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How men's basketball coach Pat Chambers has built a foundation for success at Penn State

Centre Daily Times logoCentre Daily Times 1/5/2020 By Jon Sauber, Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.)

The door to Pat Chambers’ office creaks open.

A quick “Hey coach” travels into the room before a face even appears. Jamari Wheeler, a sophomore guard on the Penn State men’s basketball team, peeks into the office and says hello to the rest of the room, walking in and introducing himself to the party he doesn’t recognize before he gives a quick status update.

He’s heading to the gym but wanted to check in first. Chambers shares some words of wisdom before Wheeler walks out of the room and toward his workout.

Not long before Wheeler’s visit, Trent Buttrick a junior forward, makes his presence known with a brief talk. Earlier, freshman forward Seth Lundy stops by Chambers’ golf cart on Penn State’s campus for a quick conversation about class and his academic work. Each conversation is slightly different with its own feel and unique tone to accommodate each player’s needs.

“You can’t treat 1-15 the same,” Chambers says about communicating with his players. “I don’t think it’s fair to the kid ... What you can do is give them the attention that they need. I’m not going to treat Mike Watkins the same way I treat John Harrar ... I’m not going to treat Jamari Wheeler the same way I treat Lamar Stevens. They grew up differently ... I think it’s important for us to be educated as much as we can (about our players) and to learn as much as we can.”

Chambers, in his ninth season as the head coach of the Penn State men’s basketball team, has yet to find high-level success on the court but he’s on his way there. He’s led the Nittany Lions to a 12-2 record so far this season and their first ranking in the AP Top 25 Poll since 1996. Off the court, he’s impacting his players in a major way and for him that matters above all else. He hears what people say about him. He knows plenty of people criticize him, but it doesn’t faze him. Chambers knows what he’s accomplished, even if he hasn’t met external expectations on the court, and he believes in the relationships he’s built.

Those relationships are the building blocks of the program Chambers has built at Penn State, and have provided a foundation for success. Now that they’re in place, Chambers is looking to get the program to the levels that he, the university, the players, and the fans are yearning for.

“We’re the most competitive we’ve ever been,” Chambers said. “We’re recruiting better than we ever have. There’s a lot of things (we’ve done) that are the first time, or (mark) a lot of success, and it’s unfortunate that we’re judged on making the NCAA Tournament when we’re in the best league in the country. Our guys like being here. They like being coached by us.”

Chambers is right in what he’s said about the Penn State program and the depths he’s had to drag it out of. It’s historically one of the worst Big Ten basketball programs, boasting the third-worst winning percentage among the conference’s current programs at 47.9%. But Athletic Director Sandy Barbour has repeatedly expressed her support for Chambers, as recently as ahead of the Dec. 28 Cotton Bowl, when she told reporters the university is committed to breaking ground on renovations for the basketball practice facility this spring.

The university has invested more in Chambers and the men’s basketball program than it did in previous coaches. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the last year before Chambers arrived, the university filed $4.85 million in expenses for the program. In the most recently reported fiscal year, 2017-2018, the university filed $7.18 million in expenses for the men’s basketball program.

Chambers, who was announced as the head coach in June 2011, is one of the main reasons that money has been invested to help the program and it’s proof to him that the Penn State community wants to see him succeed.

“I still feel great support because if people didn’t believe in me they wouldn’t invest their money (in the program),” he said.

His enthusiasm for Penn State men’s basketball, the sport and life, comes from deep in Chambers’ past.

Proving people wrong from the start

The Penn State head coach grew up as the youngest of 12 children to his mother and father and was raised in a highly competitive home in Newtown Square, Pa. He and his brother Paul, who is closest to him in age among the siblings, often took the court at home to see who could get the best of the other. There Pat honed his basketball talents and became a pest to his sibling.

“He would frustrate me because he would play really good defense and I’d get frustrated,” Paul said. “He wouldn’t back down ... I hated playing against him, I’m not gonna lie to you.”

The defense would occasionally get so aggressive that the game would turn into a fight, a common outcome when two brothers as close and competitive as Pat and Paul face off in a competitive environment. Paul said those fights would happen so often that their mother would just let them go until they realized how petty they were acting.

“Sometimes we walked away,” Paul said, “sometimes we threw the ball at each other, and sometimes we got into a pushing match and started wrestling each other on the grass. It would get to the point where our mom would say to beat the hell out of each other. Then we’d kind of look at each other like, ‘This is pretty stupid.’”

Pat and Paul played on the same floor as teammates as well, teaming up in high school and in other leagues. It was then that Paul realized his brother’s defining characteristics as a basketball player. He could defend, he was tough, and he never gave up.

Pat would eventually move out and head to college in search of more basketball. His first stop led him to Drexel, where he tried out for the men’s basketball team. While Pat didn’t make the team, Paul said his brother still yearned for the court in college. He made the decision to walk-on at Philadelphia University. Without a scholarship in hand, Pat continued working to see the floor. His choice paid off and he eventually became the team’s starting point guard and the school’s all-time leader in assists.

His experience at the school showed his true character and attitude.

“He wasn’t playing at all and then he got a chance to start,” Paul said about Pat’s time at Philadelphia University. “Then he became the all-time assist leader there. He’s always proven people wrong and always been an overachiever.”

A new outlook on life

The youngest Chambers decided to take on coaching after his playing career was over, accepting an assistant position at Delaware Valley College. He stayed there for a year before leaving to help out at his family’s business. But he hadn’t fully scratched the basketball itch and returned to the bench as a high school assistant at Episcopal Academy in 1999, where he stayed until 2004. It was in his time at Episcopal that Pat would have a life-changing experience that would impact his outlook on life and ultimately inspire him to chase his dreams.

Pat nearly died in 2002 after he was stabbed twice in the neck with a broken wine glass during an innocuous night out on the town. That moment changed his life forever.

“When I got stabbed I did feel like I had a second chance at life,” he said. “I was already upbeat and positive. That was just another (moment) like, ‘You know what, I’ve got a second chance here, how do we want to live it? How do we want to do it?’ And this is how I choose. I’d rather choose positive than negative. I’d rather work hard.”

With a new lease on life and a deep desire to coach basketball, Pat ignited his career.

In 2004, two years after the incident, he accepted a job as the director of Basketball Operations at Villanova under Jay Wright. He served in that job for a year before he became an assistant coach in the program.

Wright, who is still at Villanova and has won two national titles, helped Pat grow as a coach in his stay with the Wildcats. Pat’s time at Villanova culminated in a promotion to associate head coach, the highest assistant position, in 2008.

He stayed on Wright’s staff for five seasons, recruiting four McDonald’s All-Americans to Villanova in that time. His tenure with the Wildcats ended with a Final Four appearance in 2009 in his lone season as associate head coach. He used that performance as a launching point to his first head coaching job.

Pat took the head coach position at Boston University on April 6, 2009. The decision to leave the Wildcats was a difficult one for him, but Wright encouraged his assistant to do what was best for him and his career.

“I didn’t really want to leave,” Pat said. “(But) Jay Wright coached in that league. When they called, of course I called him, and he said I (should) interview ... Then they offered me the job and I was like, ‘Should I take it or should I not take it?’ The way Jay talked about the league and talked about (Boston), he was right (about taking the job).”

With one of his mentor’s blessing and a firm belief in himself, Pat got to work with the Boston Terriers. He led the team to back-to-back 21-14 seasons and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011. The 2010-2011 season ended in the Round of 64 in the tournament, but it was enough to catch the eye of a major Division I university.

Landing his ‘dream job’ at Penn State

Penn State faced a sudden change at the helm of its men’s basketball program in May 2011. Then-head coach Ed DeChellis suddenly left the program on May 23 after leading the Nittany Lions to their first NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years to take the head coach position at Navy.

With an opening late in the coaching carousel, the Nittany Lions turned north to Pat. For the then-Boston head coach, it wasn’t a difficult decision. He jumped at the chance to take his dream job.

“Jay Wright and I were up here and he was going to meet Joe Paterno,” Pat said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Would you ever want this job?’ and I literally said this would be my dream job. I grew up on blue and white on the static TV. You see the black shoes and the no names. I was going to Rec Hall with my sister and I was at one of the earliest Big Ten games here in the Bryce Jordan Center. I remember all of that stuff.”

Pat took the job with the intention of getting the program where it needed to be very quickly. Instead, he found it was a much tougher job than the one he prepared for, according to his brother.

“We thought he’d be able to turn it around pretty quickly,” Paul said. “I think he thought he could turn it around pretty quickly. Then you start to realize how tough the Big Ten is and how difficult it is to win on the road ... and you’re like ‘wow, this is going to be tougher than we thought.’”

The Nittany Lions couldn’t gain traction in Pat’s first six years on the court, compiling a 87-109 record from 2011-2017 and only 29 wins in 108 Big Ten games. The on-court success had yet to come, but the tide began to turn in the fall of 2015, thanks to Pat’s recruiting prowess.

‘I just believe in Coach Chambers’

When Lamar Stevens’ recruitment first began, Penn State was an afterthought. The forward was a four-star recruit and rated as a top 100 player in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and played for the prestigious Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia. He had offers from some of the best schools in the country, including one from Villanova and Jay Wright.

Kim Stevens, Lamar’s mother, said the Nittany Lions weren’t really on his radar when the recruitment began.

“It wasn’t a school we thought he would attend, in all honesty,” Kim said. “As time progressed ... we realized it was definitely an option and a big opportunity for him.”

Lou Stevens, Lamar’s father, agreed with his wife.

“Initially (Lamar) didn’t rule them out,” Lou said, “but it wasn’t like ‘OK, that’s my dream school, I wanna go there.’”

The offer from a local program was nice, but conventional wisdom said Penn State wasn’t going to factor into the recruitment of a player as good as Lamar. He began visiting schools and narrowing his list, but Penn State remained a constant, lingering with the Stevens family and Lamar specifically.

“Lamar would always say Penn State really was leading,” Kim said. “During the entire recruitment process one of the things they were was consistent. They were supportive in everything that he did.”

Eventually that lingering turned into a spot in Lamar’s final group of programs alongside prestigious basketball schools like Indiana and Villanova, among others. Still, Lou anticipated heartbreak for Pat in the end.

“One of the things I told Lamar when all of the schools were recruiting him,” Lou said, “and I didn’t think he was coming to Penn State, I said, ‘Pat Chambers is going to be the toughest call you’re going to make to say you’re not going there.’ I liked him. We’ve always liked him ... I think he was probably number one of all the coaches we talked to.”

Pat helped create a sense of comfort for Kim, too, who wanted to make sure her son was in good hands.

“I felt like, just leaving my baby with someone,” Kim said, “I felt comfortable and confident leaving him in his hands.”

In the end, that relationship won out with Lamar and he made the decision to believe in Pat and what he was building at University Park. He announced his commitment to Penn State on Sept. 18, 2015.

“I came here because I just believe in Coach Chambers,” Lamar said. “I believe in Penn State and I didn’t want to represent another school. I felt comfortable here and I felt a family environment. I saw the vision he saw and I wanted to help him help this team and this school get to that level.”

Kim said Pat went above and beyond what most college coaches did, and that made it easy for her to go all in on her son’s decision.

“They built a relationship with not only my husband and Lamar but also with me,” Kim said. “Sometimes, with some of the coaches, they always talked to my husband and my son but there was never a conversation with me. It was nice that they made the time to get to know all of us. They really, really worked hard to get to know all of us and build that relationship.”

Lamar was joined in the class by two high school teammates, Tony Carr and Nazeer Bostick, and another forward, Joe Hampton, to form the No. 26 recruiting class in the country and the No. 4 class in the Big Ten.

Even with their addition, winning didn’t come immediately.

The ‘Hot Seat’

The 2016 recruiting class got off to a rocky start at Penn State. Hampton left the program in September 2016 and the Roman Catholic trio didn’t win much in their first year on campus. The team went 15-18 that season and missed out on a significant postseason appearance for the sixth straight year under Pat and Bostick left the team.

Then, things started to click.

The team began to buy in and it showed on the court. The NIttany Lions went 21-13 through the Big Ten Tournament and had a legitimate chance to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Instead, they were left out, with only a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.

Still, the group, with a firm belief in its head coach, stayed the course and won the NIT that season, capping off the year with a 26-13 record. Carr left for the NBA Draft after the season and Bostick left the team, but Pat still had Lamar and a talented group heading into 2018-2019.

Until it all unraveled again.

A 7-6 record before January killed any expectations going into the 2018-2019 season. Then, even worse, an 0-8 January put Pat on the chopping block.

But something changed for his team in January. He and the Nittany Lions bounced back to close the regular season with a 7-3 record in their last 10 games.

Pat said that turnaround was all about the team’s belief in each other and what he has built.

“Have you ever seen a coach go 7-3 in February and get a bye (in the Big Ten Tournament) the way we did it?” he said. “That’s culture. That’s leadership. That’s connectivity. That’s love. That’s care.”

The stretch saved Pat’s job, but the pressure is now on in year nine. The program has yet to make an NCAA Tournament under his leadership, and this is his most talented team yet. Still, Pat knew before the season what was on the path ahead. It just didn’t bother him all that much.

“Earlier in my career (external job stability questions) bothered me,” he said. “But over the last few years I think I’ve grown. I’ve matured. I’m (over) eight years in the Big Ten.”

His faith in his culture and his players has led to a resurgence this season. Still, he hasn’t changed how he views what he’s doing.

“My focus has to be on the team and the players,” Pat said. “I can’t focus on what the people on the outside say or think about me ... I’m going to enjoy this group. I love this team, they love each other. They’re so connected. The culture is fantastic and they know we care about one another. I think that’s the most important thing.”

While growth off the court is important to Pat, growth on it is important in the business of college basketball. He needs to win.

He knows that.

The fans know that.

The administration knows that.

There was no better moment this season for Pat and the Nittany Lions to prove they can win than an early conference game against a top-five team in the country. So that’s what they did Dec. 10 against Maryland, the then-No. 4 team in the country. And the fans embraced Pat’s team like they hadn’t since his hiring.

Students scrambled over the Bryce Jordan Center seats as reality set in. Time slowed down on the court as the horde of young adults eagerly awaited. The final buzzer sounded and they descended.

They filled the arena’s court from baseline to baseline, pumping their fists and unleashing celebratory yells. The players, including Stevens, mounted the scorers table with flailing arms to pump up their audience. An audience that, just minutes earlier, watched the team close out the 76-69 win.

Pat shook hands with the Maryland players and coaches before he turned and looked at the crowd. A crowd filled with his admirers and his detractors. Those who adore him and those who want him fired.

On this night, they were united by his handiwork.

———

©2020 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.)

Visit the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) at www.centredaily.com

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