There Is No White Knight Coming to Save Penn State Men's Basketball

By Dan Smith on January 30, 2019 at 8:32 am
A fan sits alone in the stands during the first half of the game between the George Mason Patriots and the Penn State Nittany Lions at Bryce Jordan Center. George Mason defeated Penn State 85-66
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State lost to Rutgers at home Saturday, falling to 7-13 overall and 0-9 in the Big Ten. What was already a lost season now appears to be the end of an era. Head coach Patrick Chambers had hoped to ride the momentum of an NIT title to more consistent postseason appearances. Instead, it would be a surprise to see him return for his ninth season.

Chambers was a polarizing figure to a segment of Penn State basketball fans who congregate online. Like head football coach James Franklin, his public declarations on the importance of recruiting rubbed some the wrong way immediately. But unlike Franklin, wins have not followed. There were many reasons out of his control that made things difficult, and Chambers consequently received his fair share of chances to get the job done. Unfortunately, his small successes along the way never amounted to enough to get Penn State back into the NCAA Tournament.

This is not, however, about Patrick Chambers. Whatever decision athletic director Sandy Barbour makes heading into the 2019 offseason will offer more opportunities for a rearview look at his Penn State tenure. Rather, this is about what happens next.

Operating under the assumption that this season is the last one for Chambers, the Penn State program will see roster turnover to go in hand with the coaching turnover. Current players and committed recruits will look elsewhere, and the cupboard could end up as bare as it was when Chambers succeeded Ed DeChellis in the summer of 2011. Losing is a hard habit to break, even at the best programs. It is hardly news that Penn State is nowhere near the best college basketball has to offer.

Despite knowing the history of Penn State men's basketball, rumors have begun swirling on message boards and in comment sections that Barbour will try to make a splash in hiring Chambers' successor. The theory goes that Barbour will use the department's increased resources to try to put her stamp on the historically outmatched basketball program. 

Penn State has an athletic department nearly as big as any in the country, with 31 varsity sports to support. It is largely funded by the football program, which is obviously the main focus with both fundraising as well as spending. And that football program competes in a conference with two programs that outspend it every single year in Ohio State and Michigan.

The Nittany Lions are catching up in the arms race, thanks to the efforts of James Franklin and a new generation of players for fans to rally around. But they still trail when it comes to facilities, specifically Beaver Stadium, and assistant coaching salaries. The aforementioned fans commenting on articles on Facebook and posting on message boards surely noticed the return of offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and special teams coordinator Phil Galiano for the 2019 season.

Barbour certainly has ambition as athletic director, as she outlined with the department's Facilities Master Plan, unveiled in March 2017. However, that plan was left intentionally vague, specifically when it comes to a timeline. The top items are some indoor practice facilities for many of the outdoor sports as well as tennis, a new natatorium, and the crown jewel: a massive renovation for Beaver Stadium.

Even with vague ideas and nothing in the way of set dates for even the most urgent projects, basketball was barely a footnote in that plan. The atrocious Bryce Jordan Center, one of college basketball's worst facilities, will remain. The plans simply call for unspecified renovations at an unspecified date.

The renovations to Beaver Stadium will come before any renovations to the Bryce Jordan Center, and the costs will be unprecedented. The department was also quick to note that the "five year" timeline of the plan would not actually kick in for more than two years, and that Beaver Stadium's renovations would likely not be in that five year window. An athletic department struggling to keep up with the top of the Big Ten in the costs of its coaches is now trying to fund its most ambitious project to date, and seems to believe it will take until at least 2024 to secure the funding to get started.

With all of that in mind, the idea of turning around and ponying up for a big name to lead the men's basketball program seems to be nothing more than a pipe dream, borne out of desperation. Penn State cannot afford to replace the arena, and renovating it is likely closer to 20 years away than 10 years away. They also cannot afford to spend more on a coaching staff. It was hard enough just to get renovations to the film room and training facilities.

Even if Penn State could find an extra million or two for coaching salaries, that is not going to be enough to make a difference in the way fans are hoping. You would need to overpay to get a coach with a track record to put it on the line in State College. A disinterested alumni group, no natural recruiting base, decades of losing, and an embarrassment of a home arena will put you in that position. And the best bet for Penn State is to hire another young, cheap coach and let the Big Ten Network money continue flowing.

Simply put, Penn State men's basketball is a bad investment for the athletic department. Consequently, it is not years away from relevance. It is decades away. Barring a Terry Pegula-esque billionaire alumnus out there still angry about Jon Diebler hitting ten three pointers at the BJC in 2011, this program will stay right where it is unless a serious commitment to investing in the program is made by the athletic department. Until then, all we can hope for is an occasional season like 2001 or 2011 to make the rest of it feel like it was not a waste of time.

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