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Monday, May 23, 2011
The ball is in Penn State's court

By Dana O'Neil



Bizarre, confusing, stunning. Those were just some of the words on the Twitter universe after news broke that Penn State’s Ed DeChellis was leaving a Big Ten job for a middle-of-the-pack Patriot League job at a service academy.

Here’s another good adjective to add to the mix: indicting.

DeChellis’ decision to bolt State College for Navy, more than a few rungs lower on the coaching ladder of success, speaks volumes to the state of Penn State basketball. And the state of Dear Old State isn’t a good one, at least not on the hardwood. Penn State just made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years. This should be a time to capitalize and build.

Instead, the coach is leaving town.

Plenty will argue -- and not entirely inaccurately -- that DeChellis is merely getting ahead of the posse. He was in the second year of a three-year extension, parked on a seat that improved to only lukewarm thanks to a run to the Big Ten tourney title game and an NCAA berth. But multiple sources have said DeChellis would have been fired if the Nittany Lions hadn't made the NCAA tournament. So who's to say he wouldn't have been canned had the Nittany Lions struggled mightily -- as expected -- this upcoming season?

So, reportedly unable to get the assurances from the university administration that he was hoping for this season, DeChellis bolted. Bolted for a job that will result in a pay cut.

If there is an equivalent spin on the coaching carousel, I haven’t thought of it. Why? Because it doesn’t happen. Coaches don’t voluntarily leave major conference jobs for low-major spots.

That DeChellis, a Penn State graduate, defied convention screams loud and clear as to just how bad things are at Penn State.

For years the basketball team has been a little sister of the poor stepchild to football, a winter afterthought given all the tending and care of a vegetable garden positioned in the middle of a nuclear field. Administrative support waffles between tepid applause and casual indifference.

DeChellis
Ed DeChellis is leaving Penn State after eight seasons and just one NCAA tournament berth.
The dirty little truth is, whether the team is good or bad, the university profits thanks to the hefty paycheck doled out by the Big Ten Network. And so the university pays little attention to and cares less about the program.

According to USA Today, DeChellis made about $709,000 last season, by far the least among his Big Ten coaching brethren. This offseason, Matt Painter toyed with leaving Purdue for Missouri and almost everyone agreed Painter was woefully underpaid. Now, DeChellis is no Painter, but Painter made $1.29 million, a cool half-million more than his counterpart in Happy Valley.

The money, though, is merely the hard-number proof of the university’s disinterest. There is plenty more anecdotal evidence.

Until DeChellis was hired, the Bryce Jordan Center sported little in the way of artwork or signage to signal it was the home of Penn State basketball, and only last season were the basketball staffs given significant office space.

Worse, this season the team was forced to move out of the Bryce Jordan Center and practice in the nearby intramural building, in a gym outfitted for volleyball and only retrofitted for basketball. This as the Nittany Lions were jockeying for position for an at-large bid. The reason? Bon Jovi needed the space for rehearsal, and the university was hosting a career fair.

With DeChellis’ departure, the program stands at a critical crossroads. In two years, Penn State will bring Division I ice hockey to campus, giving the team a brand-new palace to play in, courtesy of an $88 million alumni donation. Thanks to the splashy coaching hire of Cael Sanderson, the wrestling team is officially on the national map, having just won a national championship.

That gives Penn State two viable winter sports commodities and more, two viable options for a fervent fan base of both students and alumni to donate its time to.

So what, then, of men's basketball?

If Penn State wants to change both the culture and the image of its basketball program, it has to show it cares. And it can do that by making the right hire.

By all accounts, DeChellis was a decent coach and a good man, but he also followed the pattern of recent PSU basketball hires (Bruce Parkhill to Jerry Dunn to DeChellis) -- decent coaches, good men, not a lot of pizzazz.

This job needs a man with oomph, someone who will literally jump on the cafeteria tables and pound on the dorm room doors to make students care. Someone who will win a living room and make a dent in the recruiting arms race.

That might mean taking a risk. A seasoned, high-profile coach isn’t coming to State College. Especially not in late May. But a top-flight assistant or a young head coach will, and that -- not some other staid and safe elder statesman -- is what Penn State needs.

When DeChellis tendered his resignation, he also handed down an indictment on his alma mater.

Now it’s up to Penn State to prove it's not guilty in the demise of its program.