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Penn State Basketball: Why I’m Still on the Bandwagon with Pat Chambers

by on March 11, 2020 1:14 PM

 

I believe in Pat Chambers. I believe he is the principal reason for this year’s ascendance of Penn State basketball. And I believe he’s the key factor that will keep the program moving forward in the future.  

I understand if you’ve recently jumped off the Chambers bandwagon. The Nittany Lions have dropped five of their last six games and their two most recent defeats were nothing short of horrendous. Lest you forget, the Lions lost to Michigan State after leading by 15 points at half, and then they looked sluggish and sloppy in falling to Northwestern, a team with an 8-22 record. Yuck. 

But I’m giving Chambers the benefit of the doubt for three simple reasons. First, his 2019-20 team has shown a remarkable capacity to bounce back from adversity. Second, he is a genuine Philly guy—energetic, positive and tough. He’s not going to quit, and I don’t think he’ll let his team quit. Third, the Penn State environment presents major challenges to basketball success, and it makes more sense to keep backing Pat than to give up or look for another coach.  

OVERCOMING ADVERSITIES  

Yes, even though the current Nittany Lions once soared to a national ranking of ninth, and even though they once owned a record of 20-5, they also faced adversities this season and prevailed.  Don’t forget they were annihilated by Ohio State, 106-74, in early December and won their next game over then-fourth-ranked Maryland.

And don’t forget that Chambers’ boys lost consecutive games to Rutgers, Wisconsin and Minnesota in January, before rattling off eight straight Big Ten wins that included road triumphs over Michigan and Michigan State. You were on the bandwagon then, right? So stay with us a while longer.

Of course, there was also an illness that struck Myreon Jones, the Lions’ second best scorer.  Jones missed six games in February, but the stout-hearted Lions won four of those. Jones still hasn’t recaptured his scoring touch, but who’s to say he won’t do so in the upcoming Big Ten tournament or that his teammates can’t somehow replace his lost offense? 

MR. POSITIVE

I’ve been paying special attention to Coach Chambers for several years now. I see him in all kinds of random situations but one thing is constant—the man never slows down.  

Maybe he’s driving a golf cart around campus with several recruiting prospects and waving at various pedestrians while still talking with the young athletes.  Maybe he’s entering my favorite Dunkin’ Donuts in the early morning and grabbing his cup of Joe without breaking stride—the staff see him coming and it's poured before he arrives. Or maybe he’s hustling into the office of my chiropractor, Dr. Roy Love, smiling warmly at fellow patients.  

Not only does Pat Chambers live his life at high RPMs, but he’s an individual who’s marked by an unwavering positivity. Only a guy like Pat could endure last year’s 7-15 start and remain upbeat for the rest of the season. As a result, Penn State won seven of its last 10 conference games and superstar forward Lamar Stevens saw potential that helped sell him on returning for this year.

“He has great character,” says our mutual chiropractor, Roy Love, an enthusiastic season ticket holder for Penn State basketball since 1986. “He’s a really good teacher, teaching his players about life, about competition and about trying to get better every day. And he’s like their dad while they’re up here at Penn State.”  

No wonder Chambers was recently named as a semifinalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year Award, joining illustrious fellow candidates like Kentucky’s John Calipari, Baylor’s Scott Drew and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl. And no wonder he’s received praise from opposing coaches such as Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.  Although Izzo brought his team back from that 15-point halftime deficit to bushwhack the Lions, he had plenty of good things to mention about Chambers.  

“Pat has done an unbelievable job,” he said. “The job he has done with all these young guys plus Stevens is great.” 


Photo by Mikey Mandarino | Onward State

TOUGH PLACE TO WIN

Although I’m sold on Chambers—his ability, his determination and his Philly recruiting pipeline—I’m not naïve. I know it’s tough for any Nittany Lion basketball coach to win consistently.  

I was born in Happy Valley way back in 1952, and I grew up just six blocks away from Rec Hall.  Having been a PSU fan since the early 1960s, I’ve had my heart broken into microscopic pieces on innumerable occasions. If the rewards for my allegiance to Lion hoops were symbolized by a country song, I guess I’d be drunk along the railroad tracks and wondering why I got dumped by my girlfriend the day before she won the lottery. 

Yes, Penn State basketball has showered its fans with disappointment over the years. Certain structural barriers exist here, and that makes an emerging winner like Chambers all the more valuable. I could list a bunch of those barriers, but the following three should be adequate to make the point: 

  • Penn State has always been known for football, and there are precious few institutions that can muster the passion and resources to be great in both major sports.  Traditional football champions like Alabama, Nebraska and USC are also-rans in basketball. Basketball powers like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina rarely do much in football.

  • Penn State is located in a rural region that has a relatively low minority population. It’s not the sort of place that appeals to most African American athletes, especially those raised in major cities.

  • Penn State’s membership in the Big Ten has brought fierce competition to its typically under-manned basketball teams. The Big Ten may not produce many NCAA title teams, but it’s often the strongest league from top to bottom. And in an environment with schools like Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Indiana, It’s been tough for the Nittany Lions to earn any kind of respect. Indeed, their entry into the league more than 25 years ago was met with disdain by the iconic Bobby Knight. “I’ve been to Penn State,” said Knight, then Indiana’s head basketball coach, “and Penn State is a camping trip. There is nothing for about 100 miles.”  

A SEASONED OBSERVER

Perhaps no one in Happy Valley can better appreciate the challenges faced by Pat Chambers than a woman named Bonnie Avillion.  She grew up as Bonnie Egli, the oldest child of John Egli, Penn State’s head basketball coach from 1955 through 1968. She married Ron Avillion, a key player on her dad’s teams from 1963 to 1965, and her sister, Carol, married Paul Mickey, another player from the mid-60s. 

Avillion has been happy to see the upward pattern of Chambers’ teams, especially this year’s group.

“They’ve grown a lot and they’ve played together really well,” she said.  “Of course, they’ve made mistakes, but that’s part of the process, too. I was glad to see the relationship between the coach and his players that you saw on Senior Night with Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins.  That showed me how special that relationship is.” 

I’ve personally known the Egli family since I was old enough to know anything. They lived across the street from our family on Martin Terrace in College Heights; my brother Bob was a close friend of Bonnie’s brother, Joe.  And that explains why I heard this classic comment from Coach Egli that trickled down to Joe and my brother: “The (Penn State) football team could beat us—in basketball.”

The Egli home on Martin Terrace became an important hangout spot for various athletes, starting years before John Egli got the head coaching job. He first served as an assistant coach under both John Lawther and Elmer Gross, and among the players who enjoyed his warm household was Jesse Arnelle.  Arnelle, a man of remarkable talent, was one of the few who played both varsity basketball and football—while he wasn’t busy as the first Black student to serve as Penn State’s student body president. In his junior season of basketball, Arnelle led the 1954 Nittany Lions to their top NCAA tournament performance in history—third place—and he finished as Penn State’s all-time leading scorer. (Today, Arnelle’s 2,138 points put him in third place; Stevens needs just seven points to surpass Talor Battle’s current record of 2,213.)


Coach John Egli exhorts members of his NCAA-bound 1965 team, including Bonnie Avillion’s future husband, Ron who is shown sipping water. (Photo provided by Bonnie Avillion.) 

ARNELLE AS ROLE MODEL

But to Avillion, Arnelle was most important as a family friend, babysitter and role model.  

“Jesse had a big impact on me,” she says. And no wonder. After graduating from Penn State, Arnelle played briefly in the NBA, attended Dickinson Law School, became an attorney and eventually served for nearly 45 years on the Penn State Board of Trustees. Among her memories of Arnelle’s college days, she includes a mention of his summer job. 

“I can remember him working on Atherton Street, digging ditches for Glenn Hawbaker.” Ditches along Atherton Street? Some things never change. 

Coach Egli achieved notable success as an expert on the sliding zone defense, even writing a book on the subject. I personally witnessed the effectiveness of that “D” in the era before the 30-second clock was instituted. Opposing teams would pass the ball endlessly around the perimeter, looking hopelessly for a way to crack Egli’s zone, while Penn State students sarcastically counted their number of passes. With that defense in place and such star scorers as Bob Weiss (he played many years in the NBA) and Carver Clinton, the 1965 Lion team earned an NCAA bid but lost to Princeton and its star player, Bill Bradley. 

As a student, Avillion worked in the class registration process that took place on the floor of Rec Hall before each academic quarter began. But not only did she help with registration; she also followed orders from her father to look for tall male students who may have played a little basketball in high school. It took that kind of initiative and creativity for Coach Egli to compile a career record of 187-135 record at a football-dominated institution.

Of course, the old coach’s daughter is rooting for the current coach. “I like the fact that he’s a very positive person,” she says. “I think he’s done a great job, and I have enjoyed his Philadelphia connection.” 


Jesse Arnelle led Penn State’s 1954 team to a third-place finish in the NCAA tournament. (Photo provided by Bonnie Avillion.) 

WHERE TO NOW?

Roy Love would agree with everything said by Bonnie Avillion, and so would I. But rather than offer my reasons for optimism before the Big 10 and NCAA tournaments, I’ll gladly give the last word to my chiropractor. 

 “In the Big Tens,” says Dr. Love, “I think they’re going to beat Indiana (assuming Indiana beats Nebraska first). And then I think they’re going to play a great game against Maryland. In the NCAAs, I think they’ll win their first game and after that, everything’s a crap shoot.

 “The Northwestern game without Mike Watkins (he violated a team rule) was brutal, and I think Myreon Jones still had not recovered from his illness enough to play a full game. And Lamar—for the first time in his life, he’s been in a slump. But Pat is focusing on the fact that this team has had such a terrific year within the toughest conference in the nation. Only five times in the previous 55 years has Penn State gotten to the NCAA tournament. It’s really worth celebrating.” 


Pat Chambers with Lamar Stevens and family on Penn State's Senior Night. Photo by Mikey Mandarino | Onward State

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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