Penn State Basketball: Chambers Hopeful For Change As Long Term Vision Continues
Coaching is not a career for those who often find themselves in moments of weakness.
For Penn State men's basketball coach Patrick Chambers, those moments have been all but nonexistent during his tenure in Happy Valley. Chambers is an ever positive fixture within Penn State athletics despite having perhaps the hardest coaching job in the department.
Months ago, sitting at a table inside Rec Hall's media room, Chambers listened intently as a reporter asked how he planned to keep fans excited about his team. Those fans had just watched a 20-point lead evaporate and become an overtime loss not minutes earlier. A marquee event suddenly turned from a nationally televised victory into a bittersweet memory.
"I'm running out of tricks," Chambers said, fittingly behind his always present smile. He began tugging on his right coat sleeve after a brief pause. "I have nothing up my sleeve anymore."
And that was the moment.
A single 12 word statement that lasted only seconds as Chambers let his ongoing uphill battle show. The issue itself is a chicken-or-the-egg paradox requiring a winning product in order to gain support while needing support to create a winning product.
"It's definitely winning, and I have to continue to be out there in the community and continue to do what I'm doing," he said, snapping back onto his own party line. "I think if we can win some games, that they will come out."
The problems of winning at Penn State are well documented; recruiting regions populated by established programs; the perception of the program; playing in the nation's best conference; general indifference towards the program from both within athletics and outside. as large as these obstacles might be, they are also not impossible to overcome. The progress made toward succeeding at Penn State under Chambers is something that's also documented.
But what is Chambers' vision for the program? What is his uphill battle fighting to achieve? His mantra of "being the best team we can be by the end of the year" is hardly a bumper sticker mission statement -- no matter how true it is.
Each fan may have his or her own idea of what a successful Penn State basketball program might look like, but the only vision that really matters is the one that Chambers has.
"First I would say is that we need to win," Chambers said on Tuesday, stating a somewhat obligatory caveat for the rest of the conversation. "That’s number one. Number two is that there is a lot that has gone on here over the last three years as you know. So that doesn't help our cause either. I would also say that I feel that we utilize our budget in the proper way and we’re working 365 days a year and when we’re allowed to recruit we’re out there and we’re recruiting and we’re developing relationships and we’re doing everything we can."
That recruiting budget, reported by Penn State as $305,987 for 2012-13 is more than enough by the standards of the Big Ten and other programs across the nation. For the sake of an extreme example Kentucky basketball reportedly budgeted (or simply spent) $434,095 on recruiting in 2011 -- a figure not very far from Penn State's own recruiting expenses. However Penn State athletics reported a nearly $6 million loss for 2012-13 making further investments less than simple issues of money management. A series of twelve million dollar payments to the NCAA in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal is impacting athletics across the board.
Recruiting assets on the money side of things are hardly the issue contrary to what some may think. Even so, there is still a rather large gap between Penn State and Kentucky. While in reality the Nittany Lions and Wildcats are truly eons apart, Penn State is not simply being outspent by the nation's elite on the recruiting trail.
So what's the difference?
Like any sale -- which is all what recruiting really is -- what you have to sell is as important as how much money you have to advertise it. That's something Chambers understands.
"Now as a head coach and the leader of this program, do you always want more? Absolutely. Do I want a new practice facility, yeah, do I want a new arena, absolutely, or at least upgrade it, or change it, or make it look better, make it look sexier however you want to say it. Do I want a new weight room? Yes.
"There is a lot I would love to change. But I also understand that it takes time and I have to be patient and that there is a process. I know we’re in an impatient society and I’m the worst. I’m the most impatient guy there is. It’s very difficult. But I do live in reality and the reality means that we have to win some games in order to get these Top 100 players."
But even Chambers grasps the simplicity of the issue. You win and good things happen. It's the only near guarantee in sports. Donors and administrators can give you all the support in the world, but nobody shoots the free throws other than your players.
"I don’t want to point fingers at Penn State and they need to this and they need to do that. It’s a little bit of everything. We need to win some games, we need to get some better players recruiting wise, the Top 100 recruits everyone salivates over. And you’re not going to do that until you start winning some games and making some changes. But it starts with us before the financial situation."
Chambers will get some of those improvements this summer. The Bryce Jordan Center plans to close to make some minor changes to the interior of the building. While nothing can turn the cavernous arena into a basketball friendly venue, small tweaks may make a difference.
Just last year the entrance to the basketball side of the building had signs installed to signify that it was the basketball facility rather than simply a loading dock. Small and simple things, but important changes for Chambers' big picture.
"We are doing all the little things," Chambers said. "The signage is something that we did last year, the concourse is going to get a little bit of a makeover after the season. I wish it was before the season but it’s not. To try and dress it up to make it a little more like a basketball arena. What I would say is that there is a willingness and we have to find solutions and once we find the correct solutions and some of the finances I think it gets done.
"But you know, it takes time. It’s not a quick process like I walk in there and say “This needs to say Penn State basketball” and then it gets done in 30 days. That’s not what’s happening here. It takes 6-to-12 months before you can get all the signatures and funds and get everybody on the same page. Coquese (Washington) and I need to be on the same page, the BJC, and the administration.
"Everything matters to me. The signage on the building. The concession stand people wearing blue and white instead of official shirts. In-game atmosphere. Marketing. Trying to wear the grey uniforms more."
And the timeline? While some fans may question the effectiveness of his three year tenure, Chambers is looking long term. Decades of apathy toward the program are not undone in a week. Rome, as they say, was not built in a day. And so too is Chambers' vision for the program. What he is able to accomplish remains to be seen, but no one will accuse him of aiming too low.
"There are so many things that add up to what the vision wants to be by year five and six. It’s really really important to me because I want to run a championship, high level, elite program and that’s what I want and that’s what the vision is. And that’s not just on the court, that’s everything that surrounds it. It’s game day, prior to game, post game, leading up to the game. It’s preseason. Postseason. You name it.
"I’m trying to change the perception of what people think about us. We’ve won four games this year and each team has been like “it’s the worst loss in the history of their program.” That’s not their fault, I get why they’re saying it, but we also need to understand that we’re getting better, the playing field is getting closer. Each year we’re taking another step."
With the hiring of Eric Barron earlier this week, it's possible that the new Penn State president will bring in a new athletic director to take the place of current AD Dave Joyner. A fresh face won't automatically turn things around for Chambers, but a new perspective on the athletic program from outside the Penn State ecosystem could be the jump-start needed.
Chambers will frankly never see the day where the program is given the same amount of assets as the football program. But a new face on the front of the athletic department working with Barron could serve as a beacon of hope as Chambers' vision continues forward. Penn State basketball brought in a net income of just over $7 million in 2012-13 ($795,653 from ticket sales), the only non-football sport to break even. How much of that money Penn State is willing to put back into the program remains to be seen.
"Whatever we’re touching, whatever we’re apart of, needs to be first class. And that takes time," Chambers said, finishing his thought.
"That takes time."
Chambers won't get everything he wants, and the odds are stacked against him in his quest to establish the Nittany Lions as a truly elite basketball program. But right now Penn State's third year head coach just wants a new weight room.
And that seems like an obtainable goal.