Penn State basketball completed its twenty-fifth season of competition in the Big Ten conference last year. We’ll take a look back at the events leading up to the Lions joining the Big Ten, and the early years in conference play, when Bruce Parkhill was at the helm.
Parkhill spent 12 seasons at Penn State only to retire abruptly in September of 1995, weeks before what was poised to be the best season under his watch. The team went on to reach a ranking of No. 9, finishing 21-7 while making the NCAA tournament in spite of the late coaching change. It was the first time the program was ranked in the AP poll dating back to 1954, when it briefly dipped its toe at the No. 19 position.
To understand Parkhill’s impact on the Penn State basketball program, it is important to note the trajectory that he created in the years leading up to joining the Big Ten. Parkhill was just 45 years old, a year younger than current head coach Pat Chambers, when he took to the narrow sidelines inside Rec Hall as head coach for the final time.
The Road Leading To The B1G
Parkhill was hired at Penn State in 1983. In his first two seasons the team went a combined 13-41. In years three through five of Parkhill’s tenure, the team showed signs of life, finishing with a 40-43 combined record.
Beginning in his sixth season in Happy Valley, the team ran off four consecutive twenty-win seasons. The 1988 and 1989 seasons were good enough for NIT appearances. In 1990 Parkhill took the Lions back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in twenty-five years. In 1991, the final season prior to joining the Big Ten, Parkhill’s team returned to the NIT. Four post-season trips in four years, that is an accomplishment not achieved before or since for Penn State basketball.
The first two seasons of Big Ten play saw the growing pains that were expected when the team made the jump to a much higher level of competition. PSU finished 20-34 with a conference record of 8-28 combined for the two years. In Parkhill’s final season at Penn State, the team was equipped to compete in the Big Ten, finishing 21-11 with a 9-9 record in-conference and a return trip to the NIT.
Parkhill’s Record At Penn State
Parkhill may be remembered most, as time moves on, for his unexpected retirement, just weeks prior to what was poised to be his best season in Happy Valley. The team was stacked with veteran talent, as well as a ton of coaching skill. It would finish 21-7, topping out at No. 9 in the AP Poll, and finishing in the No. 18 spot. The team had not finished the season ranked in the AP Poll dating back to 1954, and has not since.
All five starters on the team averaged nine or more points per game. The team featured three starters that stood 6’8” or taller, with future star forward Jarrett Stephens coming off the bench.
Many will remember that the team was left to longtime assistant Jerry Dunn, who was on staff for the entire 12-year run that Parkhill had in State College. It is less memorable that there were two very talented assistant coaches on staff that season as well. Ed Dechellis, who would come back to coach Penn State for eight seasons, and is currently the head coach at Navy, was with the team. Also on staff was Frank Haith, who has coached at Miami (2004-2011) then Missouri (2011-2014) and is currently at Tulsa. Haith has a 263-169 head coaching record, including a Big 12 Tournament Championship in 2012. The team was not left adrift at sea without a capable coach, rather it was turned over to three aspiring, rising assistants.
Twenty-two years later Haith and Dechellis are still head coaches at the division one level. Dunn is currently with Tuskegee, a division two squad. While Bruce Parkhill left prior to the 1995-96 season, his impact was felt during the season. He deserves mention, if not credit, when discussing the greatest Penn State team of the modern basketball era. Not only did he pack the roster with talent, he was able to attract the type of assistant coaches that are needed to compete at the highest level.
The Trajectory Created Expectations
Including the 1995-96 season, which Parkhill influenced tremendously, Penn State made the post-season six out of eight seasons. Two NCAA appearances and four NIT’s. Sure, there are basketball powerhouses that would find it cute that we at Penn State celebrate NIT invitations, but we do.
The two down seasons in the 8-year stretch, which the team did not make the post-season, were the first seasons that Penn State competed in Big Ten conference play. This was an anticipated adjustment period. The team made it through the growing pains with an NIT bid in year three of B1G competition, and an NCAA tournament appearance in year four.
Following the amazing 1995-96 season there was a feeling that Penn State basketball was in position to remain a contender for years to come. In 1996-97 the team fell to 10-17. The following season it rebounded to finish 19-13, including a runner-up finish at the NIT. A few years later the team made it to the Sweet 16, led by Joe Crispin and a host of other talented players that came to Penn State when it was riding the success created by Parkhill.
To understand the mindset of fans that followed the program during the late 1980’s through the Sweet 16 run in 2001, just imagine what it would be like for the team to make the post-season for six of the next eight seasons. Then over the next five years it would put together an NIT Championship appearance and a Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. As crazy as it sounds, a trip to the NIT would become a slight disappointment, one that could be overcome as long as the team made the NCAA tournament in the following year.
Instead what followed were seven seasons with a combined 71-134 record without a single winning campaign. The momentum created by twelve years of Parkhill’s tenure, and the success that followed in its wake, was gone.
The level of sustained success under Parkhill changed the outlook for Penn State basketball fans from being bleak, a community of outsiders in the world of competitive NCAA basketball, to one of relevance and optimism. There was very little negativity surrounding the team, no speculation about coaching changes until the day the unexpected happened. It took five years for Parkhill’s departure to take full effect.
Fans that were not around to experience the era may never fully understand how incredible it was until the program achieves a similar run. And then to watch it all wash away, plank by plank like the bridge between basketball success and obscurity, disintegrating just before we could cross it, carried away in the furious currents of high-stakes NCAA basketball competition, leaving us stranded on the unfortunate side. That is a pain that hopefully no future fan will have to endure.
It took over a decade of hard, successful work to get the Lions in position to make that run. It took all that Bruce Parkhill had to give to Penn State and the sport of basketball.
For those of us that have followed Penn State basketball dating back to the Parkhill era, it can sometimes feel like it was a different lifetime. Long ago, in a world so comfortable and content that it seems like a dream someone else had and told to you, the type you try to fall asleep and rejoin once you wake. Jerry Dunn and Ed Dechellis spent eight seasons apiece as the head coach at Penn State since then. Pat Chambers is entering his seventh. The pages of the calendar sometimes flip over as though hastened by a powerful unseen wind from below. Blink and one month passes. Blink again and an entire season has come and gone.
What Could Have Been?
It is natural to wonder what Bruce Parkhill could have achieved had he been able to remain as the head coach at Penn State for a longer period of time. When he stepped down, he said that he was burned out. Here is part of the statement that he gave to explain his decision.
I just haven't enjoyed coaching as much as I used to, it's that simple. This is not a sudden decision. I have contemplated getting out of coaching for seven or eight years. And then every summer, I would get rejuvenated. I always felt that coaching is not and cannot be a job, it has to be a passion. It has to be something you have every bit as much enthusiasm about as you demand from players.
Truth is, it is a question of not just what could have been, but also what could still be.
Bruce Parkhill turned 68 a few weeks ago. Temple coach Fran Dunphy is a few months older than Parkhill. Mike Krzyzewski is seventy years old. Jim Boeheim is 72. There are many coaches that competed alongside Parkhill years ago that are still on the sidelines today. Had things gone differently, Parkhill may just now be winding down his career in Happy Valley. The continuity and sustained momentum of having a coach such as Parkhill at Penn State for the past 20-plus years could have changed the program forever.