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MEN'S BASKETBALL: Fran Dunphy Returns to La Salle in Ever-Changing College Hoops Landscape

By Rich Flanagan. Photos: Geanine Jamison, 04/27/22, 9:15PM EDT


Photos: Geanine Jamison, Kathy Leister & Mike Nance

By: Rich Flanagan

PHILADELPHIA – A lot has changed since Fran Dunphy began his time as a Division I head coach at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. The three-point shot was in its third year in men’s basketball and the shot clock was in its fourth year. The implementation of both presented a new challenge for programs from how to apply it to their offensive game plans to the style of defense needed to stop it. The NCAA Tournament also expanded to 64 teams in 1985, when Dunphy was an assistant at American University.

He has seen the game change in a variety of ways, especially when considering he was at the helm of Temple University when conference realignment became more prevalent and the Owls moved from the Atlantic 10 to the American Athletic Conference (AAC).

The La Salle community formally welcomed Fran Dunphy as its next men's basketball coach on Monday, April 25 - PSD Photo by Geanine Jamison

As Dunphy, 73, becomes the first head coach in Big 5 history to oversee three different programs with his hiring at La Salle University, his alma mater, he enters a new era of college basketball, one that is constantly changing and expected to remain in transition.

“I don’t know what the landscape of college basketball is going to be if we’re standing here five more years,” Dunphy said. “The game is changing, and life is changing. We’ve got to change around it. We’ve got to adapt to it.”

Dunphy last coached in the 2019 NCAA Tournament as Temple fell to Belmont in the First Four. He is the all-time winningest coach in Big 5 history with 580 wins and his success in Philadelphia basketball as a coach is rivaled by perhaps only Jay Wright, who recently stepped down from Villanova. Still, everywhere he has been, he has turned the program into a winner, like Penn and claiming nine Ivy League titles, or continued a tradition of winning, as he did with Temple upon succeeding the late John Chaney. In his two previous head coaching stints, the objective was on basketball and player development, and not much else. This time around, there are more things that he is learning on the fly and it adds more to his agenda as he gets to work with the Explorers, who haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since the incredible Sweet 16 run in 2013.

Resurrecting the La Salle program will not solely fall to Dunphy but planting the foundation and getting it back to respectability is something he relishes the opportunity to do.

“We have a great challenge in front of us,” Dunphy said. “There’s no question about that. The word already came out that we need support of alums, fans, and students. I’m going to have to be in charge of a program that wants to make you come to these games. We have to put a good product on the court.”

The two biggest developments in the college basketball landscape since Dunphy stepped away from Temple are name, image and likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal. With NIL, NCAA student-athletes are allowed to receive financial compensation, most of which occurs through marketing and promotional endeavors. Student-athletes can profit from their personal brand, and while La Salle is still very much looking into how to best implement and understand the changes NIL has brought, the A-10 got the ball rolling in August by partnering with INFLCR, a software platform for student-athletes to grow their brands through technology and education on NIL navigation.

To date, that is the extent to which the Explorers have taken advantage of NIL. Under Ashley Howard, the former Villanova assistant who went 45-71 before being let go in March, the Explorers program was still getting acclimated to NIL and very little materialized.

If Dunphy and La Salle can amplify what NIL can do for student-athletes, it will make the Explorers program that much more enticing and allow them to become one where talented recruits want to spend their collegiate careers.

Fran Dunphy states "When they ask you to serve, you serve," in reference to coming back to coach at his alma mater:

In his opening press conference, Coach Dunphy said he will work as hard as he can to bring in the best student athletes:

Dunphy is open to working with his staff and administration to become more knowledgeable on the subject and see what it has to offer for his players.

“The reality is that I don’t think any of us know what this landscape is going to be like over the next couple of years,” Dunphy said. “It’s changing every single day. That transfer portal has changed our world. The NIL is changing our world. I don’t know where we’re going to go. I hope we’re going to settle in and there will be a monitoring system in place so that we can have a sensible approach to college athletics, but we’re in for an interesting ride. This is a whole different world that we’re looking at.”

Few teams in the area will need to optimize the transfer portal like the Explorers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA instituted the one-time transfer exception where student-athletes became immediately eligible for the following season. This is still in place but, to avoid having to receive a waiver to transfer, student-athletes need to submit a written request with their current school by May 1. With Dunphy officially taking the job on April 5, he has been working to see which players could fit his style of play and best represent the Explorers program, and he has his work cut out for him with recent departures.

La Salle redshirt senior Clifton Moore will be transferring to Providence next season - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister

Clifton Moore, the 6-foot-10 big man who led the Explorers at 12.9 points per game while corralling 6.1 rebounds, will finish his career at Providence alongside former La Salle forward Ed Croswell, who played two seasons on 20th & Olney before joining Ed Cooley’s program. Moore broke the Explorers single-season record for blocks (83) last season, surpassing former National Player of the Year Lionel Simmons’ record of 77 set during the 1987-88 season. Jack Clark, the 6-8 guard who starred at Cheltenham, transferred to North Carolina State after avg. 12.0 points, 5.8 rebounds & 1.2 steals in 30 games (23 starts) last season and will have two years of eligibility remaining. 

Christian Ray, the 6-6 guard who avg. 5.5 points & 5.9 rebounds in 84 games (42 starts) over three seasons, moved on to Delaware, joining former Haverford School teammate Jameer Nelson Jr. Jhamir Brickus, the 5-11 guard out of Coatesville who started 46 out of 53 games over the last two years and avg. 8.9 ppg in that time, and Khalil Brantley, the 6-1 guard who burst onto the scene as a freshman avg. 8.0 ppg, which included a 17-point game vs. Villanova at the Palestra and an 18-point performance against VCU, are both in the portal but were present for Dunphy’s introductory press conference on Monday.

Dunphy can feel a little bit better knowing he will have Josh Nickelberry and Anwar Gill, both of whom will remain with the program.

Nickelberry, the 6-4 junior guard and former Louisville transfer, avg. 11.2 ppg while hitting 61 three-pointers this season. Gill, a 6-4 sophomore guard, avg. 4.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 28 games (12 starts). They will both be players Dunphy can lean on during this transitional period.

Still, the Explorers do not have a commit in the class of 2022, so the transfer portal will be the primary avenue for roster replenishment. The best programs in the country have put a greater emphasis on roster construction through the portal instead of bringing in a new recruit. Having college experience, with game play or practice time, is invaluable and there is better likelihood that experienced college players will be better adept at picking up the speed and pace at their new program.

It will be his most challenging offseason ever and the transfer portal has its pros and cons in how Dunphy hopes to build this roster.

“We’ve lost some guys and that’s the way life is,” Dunphy said. “Those guys that have left us deserve that opportunity and to take advantage of it, but we’re going to get others who are going to come in and take their spot. Hopefully, we will do great work and as a coaching staff we’ll get together, plan practices and it will be the opportunity for those guys to do a great job.”

La Salle junior guard Josh Nickelberry #10 will remain an Explorer next season - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister

La Salle sophomore guard Anwar Gill #3 will also remain on the Explorer's roster next season - PSD Photo by Mike Nance

Dunphy is far removed from the player who was part of the Explorers’ 1968-69 team that finished 23-1 overall and was ranked No. 2 in the country then avg. 18.7 ppg the following season, but he is not far removed from taking a team to the Big Dance, a feat he has achieved 17 times during his time with Penn and Temple.

Certain nuisances of the game of basketball have changed, but Dunphy has been able to adapt to those throughout his tenure. NIL and the transfer portal are just the next obstacles to navigate and take advantage of, and Dunphy plans to utilize those to give back to a university that has given him so much in a city that has given him more than he ever hoped for