Patrick Chambers made his coaching debut at Penn State this past Saturday. He really did.
However, it was about as low-profile of an opening act as you could ever find for any coach in a power conference.
Penn State downed Hartford 70-55 in front of an announced attendance of just 4,152 at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College. The game was played less than an hour after Penn State's football team capped an incredibly emotional week with a 17-14 loss to Nebraska at nearby Beaver Stadium and the crush of national media that ascended on the small Central Pennsylvania town all week was there to cover the child sex abuse scandal and the firing of football coach/icon Joe Paterno, not for Chambers.
Chambers was not hired until June, well after Ed DeChellis stunned the college basketball world by stepping down as the coach at his alma mater in order to take over the program at the United States Naval Academy. Thus, Chambers had little time to recruit or get to know his players over the summer.
Yet the 40-year-old Chambers vows to do what plenty of others before him could not. He wants to make Penn State basketball relevant.
To say basketball has taken a back seat to football at Penn State over the years isn't an entirely accurate statement. It is more like the football program has been the engine at the front of a 100-car train and the basketball program has been the caboose.
DeChellis spent eight seasons at Penn State and finally got the Nittany Lions into the NCAA Tournament in 2011 for the first time since 2001, when they made a run to the championship game of the Big Ten tournament before losing to then No. 1-ranked Ohio State. Yet less than two months after Penn State lost a one-point decision to Temple in the first round of the NCAAs, DeChellis fled to Annapolis. Perhaps the end of his rope came during the Big Ten season when the Nittany Lions were unable to practice at the Jordan Center for two weeks because the university had rented it to the rock group Bon Jovi as a rehearsal hall before starting a world tour.
Plenty of other well-regarded coaches tried and failed to make basketball matter at Penn State, including Johnny Bach, Dick Harter, Bruce Parkhill and Jerry Dunn. The Nittany Lions have made just nine appearances in the NCAA tourney.
Chambers knows the history. He has also heard the whispers that Paterno--the most powerful man on campus until last Wednesday--never wanted a strong basketball program for fear it might take away some attention from his football team. Yet Chambers is undaunted.
"My vision is to make Penn State basketball tops in the Big Ten, tops in the country every single year, just like football," Chambers said. "We've got to go out and recruit those types of players, those types of kids. It's very unique, though. We need to find kids that are serious about their academics, serious about getting their degrees, and love basketball and love to play and want to be pushed and want to be driven. We're trying. We're out there, we're searching. We're looking."
One of Penn State's biggest problems has been that even though it is the state university, it has been unable to land any blue-chippers from the commonwealth. DeChellis always felt if he could get that one five-star or four-star recruit from Pennsylvania to commit to playing for the Nittany Lions then others would follow.
Chambers might be able to pull that off as he was born and raised in Philadelphia and has tons of connection in his hometown after playing at Division II Philadelphia University under legendary coach Herb Magee. Chambers also served as an assistant coach at Villanova until spending the last two season as the head coach at Boston University, where he compiled a 42-28 record.
Chambers landed one Philadelphia player in August when combo guard D.J. Newbill transferred from Southern Mississippi. However, Newbill won't be able to play until next season. Another Philadelphia-area product, forward Brandon Taylor from Tabernacle, N.J. and Trenton Catholic Academy, signed with the Nittany Lions last week.
It's all about relationships," Chambers said. "I built those relationships throughout my whole life in Philadelphia. Played high school ball in Philly, college ball in Philly. Philadelphia is an important piece for me because of those relationships, trusting relationships. Those coaches want to send their players to guys they trust, and hopefully parents know who you are and they know your family, they know where you grew up, so that's where you want to send your kids. And you want to send them to the right situation as well. So I'm hopeful. It's not just Philadelphia. We've got to go everywhere. We have to go where the talent is."
In the present, this figures to be a tough season for Penn State. Not only did DeChellis leave, the school's all-time leading scorer, Talor Battle, used up his eligibility last season. Just four of the 11 scholarship players on the roster played for the Nittany Lions last season and only one, junior point guard Tim Frazier, started.
Frazier got off to a good start as he had 16 points, six assists, five steals and four rebounds in 28 minutes against Hartford. He averaged 6.3 points, 5.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 30.8 minutes a game last season and his 33.3 assist rate was 43rd in the nation.
Freshman guard Trey Lewis had a fine debut with 17 points, four assists and two steals in 31 minutes. Senior forward Cammeron Woodyard had a career-high 14 points, seven rebounds and four steals in 27 minutes.
Penn State has home games tonight against Radford and Wednesday night against Long Island before a big test Saturday afternoon against Kentucky at Uncasville, Connecticut in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.
"We want consistency, win a game and build on it," Chambers said. "As I say in practice, persist in intensity. We want to persist at an intense level of men's basketball, and I think we can attain it. I think we're headed in the right direction. We've just got to get the right kids in the program."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.