Friday, September 2, 2011
Chambers already fan favorite at Penn State
By Dana O'Neil
Shuffling through the East Hall dormitory area -- lugging bags, comforters and all the other necessities to make a college room a home -- the scores of parents settling their college newbies in at Penn State couldn't help but notice the guy standing in the middle of the chaos.
He had free T-shirts.
Better yet, on a sweltering August day, he had free bottles of water.
Pat Chambers, Penn State's new men's basketball coach, hopes to make the team relevant again.
"I think I ran out in about 30 minutes," basketball coach Pat Chambers said. "I was swarmed."
Whether Chambers finally can breathe life into the flat line that is Penn State basketball remains to be seen. But the new coach sure knows how to ingratiate himself.
Since he was hired after Ed DeChellis' surprising departure to Navy, Chambers has split his time recruiting players and recruiting fans. How the former pans out remains to be seen, but few doubt he's been a raging success at the latter.
From stumping at alumni events to rolling around campus in a golf cart handing out more free T-shirts to strategically positioning himself during freshman move-in day, Chambers has been equal parts relentless and tireless in his effort to sell Penn State basketball.
"When you walk away from him, you're excited about what's next for this program," athletic director Tim Curley said. "And it's very important to set that tone. It's about the overall presentation of the program and letting people know what our expectations are."
Considered by some a sleeping giant, the Nittany Lions have the potential to be a hoops wonder of the world. Penn State has been blessed with a rabid fan base, high-end facilities, deep pockets lined by football money and a legit conference. Still, success has been rare. When the Lions earned an NCAA tournament berth in 2011, it marked just the fourth time in 20 years that has happened.
If Penn State were a brand on a supermarket shelf, it would be stocked in the generic section.
Why? The one thing missing in that checklist: a firm recruiting base from which to draw players. Penn State competes in one of the top conferences in the country yet has never been able to find a niche from which to cull top talent.
As much as his effervescent personality proved attractive to a program in need of an energy injection, it is Chambers' recruiting connections that landed him the job.
He's from Philadelphia and has credibility there. He recruited into Baltimore and D.C. while an assistant at Villanova, so he has credibility there, and in his first head-coaching gig, at Boston University, he established credibility in the Northeast.
Already, Penn State is reaping some benefits from Chambers' connections. Guard D.J. Newbill, a Philly native, has transferred from Southern Miss. A onetime Class AA player of the year, Newbill averaged 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman.
"That's a big pickup for us," Chambers said. "Philadelphia is important to us. But I will say this -- they're all important to us. We have to get the best talent we can get."
That, of course, is the hard-to-build bridge between Chambers' expert sales pitch and actual fan hysteria. Happy Valley, long dormant after football season shuts down, is something like Kevin Costner's Iowa cornfields: If you build it, they (the fans, students, alumni) will come.
The catch is, you've got to build it. The real trick for Chambers as he builds up all this goodwill is that this season's Nittany Lions will be a rather ramshackle building.
Penn State lost four of its top five scorers from that NCAA tournament team. There's little left over from the DeChellis regime save an unforgiving Big Ten schedule plus a lovely nonconference date with Kentucky.
Chambers might be a salesman, but he's no huckster. He is not promising anything the Lions can't deliver this season.
"We aren't setting lofty goals here, "Chambers said. "We just want to be the best we can be by the end of the year. Seeing the progress is what it's all about."
And he hopes that signs of that progress will be enough to build the fervor that can generate the buzz that can build a brand.