(Many of us at BSD are extremely excited for Return To Rec tomorrow. 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 means to them personally.
Today's column comes from someone many of you probably don't know, Tim Beidel. Tim was a student at Dear Old State from 1978-1982, during the Dick Harter years. He actually covered some of Harter's teams for the Collegian when he was there. He's the owner/founder of PennStateHoops.com and has been a long-time fan of the program since. We'd like to thank Tim for his time and efforts in contributing this post for us. - EG)
OK, I admit it: I have no nostalgia for Rec Hall.
I’m a Penn Stater from the late 70s and early 80s, and a latecomer to Happy Valley. I pretty much decided to attend Penn State on a late fall Saturday in 1977, when on my first visit to Happy Valley I was charmed by the practice-uniform look of the Nittany Lion football team.
In those days, the freshmen and sophomores sat in actual bleachers in the north end zone, and I sat with them in the swirling snow that day, safely away from my parents, a high school senior accepting hits off the jug and the other items passed along to me, watching the Nits pummel Temple.
As the first half came to a close, I decided to check out this school that I had previously scoffed at even visiting, let alone attending. I left Beaver Stadium and made my way across campus. Maybe it was that stuff passed to me in the bleachers, but even gray and leafless, nothing like its college-brochure best under bleak November skies, I was beginning to be taken with the place.
I wandered into Rec Hall.
I liked football then and love college football now, but my sport was and is college hoops. The Palestra was Mecca, and I grew up with the Big 5 mythologized in the Daily News and the Inquirer, even if the reality was probably that a couple of Penn State football home games outdrew the entire Big 5 city series. (And this was before Rollie Massimino tried to kill it by reducing the games played in it.)
Penn State’s varsity basketball team was working out, but I wasn’t sure that that was who I was watching at first. They seemed to be too organized to be an intramural team. But the squad seemed to be entirely comprised of thickset-ish caucasians between 6-5 and 6-8, earnestly participating in the kind of fundamental passing drill that you can see at every level. They were urging each other on, as were the coaches, in this nearly empty, ancient gym. It was "Hoosiers" before "Hoosiers".
My immediate reaction to this was that my high school, Coatesville Area -- more like South Bend Central in 'Hoosiers' athletically, skill-wise and in continents of forefathers' origin -- could take the guys I saw on the Rec Hall floor that day.
(I was shocked the next year to discover that Penn State had fewer than 300 black students among its 30,000+ undergraduates. After the full cultural enormity of that dawned on me, I asked a kid sitting next to me in one of my freshman classes whether there were any black kids at his high school. "I've never met any black people," he said. The odds of that happening for him at late 70s Penn State did not seem to have substantially increased.)
(And in fairness - and accuracy - about the Nittany Lion basketball teams of that era, I would come to realize that even the lowliest of Division I basketball teams would spank the best high school teams, and that there was not a single player on my school’s varsity that would have played for that Penn State team, which included Frank Brickowski, who went on to a long and lucrative NBA journeyman career. As did his first college coach, John Bach, who 'resigned to pursue other interests’ before I could get to campus the next fall, back in the days when Penn State *really* didn’t have coaches who felt moved to do that kind of thing.)
I scurried out of Rec Hall that day, and didn’t give it much thought until spring 1978, when Penn State was making a play for Oregon coach Dick Harter.
Harter had been the coach at Penn and had turned the Quakers into a national power. At Oregon, he recruited Stu Jackson, Eric Ballard and Ron Lee, and the latter two were already having impressive NBA careers. And Harter had done all this at an Ivy League school and at Oregon, a school that was similarly off basketball's beaten path. (Penn’s Palestra was designed by architect Charles Klauder, who also designed Rec Hall, so Harter must have felt at home when he sucked the life out of a last cigarette beneath the South bleachers before each game.)
With the certainty of all 17-year-olds, Harter’s hiring cinched Penn State for me because I knew that "we" were going to be a basketball power. And probably soon, because a young 7-footer at Lebanon High, Sam Bowie, would fall in love with the place just like I did, and arrive on campus shortly after me.
I’m not sure when that certainty faded.
But it took a blow right away, in Fall 1978, when Harter met with members of the Penn State community who were livid that they could no longer use Rec Hall’s indoor track during basketball practices. Rec Hall was his classroom, he explained, and you wouldn’t want people running laps around the lecture hall while your Business Logistics professor was trying to teach, would you?
When that argument failed, Harter pulled out his trump card: If he had not gotten assurances that he could hold closed practices in Rec Hall, he would not have taken the job.
To say that the Penn State community in attendance that night cared not one whit that Dick Harter - even *the* Dick Harter - was coaching the basketball team would be an understatement. I think somebody even laughed out loud at Harter when he said it.
Rec Hall was for working out, and the basketball team was getting in the way of that.
I wonder if that was the beginning of the end for Harter, too, a former marine and classic coach/control freak who insisted that his Oregon Ducks not be called "Ducks", because he disapproved of the school’s nickname. This was not a "reasonable minds can disagree" guy.
So "we" did not explode into basketball greatness during my time there. Sam Bowie reportedly complained about a Penn State coach stalking him long after Bowie made it clear that he had absolutely no interest in going to Penn State. Harter wrenched Penn State out of the Eastern Eight/Atlantic 10 with visions of the kind of national profile and success that his former assistant Digger Phelps was enjoying at Notre Dame. But no one would come to Rec Hall - not even Digger, whom Harter once told me (now scribbling stories about the team for The Collegian) refused to schedule games against friends.
I personally admired Harter as a coach and tactician - even if I was flabbergasted by the brutal physical style he taught, a style that he can be said to have introduced at both the college and pro level (as an assistant with Detroit and New York), and a style which is only now, 35 years later, being stamped out with the NCAA’s emphasis on eliminating the hand check and arm bars.
But it was getting harder to believe that Harter had a lot of friends, and that it was the friendship that was keeping Digger from visiting Rec Hall in December, January or February. Harter spent one desultory year in Rec Hall after I left (which featured a visit from nationally ranked Alabama, and attended by - maybe - 3,500 people, me included) before he, as they say, resigned to pursue other interests.
So there is no magic in Rec Hall for me. There was no Al McGuire and Marquette escaping by the skin of their teeth during my time there. In fact, I don’t believe a single ranked team visited Penn State when I was a student, and during Harter’s time only that Alabama team the year after.
The Rec Hall experience of my era was this: Arrive a few minutes before tip off and select the front-row seat that I always did, directly across from the Penn State bench. From there I would continually shout encouragement to what was a pretty good group of guys: Mike Edelman, Mike Lang, Steve Kuhn, Craig Buffie, Rich Fetter, the late Tom Wilkinson, walk-on Will Diehl, all of whom I got to know a little bit as a Collegian beat writer during their NIT year, and then again to some guys that followed: David Griffin, Dick Mumma, Brian Dean.
And my running patter never bothered any other patrons. There was plenty of room around me for most games. Once or twice over the years I prevailed on a friend to accompany me to a game; after each, he remained mystified as to why he had agreed to go.
Rec Hall was not magic back then. In fact, it was Reason No. 1 that Penn State couldn’t be competitive (officially at least - unofficially it was always the difficulty in recruiting African-Americans).
Now I wasn’t there for its brief moment in the sun, Penn State's first years in the Big 10, when it would be packed and sweaty for the arrival, before the One-and-Done, of some really great Big 10 teams. When for the opportunity to say, pluck a hair from Chris Webber’s leg as he attempted to inbound a pass, students had to get in line days in advance.
So it’s no surprise that John Amaechi, who arrived at Penn State 10 years after I was gone, sees Rec Hall quite differently.
"I loved Rec Hall," he wrote me this week. "It was, if I’m honest, my true home on campus."
For Amaechi and scores of Penn State players through the years, Rec Hall was the center of their basketball universe.
"I would spend most of my day there, in official team [practice] and even more in unofficial solo practice, as well as watching (and playing with) what to me at that time seemed to be the ‘ancient’ faculty playing at lunchtimes," Amaechi wrote. "Playing in Rec Hall was amazing - not in an ‘in lieu of a decent arena’ kind of way, but in an ‘I can’t wait to get [insert name of next victim] into our gym’ because you always knew that the atmosphere was a proper 6th, 7th and 8th man - fans so close to the sidelines that they had to press themselves back to allow the home team to input the ball, and so close that away teams constantly complained that my friends from Hamilton Hall were screaming too loudly in their ears!"
That’s the Rec Hall described by Ryan Jones yesterday, where play is stopped so a referee can eject a student from the arena.
The Rec Hall where a team without a point guard battled No. 1 Indiana to the wire, losing in overtime. I remember watching that one mostly from a meeting room just off the newsroom of the Albany Times Union in 1993 while my copy desk colleagues no doubt simmered about my lunch hour turning into two.
Two words: Sam Lickliter.
But why get caught up in all this negativity?
"Every time I come back to Penn State, I go to Rec, and sit in the stands, just as I did on my first recruiting visit, and I close my eyes to reminisce," Amaechi said. "The building whisks me back in time and when I open them, I see the ghosts of great games past -- wins against nationally ranked teams, that time even our fans were being ejected, and the noise, so loud that it made you fear for the building's foundations."
So I get that, I really do. For one brief, shining moment … and all that.
For me, magic is the Bryce Jordan Center, a flawed but superb college basketball arena whose only real sin is that it is rarely filled. In 1996, shiny and new and featuring a home team ranked as high as No. 10 nationally (can it be???), the place rocked. I remember seeing Indiana that year in a seat up in the corner - altitude-wise, probably the equivalent of standing at the beginning of the curve on Rec Hall’s indoor track - and thinking that this was a damn good seat for Big-Time basketball.
Most games sold out that year. I have journeyed down from Maine nearly every year since, and at times, like when Joe Crispin would get the place jumping like he did in 1999 against Ohio State (the arena packed, but not sold out), the promise of the BJC was clear.
So I’m not nostalgic for Rec Hall, or for the Penn State basketball history that most of us probably associate with it. But "Return to Rec" definitely means something more to those early 90s Penn Staters.
"Hopefully ‘Back to Rec’ can be an annual event, partly because, sadly, I can’t make it this year, but mostly because I think the feeling of playing in a heaving, screaming Rec Hall is a holiday gift that this team and the fans deserve every year," Amaechi said. "I know for the fans, the bench seats will not be as comfortable as in the BJC, but if it helps, I don’t really remember many people spending much time sitting down."
Amaechi says he is a "big fan of Coach Chambers and the current team" and that he hopes Saturday’s visit "inspires them for the rest of the season, as every game I played there did me."
I’m optimistic, too, which is perhaps the triumph of hope over experience, or a belief that good coaching and hard work is bound to mix with a little good luck sooner or later. And when that happens, the BJC will be packed again, and we’ll have the opportunity to "be good for a long time - unless we screw it up", as the late Joe Paterno said would happen following that great 1995-96 season.
We’ll be thinking then not about Rec Hall, but about designing an arena with better basketball site lines. (Which even a lot of Rec Hall, with all its charm, didn’t really have. The seats on the stage side seem like they are across the street.)
And the only nostalgia will be for the days when you could get a ticket to see Coach Chambers’ team from as good a vantage point as the worst seat in Rec Hall on that cold December day in 2013. But that is for some future season.
Right now, the best message is probably Amaechi’s sign off: "Happy Holidays and welcome back to Rec Hall, she won’t let you down."
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