Penn pals: How Warren, McCaffery, and Collins ended up in the Big Ten Conference

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren and coaches Fran McCaffery and Chris Collins are all connected to the 1981-82 University of Pennsylvania men’s basketball team.


Grace Smith

Iowa men’s head basketball coach Fran McCaffery takes a photo with Big Ten Conference Commissioner Kevin Warren during Big Ten Basketball Media Days at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.

Austin Hanson, Sports Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — The 1981-82 University of Pennsylvania men’s basketball team wasn’t particularly noteworthy. The squad isn’t enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and it wasn’t Penn’s best team ever — though it did win an Ivy League Championship.

The Quakers finished the 1981-82 season 17-10 overall. Their season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament via a 66-56 loss to then-No. 5 St. John’s.

Three of the most influential figures in the Big Ten Conference, however, were associated with the 1981-82 Penn men’s basketball team. League commissioner Kevin Warren and University of Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery both played for the Quakers in 1981-82, and Northwestern University men’s basketball coach Chris Collins was their ball boy.

“My dad [Doug Collins] had just retired from the Philadelphia 76ers, and he was a volunteer assistant on that team,” Collins told The Daily Iowan. “So, as a young kid, I was always tagging along. So, all the home games, they would let me be a ball boy. I actually knew [McCaffery] really well. Franny and my dad became very close.”

Northwestern men’s head basketball coach Chris Collins answers a question about Fran McCaffery during day two of Big Ten Basketball Media Days at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Collins was the ball boy of a team that Iowa men’s head basketball coach Fran McCaffery and Big Ten Conference Commissioner Kevin Warren played together on. (Grace )

“Kevin was a young player on that team,” Collins added. “Franny was a senior. One thing I remember the most, is the tradition at The Palestra, when the home team scores its first basket, they used to flood the court with streamers. So, I had to run out there and spend five minutes every game cleaning toilet paper and streamers off the court . . .  It’s just kind of cool, the full circle of everything, to now be in a league where Kevin’s the commissioner and Franny and I have now been coaches for a long time.”

Warren only spent two years of his college career at Penn. But Warren’s true freshman season happened to overlap with McCaffery’s senior year.

McCaffery started his college playing career at Wake Forest in 1977. After a season with the Demon Deacons, McCaffery transferred to Penn, where he played from 1979-82.

“We started off with three wins,” Warren said. “Then, we lost nine-straight [games]. But we came back and won 15 straight to make it to the NCAA Tournament. We lost to St. John’s in the tournament. I was a true freshman. I was only [17-years-old]. Fran was a fifth-year senior, so he was really mature, but he was physical. He was hard-working. He was smart. He was a coach on the court. I knew then he’d be a coach.”

“The thing I’ll always be grateful for is, he took the time with me as a young freshman,” Warren added. “I was from Tempe, Arizona. I didn’t have any family or friends in the area, and he really took the time with me to help me learn the college game. He was the first person that really taught me how to watch tape.”

Warren averaged just 1.4 points per game his freshman season. Meanwhile, McCaffery was racking up about 2.7 points, 2.7 fouls, two turnovers, two steals, two rebounds, and four assists per game.

McCaffery ran out of eligibility after the 1981-82 season, but remained at Penn for the Quakers’ 1982-83 campaign, working as an assistant coach.

McCaffery then moved on to Lehigh where he served as both an assistant and head coach from 1983-88. McCaffery moved into an assistant coaching role at Notre Dame from 1988-99 before he eventually accepted head coaching positions at UNC Greensboro, Sienna, and Iowa from 2000-21.

After the 1982-83 season, Warren transferred to Grand Canyon University, where he scored nearly 20 points per game, on average. Warren’s efforts helped him land in GCU’s athletic hall of fame in 2012.

Warren earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Grand Canyon in 1986. He then moved on to Arizona State where he received his master’s degree in business administration.

Warren got his Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Notre Dame School of Law in 1990.

Warren worked with the NFL’s Detroit Lions, St. Louis Rams, and Minnesota Vikings from 1997-2019 before he became commissioner of the Big Ten.

“I’ll say this, I didn’t imagine I’d be where I’m at today [in 1982],” Warren said. “But I knew where [McCaffery] was going to be. He was going to be a coach. He was coaching then. He was always mature, and he studied the game. I mean, he really helped teach me basketball from a player perspective standpoint.”

Warren, McCaffery, and Collins were reunited at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis during Big Ten Basketball Media Days Thursday and Friday. Warren and McCaffery shared a hug on the event’s press stage. Warren had introduced McCaffery to reporters before McCaffery’s press conference kicked off.

Warren told The Daily Iowan that, as the commissioner of the Big Ten, he still calls upon some of the lessons he learned from McCaffery 40 years ago.

“Yeah, the things I learned then was just really to be tough — mentally and physically tough,” Warren said. “I mean, our practices were intense.”

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