TUCSON, Ariz. – Fran Dunphy wanted nothing more than a blank slate. So that's exactly what he gave his Temple Owls.
Before every game, Dunphy huddles his team and unveils his plan. It's a few nuggets of wisdom necessary to win that night – things like rebound, or take care of your possessions, or focus for 40 minutes. As Temple clustered around Dunphy prior to its NCAA tournament game Thursday afternoon against Penn State, Dunphy pulled out his clipboard, and at least one player gasped.
There was nothing on it.
"I don't have to tell you guys what to do," Dunphy said. "You guys know what you've got to do, and what you've got to do is win."
Not just for themselves, either, but for their coach, their Susan Lucci of a coach who had lost 11 straight tournament games and earned the nickname "one-and-Dunphy." It stuck because it fit, an unsightly appendage on one of college basketball's unheralded tacticians.
Nearly 40 minutes after his minimalist motivation, with the score tied and the ball in Temple's hands, Dunphy left the game in his players' hands again. Senior Khalif Wyatt suggested Temple give the ball to Juan Fernandez and let him create a shot, Dunphy obliged and Fernandez drained an off-balance 16-foot leaner with 0.4 seconds remaining to push the seventh-seeded Owls past 10th-seeded Penn State, 67-65.
Though the least heralded of the myriad buzzer-beaters on Day 1 of the tournament, it was staggering nonetheless for the layers of emotion it unpeeled. Penn State's Talor Battle, who had tied the game with a 25-foot 3-pointer seconds earlier, crumbled to the floor and wouldn't get up. Wyatt chest-bumped Fernandez, and then Ramone Moore jumped into him, and the rest of the Owls joined in the celebration. And on the bench sat Dunphy, as he had all game, perhaps the biggest win of his career official and his team advancing to face second-seeded San Diego State on Saturday.
"I'm happy for them, obviously," Dunphy said. "And I'm happy that maybe I won't get that question quite as often."
Dunphy's stoicism is a running joke among his players, who tried to recount a time they had seen Dunphy excited. They couldn't.
"I saw a little smile," guard Aaron Brown said. "It was in the locker room. He wouldn't do it outside."
The 62-year-old Dunphy, with his trademark mustache, has patrolled college sidelines since 1989, when he returned Penn to preeminence in the Ivy League. He won 10 conference championships in 17 seasons and competed with Villanova, St. Joseph's, La Salle and, yes, Temple for Philadelphia supremacy.
When John Chaney retired following the 2006 season, Dunphy replaced him. He deemed it a "daunting task," and after bowing out in the first round three straight times, it only worsened. Beating Nebraska in 1994 was one thing. Temple was expected to move past its first game.
"All week we've been hearing questions about how important is this win for you guys," Moore said. "I think it's just something we wanted to get off our back and just get the win for Coach Dunphy because he is a great coach who deserves it."
Dunphy's greatness, much like him, is understated. He spent most of Thursday's game taking nips from a water bottle, twisting and untwisting its cap, occasionally shouting out sets. He's not a yeller, not a screamer, not when Penn State jumped ahead 20-11 and not when the Owls frittered away a four-point advantage in the second half. The lead changed hands 20 times, once and for all with less than a second left.
Fernandez, the junior point guard from Argentina, spent most of the second half as a creator after scoring 17 in the first. He planned to pull up for a jump shot, only to have Penn State overplay to his right. So he ducked, leaned left, leapt off his right foot and willed in the biggest two points of his career.
"Usually you don't practice those kind of shots," Fernandez said. "Like coach said, it was our time."
"You think about it," Dunphy said. "I would be lying if I told you I didn't."
Not anymore. Dunphy could instead spend the night thinking about San Diego State. He hadn't seen any tape of the Aztecs, and the Owls returned to their hotel to consume some. Dunphy would learn about Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas and D.J. Gay quickly enough, and he would have time to draw up some new maxims for his next plan.
The slate won't be blank then. After Thursday, Fran Dunphy no longer needs one.