(Many of us at BSD are extremely excited for Return To Rec this Saturday. However, most of us, if not all, will be experiencing Penn State basketball for the first time in our adulthood at the old barn. We reached out to some of this program's biggest fanatics who were gracious enough to offer their experiences and what Return To Rec will mean to them personally.
Today's column comes from someone many of you know, Ryan Jones. Ryan is the current editor of the Penn Stater Magazine and the former editor of SLAM Magazine. He was a student from 1991-1995, or what could be considered the Glory Years of Rec Hall and Penn State hoops. We'd like to thank Ryan for offering his time and efforts in contributing this column for us! - EG)
No one wanted this to happen more than I did.
I’ve been lobbying for years for Penn State basketball to Return to Rec, but for me, the hoped-for return was a permanent one. My perspective is biased on this one, colored by a couple of seasons 20 years ago when my fellow students and I were spoiled by the most exciting few years in Nittany Lion hoops history.
I was a sophomore in 1992-93 when Penn State opened Big Ten play, and along with about a half dozen friends from the second floor of Snyder Hall, I camped out for student tickets for what was the best and most exciting conference in the nation. We ended up with front row seats, right on the corner opposite the visitor’s bench, and kept them for two seasons. Of all the ways I could rub it in for current students, none is crueller than pointing out that the front row of the student section at Rec Hall was on the floor — I mean that literally, and also in the basketball sense of being practically on the court. Like, about 18 inches away from being in bounds.
It was awesome.
There’s sadly not much on YouTube from those days, but if you haven’t seen this classic clip of some poor guy getting tossed for crossing some unspoken line with a ref at a game against Iowa, watch it now. I am not that guy, but I remember more than once being told by a student auxiliary cop to back up — or else. I remember that Iowa game, and the ejection; around the :44 mark of the video, he walks right past me (you can see my arm, I think) and my friends.
Before I get too caught up in the nostalgia, I should make clear that the physical structure of Rec Hall did not in and of itself make for one of the best sporting atmospheres I’ve ever had the joy of participating in. The place was undeniably a dump: Old, cramped, with horribly uncomfortable wooden bleachers, no climate control, not enough bathrooms, tiny locker rooms, and jerry-rigged press seating on the running track. It wasn’t particularly pretty, either, particularly with the drop ceiling (since removed) that made the place a sauna on warmer days and looked awful to boot.
But it was our dump. There was some charm inherent in the place, mostly in the way we students were seated — er, stood, I should say — close enough to the court that refs occasionally had to clear space for players to inbound the ball. That charm was most apparent for "big" games, and in ‘92-93 and ‘93-94, nearly every conference matchup qualified. Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois all brought ranked teams and big names into the building, but even then, a few stood out: Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, national POY for Purdue in ‘94. The rock-star aura of the Fab Five, whose 80-70 victory in ‘93 remains the most lopsided 10-point win I’ve ever seen. And Indiana, with its No. 1 ranking, national player of the year Calbert Cheaney, and Bobby Knight in his terrifying prime, coming through in ‘93 for the most memorable game in school history.
Point being, more than a little of Rec Hall’s buzz in those days came from the talent and fame of the players and coaches on the visitor’s bench. It hadn’t been all that long since the old gym was not-so-affectionately dubbed "Dead Hall," the home court of an often mediocre, occasionally bad program on a campus where the basketball team’s success simply wasn’t a priority.
A decade earlier, Bruce Parkhill arrived to build the foundation that gave Penn State hoops a chance of turning things around. By the time the Lions began Big Ten play, that foundation was in place — even if it wasn’t obvious right away. When I spoke to Parkhill last year for the oral history of the ‘93 Indiana game, he was adamant about crediting the teams that immediately preceded the conference switch. Starting in ’88-89, Parkhill’s squads went 20-12, 25-9, 21-11, and 21-8, a run highlighted by the ‘90-91 team’s Atlantic 10 title and upset of UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The success of those teams, Parkhill insisted, set the tone for the raucous madhouse Rec Hall became in those early Big Ten years.
The formula for creating that madhouse wasn’t complicated: We were close, and we were loud. There was none of the coordinated harassment of the Cameron Crazies, and this was long before kids brought giant heads of celebrities and cartoon characters to wave behind the basket. We were just too close, and too obnoxious, to ignore.
Just ask the guys we were yelling at. "On the sideline, kids were standing right there, just right up on top of you," Calbert Cheaney told me last year. "We played at a lot of places, but that year, the environment there was probably the best — for us the worst — as far as the atmosphere. It was second to none." And of course, our guys thrived on it. Every Nittany Lion from that era raves about the experience of playing at Rec Hall — "I would not have traded our home games at Rec Hall for any place at the country," Greg Bartram told me. About the only Penn Staters who didn’t love it were those whose seats were behind the student section; as Parkhill remembers, he got a few letters from non-standing fans complaining about having their view blocked. "I was loving that," Parkhill said.
So were we. I’m a huge football fan, and I didn’t miss a home football game for five seasons as an undergrad (the four-and-half-year plan, of course…), but a handful of Rec Hall moments are as cherished as any Beaver Stadium memory. Indiana, of course, despite the "loss." Michigan, just for the sheer awe of seeing that phenomenal group of players at their swaggering best. And Purdue in ’94, ranked No. 7 and with Big Dog running the show, victims of a 71-68 upset. We rushed the court after that one — well, we were already on the court, so really we just took a few steps — and I ended up wrapping John Amaechi in a bear hug.
The dork in the gray sweatshirt, blue jacket, and blue hat at the :41 mark of this Return to Rec promo clip? Yeah, that’s me.
So, sure, I wish we’d never left. But I understand why. I’ve had conversations with Ed DeChellis and Patrick Chambers over the years, and these two very different coaches have said essentially the same thing: You can’t recruit kids to Rec Hall. You need to be able to show recruits top-notch facilities, and those could never exist in a building like that (well, at least not for basketball). For that, the BJC, with its spacious, recently remodeled basketball offices and huge, dedicated practice gym, is a must.
As for Saturday’s game, there had long been whispers of a one-off game at Rec Hall, and those whispers got serious once Chambers arrived. Obviously, I’m psyched it’s happening. There won’t be any recreating the atmosphere of those early Big Ten days, but I’m sure it’ll be a great crowd. Sadly, I won’t be part of it — long story, but I’ll be out of town this weekend. I’m bummed, but in a way, it feels right. Had I gone, I’d have been in the media seats, and probably spent the whole game staring enviously at whoever is lucky enough to have my old seats. Whoever you are, I trust you’ll do me proud.
Thanks again to Ryan for his column. Follow him on twitter at @RJPennStater for all of your Penn State sports needs.
- Penn State Basketball Game 11 Recap: Lions Survive Slugfest Against Duquesne, 68-59
- John Urschel Awarded Campbell Trophy
- Photo Gallery: Penn State Wrestling vs. Pittsburgh
- How Sweet It Is: Penn State Women's Volleyball Into the Second Weekend of the NCAA Tourney
- College Football Playoff: Picking the Top 4