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Penn State Basketball: Ferry in Mix, but Challenges Ahead as Barbour Looks to Announce Hire ‘Immediately’ Following Season

Penn State Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour said on Tuesday that she intends to announce a hire for the men’s basketball head coaching position “immediately following the conclusion” of Penn State’s ongoing season.

According to Barbour, interim head coach Jim Ferry is among the candidates currently “auditioning” for the job but she had little more to say than glowing platitudes about Ferry’s performance so far.

“My evaluation of Coach Ferry… he has really been outstanding,” Barbour said. “You know he obviously took over and stepped into a difficult situation. The Big Ten is an absolute beast, and you add to add to that, COVID-19, [and a pause in play].

“We had a little bit of a losing streak there but you got to give the guys and you got to give Jim a lot of credit for keeping the faith and keeping the confidence. We’ve gotten two wins under our belt, and certainly look to see what we can continue to do.”

Penn State is currently 5-6 overall and 2-5 in Big Ten play having won two-straight games with the vast majority of its conference slate still yet to unfold. Penn State will face Top 15 teams in three-straight contests starting on Wednesday night against No. 13 Ohio State in Columbus.

As has been well documented already, Ferry stepped into the interim role just weeks prior to the start of the 2020 season following the departure/resignation of now former head coach Patrick Chambers. Chambers left the program following an internal investigation that began with an accusation by a former player that Chambers had inappropriately used the phrase “noose around your neck.” 

That particular allegation was not disputed by Chambers, although former and current Penn State players have vocally defended him following the initial allegation and again following his departure from the program.

In public Barbour has not been forthcoming regarding the specifics of other details that led to Chambers’ forced exit — although this is fairly standard operating procedure given the nature of personnel investigations. However, that lack of transparency seems universal, according to multiple players who publicly expressed their frustration about the lack of understanding, during the teams’ media day.

Asked on Tuesday if she had any misgivings about the flow of information and the apparent frustrations of student-athletes, Barbour mostly dodged the question, offering up no substantial response and essentially answering a different question altogether.

“Look, I understand the question,” Barbour said. “And I understand the interest in the answer to that question and I respect you asking it. But certainly, you know I made a statement in October. I know it fell short of what you all wanted. If there’s any group that I would like to provide information to, it would be our students. But we’ve made all the comments that we’re going to make and we’re focusing on the season.”

It’s unclear if she had made more significant advances in mending bridges with players within the program. Her presence at games this season has not been met with as much warmth as in the past, albeit COVID-19 contact restrictions play some role in this. Additionally, at least two program sources indicate that players have received little to no more insight now than they had previously, although those frustrations have dwindled significantly as the season rolls along.

This frustration both publicly held among Penn State players and privately among staff members poses an additional hurdle. According to multiple program sources, it’s unclear how much of the current longtime staff — all of whom have been fierce Chambers’ loyalists — would choose to remain at Penn State even if Ferry were retained, a move that would likely take place in part to attempt to maintain some continuity.

Additionally, there is a growing feeling that Penn State will likely see a significant number of transfers from its current roster, especially as the NCAA long ago ruled that players who transfer will be immediately eligible at their next stop, a temporary waiver that is likely to become permanent eventually in 2021.

The Nittany Lions also currently have no 2021 commitments following decommitments from three players and their only 2022 commitment had a previous relationship with Chambers, making his decommitment seemingly an assumed next step. A challenge that a new head coach would face from Day 1, not all that dissimilar to that which Chambers faced following the departure of Ed DeChellis and his largely veteran NCAA Tournament squad.

As for Ferry — who had been a head coach for 19 years prior to joining Penn State’s staff as an assistant in 2017 — speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, he continued to maintain his interest in keeping the position on a permanent basis but was not interested in publicly campaigning for it.

“I was a head coach, you know, for 19 years and I always said to myself, gee, I would love to get a sabbatical and just kind of keep learning, see what other people are doing.” Ferry said of his thoughts when originally hired at Penn State, in part to jumpstart the Nittany Lions on the offensive end of the floor.

“When Pat gave me the opportunity, it was an unbelievable opportunity for me, because I was coming into the best conference in the country and working with someone who was going to really give me a lot of input and a big role. And then I really used this time to get better, I became a better coach over my three years here as an assistant … I always said I always wanted to be a head coach again, it was always a goal of mine to be a head coach, but I also wanted to use this time to get better. And I think I’ve done that.”

Penn State may also feel compelled, or genuinely interested in a minority hire for a department that is largely without a substantial presence of non-white coaches beyond that of James Franklin. Such a move would help much in the way of continuing inroads in Philadelphia or New York, but who might fit such a mold, be it an up-and-coming coach of color or someone with a long history of success and academics like Yale head man James Jones is uncertain.

The final and perhaps biggest unknown at this time is the extent of which Barbour and Penn State President Eric Barron are willing to open their pocketbooks in the face of ongoing COVID-19 related financial issues. Barron is nearing his own retirement while Barbour’s current contract is good through 2022-23 and it is unclear if she or Penn State plan to seek a renewal of that contract.

Financially any hire would be the third big expense of the year, as Barbour noted on Tuesday, former Nittany Lion football offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who was let go earlier in January, was on a multi-year deal for which Penn State is obligated to pay a buyout. The amount is to be determined relative to where Ciarrocca ends up next and when.

Additionally the hiring of new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich comes with its own price tag of well over $1 million, if his previous salaries are a guide. All of these costs mounting in the face of the athletic department missing out on more than $70 million in revenues due to COVID-19 and the loss of ticket sales among other fan related revenue streams..

The result leaves Penn State in a familiar but uncertain place. The best bet for roster retention may very well be the kind of splash hire that compels otherwise disillusioned Nittany Lions to stay. Equally true, the capital may not be there for such a hire, especially as the athletic department continues to invest in its own sustainability.

All told the future does not seem particularly bright for a program 12 months removed from a Top 10 ranking and a roster stocked full with fairly young talent. That’s not to say the Nittany Lions are doomed for a cold reset come 2021-22, but each option moving forward will come with a cost in more ways than one.

And while Barbour may not be compelled, or legally able to express much more than a surface level summation of the reasoning behind Chambers’ departure, it will do her few favors if that decision and the secrecy behind it is the death blow to nearly a decade’s worth of up and down progress.