When Dan Leibovitz C’96 left a Division I head coaching to take a job as an assistant coach at Penn, a few eyebrows were raised. The situation became even more curious when the man he replaced at Penn, John Gallagher, ended up taking Leibovitz’s old job at Hartford (with a quick pit stop on Steve Donahue’s staff at Boston College).
Almost four months have gone by since the coaching carousel, and despite what others might say, Leibovitz continues to be 100 percent certain returning to his alma mater was the right move.
“It’s not for everyone to understand,” said Leibovitz who was an assistant coach under John Chaney at Temple for 10 seasons before becoming the head man at Hartford in 2006. “I’ve never really lived my life that way. This was an opportunity for me that made a lot of sense. My whole life really is here in Philadelphia, and (Penn head coach) Jerome Allen and I have a really unique relationship. All through growing up, we talked about working together. We never knew what that would mean and when the opportunity would come.”
Besides, as far as steps backward go, there could be worse ones than leaving the Chase Arena at Reich Family Pavilion for the Palestra, right?
“It didn’t take very long to make,” Leibovitz said of his decision to come to Penn. “Some people may think it was (a step back) and in some ways I see that, but I look at this place and this University and the mission of this athletic department, and I’m just happy to be part of something very special.”
In truth, the wheels were set in motion back in the late 80s when the two were high school basketball teammates at Episcopal Academy.
“Jerome showed up after school to play basketball in the gym one day,” Leibovitz recalled. “The gym was open from 4-7 and we probably stayed until 7:30. And we just hit it off. He was my guy. The rest of the time, we worked out together, we spent a lot of time in each other’s homes. … We did everything together.”
After transferring from Franklin & Marshall, Leibovitz attended Penn during the Jerome Allen/Matt Maloney glory years. “It was a great time for Penn basketball and it was a difficult time if you were a marginal Division I prospect – which is what I would call myself,” he said. So while he was an undergrad, he started to get into coaching, becoming the 8th-grade coach at Epsicopal while getting involved in the Sonny Hill League. He landed with Temple shortly after graduation, hired by Chaney, the legend himself.
“I don’t know where I am in life without John Chaney,” Leibovitz said. “My son’s middle name is Chaney, which says a lot. I wouldn’t be the person I am without Coach Chaney. That’s another reason it’s great to be back in the area – Coach (Chaney) can spend time with my son, daughter and wife.”
Temple qualified for the postseason in all 10 years Leibovitz was at Temple. And even the most infamous moments led to great memories – like the day after the 2002 Penn-Temple game when Temple’s mascot, Hooter the Owl, picked up a technical foul.
“We had a team meeting in the locker room and this 5-foot-4 guy walks in and says he’d love to talk to the team and apologize,” Leibovitz recalled with a laugh. “It was the guy who wears the Hooter suit. So he tells the whole story and says how he really supports our guys and he’d never do anything to hurt the program. Everyone thanks him, he walks out and Coach Chaney goes, ‘Who the hell was that guy?’”
When it came time for career advice, however, Chaney always knew what was going on. The legendary Temple coach advised Leibovitz to take the job at Hartford because he said there’s no substitute for head coaching experience … but he also understood there’s nothing wrong with returning to the tradition of the Palestra and the Big 5. (By the way, now that he’s at Penn, can someone please update Leibovitz’s Wikipedia page?)
With the college hoops season still more than three months away, Leibovitz hasn’t yet been fully absorbed into the pageantry of the Palestra. Instead, his workdays have been made up of doing less glamorous things like instructing kids at summer camps and watching AAU basketball games from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
But with his old buddy in charge, he’s excited for practices to begin. And just like he knew coming back to Penn was the correct thing to do, he also knows Jerome Allen will be a successful head coach.
“He’s been successful at everything else he’s done in life,” Leibovitz said. “I don’t think people all of a sudden forget how to be successful.” (Ed’s note: Isiah Thomas is the obvious exception.)
And if he has another son, would he name him Jerome or Allen?
“Good question,” Leibovitz said with a laugh. “We’ll have to figure out if that’s going to happen first.”