Snarky critics will argue that after losing its head coach to Navy, Penn State basketball had nowhere to go but up.
Long-suffering Nittany Lions fans would beg to argue.
Penn State has spent the better part of its existence stuck in irrelevance and submerged in basketball purgatory. Sure, losing a coach to Navy is embarrassing, but that shame easily could have been compounded had the next hire relegated the Lions to another five years of the doldrums.
Instead on Friday the university finally took a step toward the light. By hiring Patrick Chambers as its new coach, Penn State finally breathed life into a program that, for years, has reeked of mothballs.
Bruce Parkhill begat Jerry Dunn begat Ed DeChellis, all decent coaches, all good men and all who moved the energy meter about an eighth of an inch every five years. They suffered the same anonymity as their basketball team: nondescript guys on the next step of their coaching road who wanted to win and who cared, but who brought nothing to the table to invigorate the program.
Chambers changes the dynamic. He is young, only 40, and finally gives a face to a faceless program.
The initial appeal, of course, is Chambers’ recruiting ties to Philadelphia. There’s no doubt that bringing a Philly guy -- Chambers is from the city, went to high school in the city and coached there at both the high school and college levels -- is key. Since joining the Big Ten, one of Penn State’s biggest obstacles has been figuring out where to find recruits.
Philadelphia is the most logical source for future players. It’s only three hours away and stuffed with talent. And with the Big Ten Network, it is not like it was 10 years ago, where kids would go to State College to never be seen or heard from again.
But hiring Chambers is about more than just getting a good recruiter. It is about getting the right guy for a program that has all the BCS bells and whistles and yet offers low-major pizzazz.
Before I joined ESPN.com, I worked in Philadelphia and watched Chambers tutor alongside Villanova coach Jay Wright. His passion for basketball and his eagerness was so overwhelming that more than one person asked, “Is this guy for real?" The implication being that Chambers’ personality might be somewhat disingenuous.
It is not. It is who he is.
He is the typical kid from a big Irish family (12 kids in all), who is used to living large and loud and who has a fire and intensity that borders on manic.
At Boston University, he coached hard and recruited well, the two biggest tools in a head coach’s tool belt. But he also recognized that involving the fans and inspiring the campus was key. So he did goofy videos, bringing a cameraman into his home to give fans a day in the life of their head coach. He hopped on a golf cart and toured the campus.
Was it hokey? Sure. But it was fun and it was different and it was young.
I remember before the NCAA tournament was a birthright at Villanova, when the tradition-laden program needed resuscitation. The year that Wright was first hired, he went into the cafeterias with his players and literally stood on the tables, pleading with students to come to games. He banged on dorm room doors. Wright recognized that he needed to build more than a team on the court. He needed to build a program.
That’s what Penn State needs. In Chambers, that's what it has: an architect.
The only caveat is that Chambers also needs something in return.
He needs support. The administration’s interest in the basketball program has been, shall we say, reluctant at best. The coaching staffs have been underpaid and the program long has been treated as the athletic department’s ugly stepchild.
That has to change. The arms race in college basketball extends beyond the reach of a coach. It encompasses the resources he’s given to go out and search for recruits, the high-end fixings in his office, locker room and practice space and most important, the response he receives from his administration when he needs something.
Out of the depths of its misery, of losing its Big Ten coach to the Patriot League, Penn State has turned the program onto the road to rediscovery.
Now that it's turned over the keys to Chambers, PSU needs to make sure it is the keys to a Mercedes and not a Yugo.