By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
The whirling-dervish otherwise known as Patrick Chambers blew into the Shenango Valley Thursday afternoon.
The Penn State University men’s basketball head coach appeared at the annual Friends of Penn State Dinner hosted by Penn State-Shenango Alumni Society.
“I’m always optimistic,” Chambers, the Philadelphia-area native related during a 20-minute meeting with the media in Sharon Hall.
The 2014-14 Nittany Lions ended 16-18 overall and 6-12 in the Big Ten Conference — “the best conference in America,” Chambers gushed — and he’s anxiously awaiting next season.
“ ... If they’ll have me,” Chambers chuckled, adding more seriously, “ ... as long as success with honor still holds true for Penn State, absolutely! But,” Chambers cautioned, “sometimes you’re judged on wins and losses in this day and age, so hopefully we can turn that around, and I think we are. Sixteen wins is a nice jump up, six wins in the Big Ten was a nice jump up from where we were.”
Chambers’ coaching career is on the rise. He apprenticed at Villanova University under Jay Wright, earned his initial head-coaching position at Boston University, and is looking ahead to making his mark in Happy Valley.
Chambers checked in on a variety of topics, including:
ä This past season’s Penn State performance: “I don’t know if our record indicates the momentum that we have at this point right now. But I believe that we’re in the middle of that process of taking a team that was rebuilding ... we’ve lost eighty percent of our points, rebounds, everything.
“When we took over, it was a little bit of a challenge. I feel like we’re making strides, I feel like we’re getting closer. Even though we won only sixteen games last year, I felt like we were in ten of those games, that it came down to one or two points, or one or two possessions. So we’re ever so close. It’s a shot here, one less turnover there, a free throw here, a rebound there.
“So I feel like the energy’s there. Anybody I talk to on the outside, in the community, things of this nature (dinner), everybody’s very upbeat and positive about the direction of the program. In the basketball world, even the coaches are impressed with what we’re tryin’ to do.
“But we’ve gotta get it done. You know, close is good for, what, horseshoes? But we’ve gotta finally get over the hump and solidify ourselves as one of the better up-and-coming programs in the Big Ten.
“There were so many high points. I think sometimes we dwell on the ‘lows’ too often, and they kind’ve hang with us. But we did a lot of incredible things. Obviously, the sweep of Ohio State was great ’cause we hadn’t beaten them in seventeen or eighteen tries. But to be able to win at Indiana and Ohio State in the same year? It was pretty special what this group did ... what they were capable of accomplishing on certain nights
“We had a youthful bunch, we had only one senior that played significant minutes (Frazier) — obviously he was one of our better players. But I felt like we got a lot of good experience for the rising juniors, the rising sophomores. Now you have D.J. (Newbill) as a senior, Ross Travis as a senior, John Johnson as a senior. So now we have a good mixture of leadership and veteran players.
“I don’t want to put too much on (the sweep of) Ohio State, but winning at Ohio State and Indiana, I thought, were just great accomplishments for this team, and for us as a program in three years.”
ä On the 2014-15 season’s prospects: “I feel like we have a really good roster, one-through-fifteen, so it’s gonna be trying to find the right lineups to play. Tim (Frazier) paved the way for us, did a great job of setting up our ‘culture,’ environment and laying the foundation.
“I feel like we’re older — three seniors, which is great — and the juniors are older now and they’re more capable. We’ve seen the Big Ten, we’ve been in different environments. We’ve lost every which way you can possibly imagine in the last two years, so I think they understand and they know what they have to do to be successful.
“D.J. probably will play the point, probably off the ball the same amount of time .... But it’s really just getting a great five guys to start us off and a nice rotation goin’ as the season progresses as we get to the Big Ten.
“It’s just gonna come down to staying healthy, which is criticial; taking care of our academics, which is critical, and just having an incredible locker room where everybody’s cohesive and we’re all in it together and we’re all pulling in the same direction. If we can do that, special things happen. ... You look at certain teams that have gotten over the hump and have done some good things (he cited Stanford University this past season), they’ve all become a little bit older and a little bit more together.
“So I’m really optimistic about this year.”
ä Regarding recruiting (Shenango Valley native David Jackson helped lead the Nittany Lions to the 2009 NIT title): “We want to win Pennsylvania, we want to win the state, so we’re gonna go wherever we have to go to find the right kids that fit Penn State — you have to go to school, you have to take care of your academics, you have to want to get your degree (Chambers noted, during his Boston U. and Penn State tenures, his players have a 100 percent graduation rate). ... and then you better be pretty good at basketball, you better have a high-skill level, and you better be a winner.
“So we’re looking everywhere in the state of Pennsylvania to get great basketball players to elevate our program.
“Football’s still ‘king,’ and until we start winning consistently ... I loved ‘O.B.’ (former head coach Bill O’Brien) and I love (current head coach) James Franklin, I’m on board with those guys. But we will go and search everywhere, to find the right fit for Penn State, somebody who’s gonna help us and elevate us and want to be a part of something pretty special.
“So we’re out there. My assistants are doing a very good job of trying to find the next Talor Battle or (Jamelle) Cornley or (Calvin) Booth or Tim Frazier, Joe Crispin. Those are guys, you look at them and say, ‘Okay, that’s been successful in the Big Ten, that’ll be successful here.’ So we’re all over the place.”
ä On paying college athletes: “This is my opinion. They do get a lot — they get a scholarship, gonna get meals, they do get a strength coach, they do get assistants during a certain time-frame who are gonna work with them. That’s a lot. LeBron James is paying a lot of money for that stuff — for a chef, for a personal trainer, for someone to work on his shot.
“I still believe they’re not like ‘normal’ students. The time demands on these student-athletes are crazy. Obviously, it’s worse for coaches — we work seven days a week. ... and I think the kids feel that way, too. ... These kids gotta get up at six (a.m.), they have a structured day, study hall, tutors, practice, more study hall.
“So what I’m saying is: A haircut? We should be able to pay a little stipend for a haircut. Maybe they’re hungry at eleven (p.m.) ... so is it so wrong for a ten-dollar pizza, or whatever it may be?
“So I still think there are some things we should be able to give them that would allow them to enjoy their experience, ’cause what we’re doing for them is creating memories. Look at Penn State football, all the great memories you have. I’m sure you know where you were for some of those national championships. ... For me, where we were when we upset Michigan two years ago, Ohio State this year, and Indiana.
“You’re creating memories for these students and for your team, obviously. But I think, to be able give them a little something — I’m not saying a great deal — but a little something on top of that, I think, it’d be worth it.”
ä On one-and-done players: “Look, you’re nineteen, twenty years old and you’re goin’ into the NBA? ... I mean, the percentage to fail is great. They should stay (in college) longer, there’s no question about it. There needs to be an agreement with the NCAA and the NBA or NBA (Development) League on how they’re gonna creat a better structure to help these kids make it ... and if they don’t make it what’re they gonna do? Can they go back to school? I don’t know if that’s the solution, but there needs to be something put in place, ’cause you see so many times where, unfortunately, there’s failure.
“If you’re gonna be a college coach, you need your degree ... if you want to go into certain businesses, Fortunre 500 (companies), you’re gonna need your degree, and now, certain places, you need your masters. We try to educate in that regard, ’cause, for even the great (players, the NBA) lasts ten years, maybe? Professionally, overseas? Ten years? So that’s what, (age) thirty-three? What’re you gonna do for the next fifty years?
“It’s a sensitive subject for me, because ... If I could get a one-and-done or two-and-done, I’d be really foolish not to strive for that. But at Penn State we want four-year kids. We’re tryin’ to build a program, and I think when you build a program like that you’re gonna be consistent and you can sustain, year in and year out.”
ä On his coaching mentors: “Working with Jay Wright at Villanova University, it was an amazing experience, something I’ve drawn upon very often the last few years here at Penn State and two years at Boston U. Those games were memories that I’ll have forever — the (Philadelphia’s) Big Five, playing at The Palestra ... It was a great experience to be involved in the Big Five, the history, the tradition. ... Man, just thinkin’ about some of those games. ... the St. Joes’ games — ‘The Holy War” ... just a lot of passion and a lot of love of the game of basketball in Philadelphia.
”My high school coach (Dan Doughtery at Episcopal Academy) was coached by ‘Doctor’ Jack (Ramsey) at St. Joe’s ... ‘Doctor Jack’ was tough as nails, really got after you, old-school teacher, old-school basketball coach ... left a legacy at every level — just incredible! So me, I take some from my high school coach, from my college coach (Herb Magee, who won an NCAA benchmark 941 games at Philadelphia University).
“Jay Wright gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, to put myself in this position. I’m indebted to him forever. ...
“Obviously Jay Wright has made a powerful impact on my life and my coaching career and how to build a program (Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four berths) — not too shabby, for a five-year stint (while Chambers served as an assistant). But he’s more than a basketbal coach; he’s a father figure, he’s a fund-raiser, he’s an ambassador, he’s the face of the university.
“So I’m trying to do a lot of that (at Penn State), trying to build from the ground up. And we’re gettin’ closer.”
ä On the Big Ten, which adds Rutgers and Maryland this year: “ ... It’s challenging. And what makes it the best conference in America? We’re at the bottom portion (of the standings), but we beat Ohio State, we beat Indiana, we beat Nebraska. We’re beating teams that were going to the NCAA Tournament. So on any given night, the bottom six can beat the top six. I don’t know if you can say that about some of these other leagues.”