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Exclusive Q&A, Part Two: BTN Analyst Jon Crispin on Leaving Penn State, Shep Garner

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The former Nittany Lion opens up on his decision to transfer to UCLA and discusses a potential Big Ten rivalry with Maryland.

Penn State Athletics

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 part two of his sit down with John Patishnock, Crispin delves into his time at UCLA and the importance of current Nittany Lion Shep Garner's importance to the program. If you missed part one of the interview, click here.

Black Shoe Diaries: You transferred to UCLA after your sophomore season. Looking back on that process, how did that change your perspective?

Jon Crispin: People always ask me why I left, and I say, "You're asking a humbled quasi-adult," but you ask a 19-year-old kid and I'll tell you something totally different. I had aspirations of winning a championship, and I felt that I came here with my brother. I was up here every weekend, I knew the guys and we were a family. What made us so good is we were family. There are not many programs in the country - and I learned this by leaving this place - that have not only the community as family, but the team is family.

"...here at Penn State, all we wanted to do was compete as a family. People loved that. We were so tight and that was something I undervalued until I left."


I went to UCLA, and this is not a knock, but we were all All-Americans to some extent, and we all expected to play 30-plus minutes. We also wanted to hang out at lavish places. We wanted to go to clubs and be seen. We had players hanging out at the playboy mansion. We had guys who wanted grandeur, but here at Penn State, all we wanted to do was compete as a family. People loved that. We were so tight and that was something I undervalued until I left. That's what made us really good, we understood each other so well and we also trusted each other so well. We knew that if I wasn't having a good game, then somebody else was going to pick it up, and if Joe was shooting too much, Titus could get in Joe's face. Even though Joe was the leading scorer in the Big Ten and one of the best point guards this school has ever had, Titus could get in his face and say, "Joe, you're not making shots, we've got to move the ball," and Joe trusted Titus enough to say, "OK, I got you."

As tough as it is with egos and arrogance, and all those things that kids bring to the table, we really trusted each other well and that's something I didn't appreciate until I left. That's also what made the whole experience better. We were such a family, and because we were a family within this community, the community really embraced us. That feeling for a kid is something you can't describe.

BSD: How do you describe the differences between Penn State and UCLA?

Crispin: People ask me what I liked better, I say, "Penn State was home, and UCLA was necessary." I needed that experience, I needed to go be a role player, I needed five foot surgeries, I needed to fall on my face and fail to realize how great this place [Penn State] was. In that sense, UCLA was every bit necessary, and not to mention it's a great school and it was great to be part of that program, too. It was exactly what needed to happen for me, which is something you can only say when your life starts to make sense.

BSD: Nowadays, what's the feeling like when you're back on campus?

"People couldn't understand how I could leave something like this, and as I grew up, I realized, 'How could I?' I wouldn't change anything I did for the world, because it also made me appreciate it that much more."


Crispin: Chills. I go back to Los Angeles, and there's good people there but it's not the same feeling. The first time I came back was about six years ago, when I first started with BTN. When I rolled up on campus, I literally got chills because I remember what it felt like to be here, and it felt like you're coming home after a 10-year business trip. It's one of the hardest things to describe, especially with the way I left, because when I left it was ugly. People couldn't understand how I could leave something like this, and as I grew up, I realized, "How could I?" I wouldn't change anything I did for the world, because it also made me appreciate it that much more.

One of the best things about this place and why it feels like home is it doesn't change, and that's not a negative. A lot of people look at that and say "It's the same as it's always been," and I say, "Thank God for it." My hometown of Pitman, NJ, is the same way and my family is the same way. It's that consistency, that love for people and community that makes this place great, so coming back is great because it's so welcoming and warm.

BSD: Looking to this year's team, Shep Garner has such a high ceiling, and you mentioned earlier he asked you for some advice during media day in Chicago before the season. What are your early impressions of him as a player, and were you surprised that he sought you out for advice?

Crispin: Shep Garner, I tell you what, there's a kid who I would want on my team. Instead of saying, "That was cool and fun," (about the tournament run), he asked, "What was it about your team that made you guys that good?" I said, "We believed in ourselves to a fault. We expected a lot, and we expected to win. We didn't expect to just compete." That's what made us good, and I told him that's something you guys can bring as well. It may take losing a little bit more to figure that out because you have to learn how to win.

We learned how to do that my freshman year; we went to the NIT Final Four and lost, but at the same time we learned how to win tough games. We finally learned my sophomore year how to win games that we should win, how to go into Iowa and win that game (in the 2000-01 season). If we don't win that game, we don't go to the NCAA Tournament. That mindset will make him good.

BSD: Have you noticed a difference in Shep's game this year? One thing Pat has talked about is a difference in his shot selection over last year.

Crispin: He's an elite shooter, and one of the things that make you an elite shooter is the belief that every shot you take is going in. So the shot selection is a tough one, because you say, "I need you to take better shots," but at the same time, he's going, "But I got a look and I thought it was going in." That's why I was a better shooter my freshman year than my sophomore year. I got fewer good looks and I started to think a little bit more. There's a fine balance. I think Pat is doing a good job of keeping Shep in the game, but saying, "Hey, settle down, we don't need that, it's OK." You're learning on the fly so he doesn't have to think as much. If you think too much, you go from an elite-level shooter to just a good shooter, and they need him to be much more than just a good shooter.

BSD: How does Shep take the next step in his game?

Crispin: Everybody respects Shep's 3 now, so he has to get better at making the game easier by setting everything up with his 3. He sets it up with his 3, if a defender slips or hedges too hard, he slips and gets into the paint and gets fouled. He should be getting to the foul line 10 times a game, he really should, because guys have to cover him so far from the basket. But he's a sophomore and he didn't have the ball in game-on-the-line situations with D.J. Newbill last year. Joe did, and that's what helped him develop that confidence to hit game-winners his sophomore and junior years, to come down and hit that shot against Kentucky his senior year. He hit a step back fadeaway from the left, that's what he did because he had the chance to fail as a young freshman. Those are things Shep's going to learn, it's just he didn't get to learn as much last season, because down the stretch, of course you're going to [go to] Newbill.

BSD: Pat has really made an effort to keep alumni and former players involved with the program. How much does that mean to you, and in what ways can that help the current team?

Crispin: It's important for many reasons. Selfishly, it's good to feel that you're still part of the program, because it's the best time of your life. As a student, you'd say your college experience is the best time of your life, and as a college athlete — this is the truth even though people don't like to admit it — not only do you like your experience, but you also liked who you were and who you got to be. You liked how you were perceived and people don't like to admit that because they think it's arrogant, but that's the truth. So if you get a chance to still be part of the program and still feel like you once were, not only does that help me as a former athlete make me feel like I'm still part of something I helped grow, it helps me share that experience with the kids today.

It helps me give them a little perspective that can help them along the way, and sharing the perspective is the most important thing because what makes this special. What do I see now that I didn't see then? That perspective can help Shep Garner be better, help Brandon Taylor be better. So when Shep asks, "What made you guys such a good team?" as an adult, I can say this is what made us good. If I can share that perspective, I'm helping Pat just as much as I'm helping Shep, and I feel like I add value to this program, because it's something that I love and I've given so much of my heart and my life to.

So to come back and do the Coaches vs Cancer golf tournament, and talk to players, watch practice, and sit in on film session[s], you feel like you're still part of it. It's a special thing, and Pat has done a great job because Pat knows it's important. We shared the experiences, we bled together - whether it was in different years or different decade -€” we still bled on the same court, sweated on the same court. We shared the same locker room. There are certain things there that Pat knows and he's doing a great job.

BSD: Transitioning a little bit, how did you get into broadcasting, and was that something that you always knew you wanted to do after your playing days were over?

Crispin: People always said when you play, you either coach or go into broadcasting, and I said I can do other things. The problem was when I stopped playing, I was like, "Well, what is it?" I knew what coaching was, and I wasn't willing to do what it takes to get where I wanted to be coaching-wise. I looked at broadcasting and said, "There's not a better way to learn the game than to be around 50 programs a year, and even more sometimes." Last year with ESPN, I covered seven different conferences, and there's no better way to learn the game than do everything from high-major to mid-major; I even did the California state championships. I learned the game so much and developed a unique perspective. I know the game from a player's standpoint, and then as a student, I like to see how all these coaches do things. I'm not there to critique it, I'm there to learn why they're trying to do it.

BSD: In contrast to some analysts, you're always positive. Is that a conscious decision, and how has your style developed as you've been on air?

Crispin: A lot of guys talk about what's happening on the surface. That's what you read on Twitter, and that's what drives me crazy. I say, "Let's inform a little bit more." I believe I study enough and have been taught enough, and I know the game well enough, so [that] I have a unique perspective. I really had to know the game to play it well. You don't look like me and Joe and out-athlete everyone at our size. You have to learn how to play the game, and understand all the nuances behind it and what's happening below the surface. I try to bring that perspective to everything I say. That's why I refuse to be negative. I could critique something, but what I don't know is that kid's mother is sick and they don't want to tell everybody, so how can you be so negative? I try to peel back a few layers and understand what they're trying to do and give a little perspective that way.

BSD: You recently had Maryland at the top of your weekly power rankings. What makes that team so good, and what type of a different dynamic have the Terrapins brought to the Big Ten?

Crispin: They're physically intimidating, to the point where I show up at shoot around and say, "Wow, they're an NBA team." They have multiple bigs, and they set screens, they pop, they pick and roll, they've got four bigs who fly up and down the floor. They bring a different dynamic, in terms of style of play. I don't think the athletes are any different, it's just what they demand from the athlete is different. The challenge Maryland is going to have is they don't have any rivalries in the conference. All the best schools are going to have natural rivalries, doesn't matter that Maryland is number 1. I think that hurts them in that sense, but in terms of style play, I think they're gradually going to change the way teams in the Big Ten play. It's the same way with Iowa. They get up and down and can beat you in a variety of ways.

"It's not whether or not they'll be good, it's how quickly will they be good. You look at what they've got with Josh Reaves and Shep Garner, Brandon Taylor. There's something there, and the key is you have to get them to play at a high level quickly."


BSD: How much of a chance is there of a rivalry forming between Penn State and Maryland in the next few years?

Crispin: Depends with next year's recruiting class. And it's not whether or not they'll be good, it's how quickly will they be good. You look at what they've got with Josh Reaves and Shep Garner, Brandon Taylor. There's something there, and the key is you have to get them to play at a high level quickly, because the one-and-done rule means a lot of guys want to come in, get theirs, and then get out. But at the same time, players demand more from the program right away, they demand instant gratification. Pat has the challenge of making sure they can win.

If they can get one or two guys to make plays consistently, and take it out of Shep's hands and Brandon Taylor's hands, because you've got three other guys behind them who can make a play if you move the ball and they get the ball back. If you look at him now, I don't blame Shep for making bad decisions right now. Everybody's being so critical and saying he takes bad shots, but if you haven't had a good look in two or three straight trips and you have the skill set that he has, I don't blame him. I remember that mentality -€” my brother had that mentality -€” and that mentality actually won us some games, but it took time. That mentality got him benched but it also took us to a Sweet 16. So if you add some pieces around him and get to the point where Penn State is a top-8 team in the Big Ten, it does become a better rivalry with Maryland.