank sheet of paper. There was nothing left to say.

Another loss for Dunphy would have seemed almost cosmically unfair, given his impeccable career resume. But it was that close to happening again, and everybody in the building knew it. This tournament owes nobody anything, as we learn ever year, and when Penn State's Talor Battle chucked in a game-tying rainbow with 16 seconds remaining, predicting became pointless.

Then Fernandez hit the shot that changed the tone of the postgame questioning, an uncomfortable, sympathetic tone with which Dunphy had become so familiar. The losing streak was over. His NCAA Tournament record is now 2-12, with a game tomorrow against San Diego State ahead.

"You know, I probably think about it less than others do," Dunphy said. "But you think about it. I would be lying if I told you I didn't.

"But I'm so thrilled for these kids and so thrilled to be in the tournament. We've had a nice run. And this particular group, 4 straight years going to the NCAA Tournament is pretty special.

"And I'm happy for them, obviously. And I'm happy that maybe I won't get that question quite as often. But that's the life we lead. There is nothing much you can do about it. People will recognize what the record is.

"But I've got to tell you, that's not what drives me," he said.

His predecessor, the great John Chaney, had already called Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw with congratulations for Dunphy. There would undoubtedly be more calls and texts through the night. Asked if he was looking forward to any in particular, the coach talked about his family. Even as he insists this is not about him, they are the people who would understand best what this means to Dunphy.

When you think about it, an honest college basketball coach is a fatalist. He is a person who realizes just how little control over events that he has once the ball is tossed into the air. Coaches all yell and jump and gesticulate, and scribble their drivel on a whiteboard during timeouts, but theirs is a business of players making plays, or not; of whistles that blow, or not; of shots that fall, or not.

That is what Fran Dunphy knows, even on one of his greatest days. He has lived both sides of that ball-in-the-air moment for his entire professional life, and he knows.

"Might have been our time," he said, simply. "That's all. Just our time."

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