This looks to be an exciting season for Big 5 basketball, and a good time for new fans to get involved. A new era tipped off this week as rookie head coaches at both Temple and St. Joseph’s universities made their debuts.
There are a lot of similarities between the two newcomers. Each is starting their coaching career at their alma mater — Aaron McKie at Temple and Billy Lange at St. Joe’s — and each has big shoes to fill.
McKie, a Philly native who also played for the 76ers, is stepping in for the legendary Fran Dunphy. Lange, a South Jerseyan who spent time as an assistant coach of the Sixers, is following in the footsteps of much-celebrated Phil Martelli.
The new leaders also both came away victorious in their team’s respective season openers on Tuesday night, kicking off a rivalry that will only get more intense.
What exactly is the Big 5, anyway? And why are these new coaches reason to get pumped? Read on for answers.
Creating history at the Palestra
The Philadelphia Big 5 officially came into existence on Nov. 23, 1954, after an announcement from then-University of Pennsylvania President Dr. Gaylord Harnwell.
Penn athletic director Jerry Ford came up with the idea to create an informal association of regional schools to showcase the city’s impressive collegiate basketball programs. They’d play at the Palestra on Penn’s campus, with revenue helping pay for the historic stadium’s upkeep and additional profits being split among the participants.
Ford convinced the university to loan $60,000 to the coalition to renovate the arena with new stands, backboards, locker rooms, and ventilation, according to university archives, and invited four of Penn’s NCAA Division I rivals to take part.
La Salle, St. Joe’s, Temple and Villanova jumped on board, and the Big 5 was born.
Many decades and Palestra games later, the Big 5 is one of the country’s most historic college basketball traditions. For the past 40 years, at least one of the participants has made it to the NCAA Tournament — and La Salle and Villanova have both won the crown.
Championship or not, the Philly-area group has produced many legendary coaches and standout players.
The intramural rivalries are still intense, whether it’s Temple taking on La Salle or St. Joe’s taking on Villanova at the so-called “Holy War” at the Palestra — aka the “Cathedral of College Basketball.”
A new leader in the Owl’s Nest
So the stakes for the new coaches are high no matter what, but even more so when you consider their predecessors. At Temple, McKie is stepping in for the all-time winningest coach in Big 5 history.
That’s Fran Dunphy, who retired last year at the age of 71. He himself is a graduate of La Salle, who went on to spend 30 seasons as a Big 5 coach, first at Penn and then Temple. During his final year, he led the Owls to an NCAA Tournament berth, capping an outstanding overall coaching record of 139-79.
No easy shoes to fill, but most think McKie has the chops to handle it — he has his own decorated basketball legacy in Philadelphia.
In the mid-to-late ’80s, McKie was a terrific basketball player at Simon Gratz High School in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. In the early ’90s, McKie decided to forego other offers and stay in his home city to attend Temple.
There he had an impressive collegiate career under head coach John Chaney, helping lead the Owls to three NCAA tournaments and notching 1,650 total points, good for sixth in all-time school history.
After his three-year stint at Temple, McKie spent 13 years in the NBA, including eight with his hometown 76ers. When his playing days were over, McKie eventually got into coaching both at the pro and collegiate levels.
He was an assistant coach at Temple under Dunphy for five years, and was basically considered the head coach in waiting.
A changing of the guard at Hawk Hill
Like McKie, the new St. Joe’s coach has a tough act to follow. Lange is taking over for Phil Martelli, whose time as an assistant and head coach of the Hawks men’s basketball program totals 34 years.
During his tenure, Martelli turned his team into a serious contender in the Atlantic 10 Conference, from where they reached the postseason 13 times.
His most memorable moment at Hawk Hill was during the 2003-04 season, when he led St. Joe’s to the NCAA’s Elite Eight. That team featured the dynamic backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, which helped put the program on the national scene.
However, Martelli could never recapture the magic from that season, and ultimately saw things go downhill.
In his last three seasons, Martelli failed to reach the NCAA tournament and ultimately was fired in March. He left St. Joseph’s as their all-time winningest coach with a record of 444-328. Of note, he did land a new coaching gig in June at the University of Michigan.
To replace Martelli, the Hawks turned to Billy Lange, stealing him away from the pros — he was most recently an assistant coach for the Sixers. He also has several years of college coaching experience, at both Villanova and Naval Academy.
Lange understands the challenges that are ahead but is ready to take them head-on.
“I just love what I do,” he said last month. “The fun of it is I love being on Hawk Hill, the place, the history, the story, and the chance to take some young players and develop and mold them.”
Dancing around the winner’s circle
Both newcomers started off on the right foot.
At Hagan Arena on Tuesday night, St.Joe’s defeated Bradley University, 86-81, thanks to impressive performances from redshirt junior guard Ryan Daly (26 points) and redshirt sophomore guard Myles Douglas (18 points).
On the other side of the city, Temple defeated Drexel 70-62 at the Liacouras Center. Nate Pierre-Louis led the Owls in scoring off the bench with 16 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, plus 10 rebounds.
After the game, McKie was asked about getting his first victory as Temple’s new head coach.
“It was a roller coaster ride,” he said. “My guys certainly didn’t play the way I wanted them to play, the way we prepared for this game, but we got the win.”
Heads up, Aaron: the roller coaster has only just begun.