UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Jon Crispin formed half of the dynamic backcourt that lifted Penn State to a Sweet 16 appearance in 2000-01, and the former Nittany Lion is now carving out a broadcasting career, calling games for the Big Ten Network after previously working for ESPN.
In this exclusive Q&A, the New Jersey native talks about the current landscape of Penn State hoops, what it means to return to campus, and how the Sweet 16 team thrived on fan and community support.
Black Shoe Diaries: You've talked with Pat Chambers quite a bit over the last few years. What he's doing well that's brought in the recent high-rated recruiting classes, and how has he changed the mindset of the program?
Jon Crispin: I think the culture is the most important thing. I think we use the word too much, but we undervalue the actual meaning because people outside of sports have no idea how important culture is to the program. Pat's reached the point where he's gotten the community excited about what they're doing. That takes a lot of effort and people don't understand that. His effort has completely been underestimated because most coaches just want to coach their team. Well, being a head basketball coach is not just coaching your team, it's psychology with 18-to-22 year-olds, it's making sure they're going to class and taking care of business and keeping them out of trouble. There's so much that goes into it. Pat has been so dialed in to not only what he brings to the community, but what his players bring to the community. They're out in the community more than we ever were - and that's not a knock on Jerry Dunn and not a knock on any other coach before Pat.
It's just that Pat realizes the way to get people excited about basketball is to change the way people perceive it in the community. If Pat's excited about basketball, and the players are excited, then he feels the community is going to be excited about it, too. I think fans are excited because they realize, "We're not far off, we've got recruits coming in and there's an energy about this program," and that energy is the culture. Above and beyond anything else, I think he's done that the best.
BSD: Looking at the next few years, what's one area that will really help the recruits become acclimated to the program, and how can they make an immediate difference?
Crispin: The most important thing he can focus on now is creating a system where these young kids not only thrive but also develop. All of a sudden, Penn State is going to have a ton of talent, so what can you do to get guys good spacing, get guys sharing the ball, and make people better? I think that's going to be the issue - what kind of a system does he have, because everything else is in place to win: the culture, the energy, and the community likes it. If you win ballgames, people will show up.
BSD: Opposing Big Ten coaches genuinely compliment Pat and what he's doing here. Do you have a sense of how Penn State is viewed by other programs in the conference?
Crispin: In the world of college basketball, you don't respect teams that you walk all over, but you like them. So people would say, "I like Pat, he's doing a good job," and you'd know what they were saying. But instead, coaches are saying, "I really respect what Pat's doing at Penn State. That team is tough." You don't know what you're going to get when you play Penn State, except you know you're going to get energy and effort. They could come out and shoot well, and the next thing you know, Maryland almost loses. So when [Maryland head coach] Mark Turgeon says, "I really respect what Pat's doing at Penn State," that should give [PSU athletic director] Sandy Barbour all the confidence in the world and everybody else in the community all the confidence in the world and everyone should say, "He's our guy. Let's figure out what we can do to give him everything we need to get to the next level."
BSD: Along with your brother, Joe Crispin, you formed half of the backcourt that lifted the 2000-01 team to the Sweet 16. That was within a five-year window of moving into the Bryce Jordan Center and there was a lot of enthusiasm around the program. How does Pat and the current team recreate that energy?
Crispin: I think you first have to get people to change their expectations for the program. The expectations have to be higher, and that's one of the things that I struggled with when I was here. Granted, I was a kid who had never been humbled in my life, and I sat there and said, "Why is the Sweet 16 OK?" We should have beaten Temple and gone to the Elite 8, and then we would have played Michigan State, who we'd already beaten that season. We could have played for a Final Four berth, and that was the way my mind worked.
That bit of lunacy was what made us good and what made Joe and I tick. That type of thinking, if you harness it well here, those types of guys are going to win a lot of games. And all of a sudden, those guys are going to change the expectations for the guys coming in. The guys coming in go, "We're not just here to compete and get numbers, we're here to win games and put the program on the map as a basketball school." You need that mentality. I think Pat's got it, but you need all the pieces in the right place, and it's not as easy as people think.
BSD: What was the on-campus vibe like during those days at Penn State?
Crispin: We walked around and people were really excited about what we accomplished, and it was sincere and genuine. It was like, "You're one of us and we really appreciate what you guys have done, because it's so exciting for us as a community and a fan base and a student," It's impossible to recognize those things in the moment. We really did have a unique experience with the family atmosphere and the community atmosphere that we had, and that's what made it so special.
BSD: When the team advanced to the Sweet 16, what do you remember about the fan and community support, and how much did that help propel the team?
Crispin: When we started to win, it wasn't just that we were winning, but it was how we won, too. It was something about the mentality that Joe brought, and I was the same way. We had the same lunacy, and there was a weird excitement. Part of it was Joe looked like everybody else on campus, and he acted like he's just anybody else on campus. I think I had a little bit more swagger, which you could say was arrogance and I'm fine with that, but Joe had such a down-to-earth personality. He dressed like a dad when he was a freshman in college, and I think people really rallied around the fact that he looked like the guy who rushed at the frat house and got turned down. But he went out and played his butt off, he gave it everything he got, and he worked harder than everybody else. He was the world's biggest overachiever, yet in his mind, he never made it as far as he should have.
I think people got excited that we were always the underdogs, and the team rallied around that energy. Titus Ivory made it even better. Outside of my brother, Titus was the best teammate I've ever played with. Then Tyler Smith, you look at what we had, and we had great people. We really loved the fact that we're the underdogs, but we think we're better. And it all started with Joe, nobody had the chip like he did.
BSD: Going back to the win against North Carolina in the second round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament, what do you remember most about that game, and at what point did you sense you had a real chance to win?
Crispin: It started in the locker room. We came out of the locker room, and they're over there, and they start going crazy, almost like they're trying to intimidate us. We had a weird chip about us that the second you tried to intimidate us, you motivated us even more. We stopped our huddle and we looked over and we made that face, like we've got this. We were like, "That's cute, now watch."
BSD: How did you approach that game?
Crispin: I covered Joe Forte, and I made it my mission to make his life a living hell that day. I took some mean screens from Julius Peppers, but I didn't care. There was something about us that game. Brandon Watkins came in and played great defensively. Tyler [Smith] did what he always does. None of us were intimidated by those guys. The next week was tougher. I think if we were playing the No. 1 team in the country, we would have had a better chance than what we had against Temple. We had to shoot well to beat Temple. I was sick and Joe didn't shoot well, and Titus didn't shoot well. We beat Temple earlier in the season but we didn't bring that same energy and that same swagger that we had something to prove. We were almost the favorite, and we weren't comfortable with that.
But the North Carolina game was a special experience. Titus wasn't recruited by North Carolina and he goes off for 25. He was tremendous, and that's the type of thing that made us good. That's why Penn State loved us. Fans thought, "Yeah, you're the underdog but you don't act like it." We acted like we were going to be the first ones to punch you in the mouth. I think that's the same mentality that changes this program, and it's the same thing I said to Shep Garner and Brandon Taylor on media day.
BSD: Tyler Smith gave an on-campus presentation last year and talked about the victory over Kentucky in the early part of the 2000-01 season. He said Joe [Crispin] came over to the huddle early in the game and said you guys had the edge. Do you remember that moment?
Crispin: Yes, Joe comes over and he says, "We're going to win this game," and I say, "Yeah, they don't want to play us, they don't want any part of this," and everybody started looking around. I remember this, Joe and I were the only ones making shots at the time, so of course we're going to be the guys with all the confidence in the world. We think everything we're throwing up is going in, so Joe comes over and goes, "We're going to win this game," and I go nuts. I say, "They don't want to play us. They don't want any piece of this, they don't even want to be in this game." All of a sudden, everybody started to believe. We even got down by five or six points at one point, and we said, "We're alright, we got this." It was the weirdest feeling.
BSD: Where did that level of confidence come from?
Crispin: I think I was talking to [Northwestern head coach] Chris Collins about this. Chris, Joe and I are of the same mold. We're good players who played with great players, yet we thought we were better than them. Joe played with Kobe, and there's a part of Joe who thought, "I'm better than Kobe in some ways." Chris Collins played with Grant Hill and was like, "I should have the ball more." Seriously. I played at UCLA and thought I should play 40 minutes a game, I played here going why would I ever come out. That mentality actually made us good. The same lunacy that makes us difficult as human beings makes us successful athletes.
Thanks to John Patishnock for conducting the interview and allowing BSD to publish it. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnPatishnock. Catch part two of John's interview with Jon Crispin on BSD this Thursday.