Penn State Basketball: Pat Chambers Will Need a Pinch of Rene, a Dash of JoePa
It was Friday night a bit after 8 o’clock at Lowe’s in State College. I was checking out with my son Alex. And Ed DeChellis was out the door.
That is, from a distance I could see Ed, doing that kinda painful-looking side-to-side bow-legged walk of his, leaving the store with his wife and daughter.
No one seemed to notice that Penn State’s basketball coach of the past eight years was leaving the building. Let alone the town.
That was the problem.
Actually, it’s a normal occurrence in State College -- where I’ve lived for a major chunk of my adult life -- for coaches and even for some major athletes to be relative unknowns off the playing field. Call it Success with Anonymity.
Like when the athletic director, Tim Curley, has a rare quiet moment, he heads to the downtown Starbucks, both east and west.
Or when I was in front of softball coach Robin Petrini and her assistant Jen McIntyre in line at Panera the day before the NCAA Tournament two weeks ago (wished her luck, too).
Or passed Bill Kenney and his two sons shopping at Weis. Looked for nails next to Dick Anderson. Was behind Rob Bolden at Dunkin’ Donuts. Passed Russ Rose in his sweats along College Ave.
They all had the same thing in common with DeChellis a few days ago in Lowe’s:
No one seemed to know who they were or gave them a second look.
That’s OK when you coach softball, but not such a good thing when you’re the coach of a Big Ten men’s basketball team…at your alma mater…for the past eight seasons.
Now the timing wasn’t great – just two hours earlier word has started to leak out that Curley had hired Pat Chambers from Boston University. The store wasn’t packed. And it may be a stretch to think that a Lowe’s shopper had the lowdown on Ed.
But my point is this: For Chambers -- and Penn State basketball -- to truly succeed, everyone in town and on campus must know who Pat Chambers is. Chambers needs to be the face of Nittany Lion basketball. Literally. And immediately.
Just like Rene Portland was.
THE POINT ABOUT PORTLAND
Let’s avoid the social politics of that situation and quickly look instead at the bulk of Portland’s 27 seasons as the leader – and face – of Lady Lion basketball.
In some ways, Rene was bigger than the program as years went by. She was a 24/7 promoter of Lady Lion basketball. Some would say a self-promoter.
Either way (or, more accurately, both ways), she got the job done. Her teams drew three different crowds of over 15,175 to the Bryce Jordan Center. In her final season, the one millionth fan to see the Lady Lions play passed through the BJC turnstiles. Nearly all of those million came during the Portland Era.
(Since the BJC opened in 1996, there have been 11 men’s basketball crowds over 15,175. Prior to this year’s game against Ohio State, the last one came in 2001. The Lady Lions’ three 15K games came in 2004 and ’05.)
Rene made women’s basketball matter at Penn State, in State College and throughout the heart of the state. She especially courted kids, seniors and folks from the more rural areas. For her, making Penn State women’s basketball meaningful was a full-court press:
Pressing Curley, courting the media, fully bothering many of the athletic department staff.
But she won -- as it says on Page 1 of the team’s 2010-2011 media guide: One Final Four appearance, four Elite Eights, 11 Sweet 16s, 21 NCAA Tournaments, Five Big Ten regular season titles, two Big Ten Tournament titles. (And zero mentions of Portland.)
A GIANT STORY
One day I was in line behind Rene at the pharmacy counter at Giant. Two people recognized her and starting talking with her. Ten minutes later, we both happened to be checking out at the same time and more folks approached her.
They knew her. There were no walls. She was a one-name celebrity: Rene. And for a quarter of century in Central PA, the definition of Rene was “Lady Lion Basketball.”
“Is it always like that?” I asked her later.
“Like what?” she answered.
“Everybody knows you, like when you were at Giant.”
“Yeah, people are great about it. But it does take a while to get out of church.”
Rene was the evangelist for women’s basketball at Penn State. And she succeeded. Wildly.
(My second disclaimer, so we are clear: We are talking promotion of a program here, not the promulgation of any personal agendas or beliefs.)
Pat Chambers – a Philly native from a big family, same as Rene -- needs to get on his Penn State Hoops Pulpit and never get off. Never.
Be Pat Positive at work, on the road, in Giant, in Snyder Hall, eating rubber chicken, talking on and off the record. (Parkhill, Dunn, DeChellis – when off the record, they all complained about PSU.)
Ed was often a champ, though, frequently allowing my classes to watch a full practice, then spending 15-20 minutes with them afterwards, answering questions, lecturing on the media’s responsibilities, sometimes challenging them. He was a good prof.
Once, while Ed was talking to a group of journalism students, a staffer came running up into the BJC seats where we were at and said, “Ed, you better hurry up, you’re going to be late for the radio show.”
“Well, they might have to start without me,” Ed said, then spent 10 more minutes talking to the students. He got it.
Unfortunately for him, that did not translate into excitement about Penn State basketball. Or victories for Penn State basketball.
PAT, MEET PATERNO
New coach, take note: There’s a Pat in Paterno.
Joe Paterno provides many lessons, but there is an important one that you can embrace now: Embrace the state, the media, the alumni, the potential fans and, ultimately, your future players. Now. With energy and enthusiasm and authenticity.
That is what Joe did after he took over from Rip Engle as head coach in 1966. Penn State was a decidedly Eastern school, with limited coverage, when Paterno became head coach after 16 years as an assistant coach. The Nittany Lions’ previous two seasons were 6-4 and 5-5.
This story is so well-worn, retold so many times, that it seems apocryphal. But it is true.
To drum up interest in Penn State football, the newly-promoted Paterno and his trusted right-hand man, Jim Tarman, stocked up a few suitcases filled mostly with fresh underwear and bottles of liquor.
The two barnstormed across the state, going from town to town. Meeting newspapermen, doing interviews, holding happy hours, showcasing the charm of Paterno and the press savvy of Tarman (a former newspaper guy himself).
That helped lay the groundwork for what was to come. A pioneering coach’s show distributed statewide via PBS -- “TV Quarterbacks” -- helped. So did aggressive marketing of the football team’s radio syndicate, with Paterno part of the team.
Paterno was a great coach almost from the beginning. But he was a prolific promoter as well.
HIT ’EM WITH BOTH CHAMBERS
Pat Chambers has his undergraduate degree in marketing from Philadelphia (nee Textile) University.
He got his masters degree in basketball, of sorts, from Jay Wright at Villanova.
At Penn State, Chambers is going to need them both. Beginning Monday. And ending only on the day he finally checks out.