DeChellis faces monumental task in trying to rebuild Penn State basketball program
UNIVERSITY PARK — Ex-Penn State basketball star Bob Weiss initially declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he’d lost touch with the Nittany Lions’ program.
Well, who hasn’t?
“They’re not really on the radar here,” said Penn State sophomore Bobby Mannino, who sat in the student section Wednesday and watched top-ranked Illinois humiliate his team. “We just don’t get the recruits in basketball.”
The Nittany Lions fell to 1-10 in the Big Ten that night, dropping their conference record to 9-50 since the beginning of the 2001-02 season.
Average margin of their conference losses this season: 16.9 points.
Second-year coach Ed DeChellis, a Monaca native and former Penn State assistant, can only hope this is rock bottom.
It has that feel. To wit:
This is not good.
It is not hopeless, either.
Squint hard enough and you’re liable to see flickers of light in the form of some talented young players, two promising recruits and the relentlessly optimistic DeChellis, a proven talent hound who stocked Bruce Parkhill’s five 20-win teams at Happy Valley.
And keep in mind that it can’t possibly be as bad as it was when Weiss arrived in 1962. At least, not in terms of popularity.
“They were giving out two basketball scholarships a year back then,” recalled Weiss, an assistant coach with the Seattle Supersonics. “I can remember they used to have doubleheaders, a basketball game with gymnastics or wrestling — and the gym was only full for the gymnastics or wrestling.”
The sharp-shooting Weiss spurred a quick turnaround. The team finished 20-4 his senior year and lost to Bill Bradley’s Princeton Tigers in the first round of the 1965 NCAA Tournament.
Weiss would have been surprised if someone had told him that the Nittany Lions would play in the tournament only three times in the next 40 years.
Former assistant coach Chuck Swenson described Penn State’s recruiting dilemma in colorful terms several years ago, when he told the Centre Daily Times, “I may like Cindy Crawford, but that doesn’t mean I can go out and date her tomorrow.”
If blue-chip prospects were supermodels, Penn State couldn’t fill a single calendar. Not even if it had its entire, 108-year basketball history from which to choose.
It has yet to produce a first-round NBA draft pick and has produced only seven picks overall, none since the Washington Wizards took forward Calvin Booth in the second round in 1999 (Booth is a back-up for the Dallas Mavericks).
That’s not to say the school utterly lacks a basketball tradition. In fact, its all-time winning percentage is 56.7, and nine of 10 coaches (Jerry Dunn excluded) left the program owning a winning record. As recently as 2001, it played in the Sweet 16.
Even so, the top players have always stayed away, even if they took a long look.
Syracuse point guard Gerry McNamara and former Notre Dame star Matt Carroll were among the in-state treasures who seriously considered Penn State. Ex-Purdue star Brian Cardinal, from Illinois, reneged on a verbal commitment.
Pete Lisicky followed through on his commitment. A 6-foot-4 shooting guard, he was arguably the school’s all-time top recruit. He turned down UCLA and Indiana, among others, in order to stay close to home (Whitehall) and play for Parkhill in 1995.
The lead recruiter was DeChellis, a bulldog who also lured Booth, Dan Earl, Jarrett Stephens and John Amaechi to Happy Valley.
“He went further than the other guys recruiting me,” recalled Lisicky, Penn State’s third all-time scorer, now playing professionally in Germany. “He knew everybody in my family by their first name and was always real honest with me.”
Several factors work against Penn State on the recruiting front: its rural setting; its high academic standards; its low national profile; its recent string of losing seasons; and the fact that East Coast high school players tend to think Big East and ACC before they think Big Ten.
“Not many kids want to be pioneers, want to be ‘The Guy’ to build a program,’ ” said assistant coach James Johnson. “They don’t see Penn State in the national spotlight yet.”
Attracting city kids — even for a campus visit — is a monumental challenge. The nearest major city is Philadelphia, which has five Division I programs of its own.
“A lot of good players come from the city, and when you visit Penn State in the winter, it’s kind of lonely looking,” Lisicky said.
Johnson pointed to the recruitment of talented sophomore guard Marlon Smith from New York City and said, “I don’t think (recruiting city kids) is an issue. They just have no clue as to what Penn State has to offer. Once they get here, they realize that we have a great product.
DeChellis has to be creative. If it takes bucking school tradition and signing junior college players, so be it. He already has one and is chasing a few more.
DeChellis mined Europe to find his top two recruits for 2005. He beat the likes of Utah and Tennessee for 6-10 forward Milos Bogetic, then topped UCLA and Utah, among others, for 6-9 Finnish forward Joonas Suotamo.
Those two, combined with talented freshman forward Geary Claxton and long-range bomber Mike Walker, provide hope. Junior forward Aaron Johnson is one of the Big Ten’s top rebounders.
“They have a good nucleus to build from,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who previously fashioned a winning program at Southern Illinois. “The toughest thing is for their staff to stay positive. It’s really hard to do that.”
DeChellis doesn’t know any other way.
“We’re just trying to find guys who fit academically, socially and basketball-wise,” said DeChellis, who rebuilt the East Tennessee State program before returning to State College. “When you haven’t been successful the past four years, it’s hard. I didn’t think this was going to be a quick fix. We have a lot of growing pains ahead.”
Fans no doubt figured the growing pains would have eased by now. Penn State did, after all, join the Big Ten 13 years ago.
Rise and fall
After Parkhill burned out, his assistant, Jerry Dunn, led the Nittany Lions to a 21-7 record (12-6 in the Big Ten) in 1995-96, the same season that the sparkling Bryce Jordan Center opened.
Many believed the building would boost Penn State to elite status. Instead, it has taken its place beside PNC Park and a slew of other facilities in providing proof that a building alone does not guarantee success.
Dunn’s eight-year reign featured several big wins but ended badly, with back-to-back 7-21 seasons and reports of problems between the coach and his players.
When Lisicky graduated in 1998, he expected the program to take off under Dunn. The Lions were fresh off a championship-game appearance in the NIT.
Dunn did not deliver the recruits, and some top players transferred.
“For whatever reasons, they didn’t bring in quality recruits on a consistent basis after I left,” Lisicky said. “Whether it was totally coach Dunn not closing deals, or his assistants not closing deals or not getting support from the athletic department, I don’t know.”
Lisicky played for three years under Dunn.
“I love Coach Dunn,” Lisicky said. “There were definitely some things he had to adjust to. Maybe he’d say he would have done some things differently.”
Dunn, an assistant coach at West Virginia, declined comment.
DeChellis doesn’t care to look back. Doesn’t have time, either. Even though he says the challenges have been “nothing I didn’t anticipate,” it’s hard to imagine this season could have been more calamitous. Sophomore guard Ben Luber took a leave of absence for personal reasons; 6-11 redshirt freshman center John Kelly transferred (as four players had done last year); and Smith, a promising point guard, was sidelined after 13 games because of a partial blockage on an artery in his brain. He is expected to play again.
Before the season, DeChellis underwent emergency bladder surgery.
“Sure, a lot’s going on,” he said. “But if you’re a competitor, you don’t quit. I never thought it was going to be easy.”
Ultimately, DeChellis hopes to incorporate his favored up-tempo style. He and his staff have a grand vision.
“The vision is to make Penn State into a national power,” Johnson said. “We’d like to be a Top-25 team, pack the Bryce Jordan Center and have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament every year. That’s our goal.”
Logic and history are blocking the path.
Penn State isn’t exactly a factory for NBA talent. The school’s all-time draft picks:
1981- Frank Brickowski(3)Knicks
Follow the leaders
Oddly, the Penn State men’s basketball program experienced one of its longer strings of success when it didn’t have a coach. From 1897-1915, the team had only three losing seasons and an overall record of 119-63. In 1918, again without a coach, it went 12-1. In the program’s other 88 years, coaches have tried, with varied results, to follow suit. Their records:
Burke Hermann1916-17; ’20-32148-74(66.7)
Good Seats Available
Penn State’s attendance for men’s basketball at Bryce Jordan Center (capacity: 15,261):
SeasonAvg. Attendance(Big Ten record)
*- before capacity was increased; all eight games sold out.