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25 Years Of Big Ten Basketball: The Jerry Dunn Era

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It was an era that began with much hope, only to end in a total cratering of the Penn State basketball program.

Jerry Dunn

As Chris Taylor alluded to in his Bruce Parkhill write-up, the Jerry Dunn era began rather abruptly under unforseen circumstances. In early September 1995, Bruce Parkhill resigned less than several weeks before practice began, which lead to Dunn’s promotion where he suddenly found himself heading a program that returned four starters from the previous year’s team that finished third place in the NIT and looking to take the next step not only towards making the NCAA Tournament, but becoming a routinely competitive program in the Big Ten for years to come...

Jerry Dunn’s Record at Penn State

Year Overall Record Conference Record Postseason
Year Overall Record Conference Record Postseason
1995-1996 21-7 12-6 NCAA (1st round)
1996-1997 10-17 3-15
1997-1998 19-13 8-8 NIT (runner-up)
1998-1999 13-14 5-11
1999-2000 19-16 5-11 NIT (3rd place)
2000-2001 21-12 7-9 NCAA (Sweet 16)
2001-2002 7-21 3-13
2002-2003 7-21 2-14

As we all know by now, that did not turn out to be the case, as you’ll see with Dunn’s record listed above. Perhaps it’s best if we do a year-by-year breakdown of how it all started out so promising, yet ended so disastrously.

1995-96:

Dunn took over as the conductor of the train that Parkhill got rolling and made sure it didn’t immediately go off the tracks. A veteran squad led by a backcourt of Dan Earl and sharpshooter extraordinaire Pete Lisicky, as well as frontcourt featuring former Syracuse transfer Glenn Sekunda, Matt Gaudio, and Calvin Booth ran off 13 straight wins to open the season, ending up ranked as high as #9 at one point, ahead of historical powerhouses such as Duke.

The 1995-96 season also saw the debut of the Bryce Jordan Center that January, in which PSU defeated Minnesota in prime time on ESPN to christen a new era of PSU hoops. If you’re looking for a nice whiff of nostalgia and want to remember a time when it seemed like the BJC would actually help (as opposed to hinder) the PSU hoops experience, I highly suggest watching the video, below:

Riding the wave of their veteran squad and new arena, PSU finished as Big Ten runners up with a 12-6 conference record (21-6 overall), which was good enough to earn a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, the Lions drew a #12 seed Arkansas squad that used head coach Nolan Richardson’s famed “40 Minutes of Hell” full-court press to stymie them and ultimately fell 86-80.

1996-97:

Back problems forced Earl to miss the season, which led to a true freshman named Ryan Bailey to run the point. An anemic offense that seemed to rely solely on Lisicky’s streaky shooting (Lisicky was the only PSU player to average double digits in scoring that year) proved to be a recipe for disaster. When it was all said and done, the Lions had stumbled to a 10-17 overall and 3-15 conference record.

1997-98:

Earl once again, suffered a season-ending injury in an early-season matchup against Lehigh (this time, to his knee). However, with Jarrett Stephens and Calvin Booth both stepping up in the frontcourt (both big men would average double figures in scoring, with Booth also averaging a whopping 4.4 blocks per game) as well as a true freshman named Joe Crispin providing an extra three-point specialist in the backcourt to tag along with Lisicky, the Nittany Lions clawed their way to a .500 conference record (8-8) and a 19-13 overall record, featuring upset wins over a 16th-ranked Iowa and 5th-ranked Purdue team. While their record wasn’t quite good enough for the NCAA selection committee, the NIT gladly took the Lions, who went on to make a run all the way to the NIT’s championship game at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where they would ultimately fall to Minnesota, 79-72.

1998-99:

Booth was back for one more go-around, while Earl, now a 10th-year senior (or so it seemed at the time), was finally healthy again to run the point with Crispin launching treys by his side. Titus Ivory and Gyasi Cline-Heard also began to emerge as key contributors on the team, while Jarrett Stephens went down due to injury. What was expected to be another solid season ended up becoming a bitterly disappointing campaign that saw PSU finish under .500 overall. The season was also notable for PSU losing five Big Ten games by a single possession (three points or less), including back-to-back buzzer-beating losses against Indiana and Michigan State.

1999-00:

Then-freshman (and current BTN hoops analyst) Jon Crispin would join his brother Joe in the backcourt, marking the beginning of the legendary Crispin Brothers era in Happy Valley. Unfortunately, this was another season marred with disappointment as PSU after a 12-6 start, would lose eight of their final nine Big Ten regular season games, placing Jerry Dunn squarely on the hot seat entering the Big Ten tournament. PSU managed however, to make a run to the semi-finals of the conference tourney, upsetting #4 Ohio State in the quarterfinals, before falling to Illinois. Their 15-15 record however, was still deemed good enough to earn an NIT bid, which they subsequently rode to Madison Square Garden, losing to Notre Dame before winning the third place game against NC State.

2000-01:

With Dunn still firmly on the hot seat and facing an NCAA-or-bust season, the veteran starting five of the Crispin Brothers, Ivory, Cline-Heard, and Tyler Smith would lead the way during a roller coaster of a season that saw amazing performances such as the Crispin Bros. putting on a shooting clinic in an upset win at Kentucky, to downright choke-jobs such as losing on the road to a lowly Northwestern team, or blowing a 20-point halftime lead on Senior Day to Ohio State (who ironically enough at the time, had Bruce Parkhill as an assistant coach). Entering the Big Ten tournament with sub-.500 conference record (7-9), the Nittany Lions needed a buzzer-beating lay-in of an air ball by Cline-Heard to knock off lowly Michigan before Joe Crispin nailed the shot against Michigan State in the quarterfinals that would forever make him a part of B1G tourney lore (see video, below).

After bowing out to Iowa in the semifinals, the Lions would receive the #7 seed in that year’s NCAA Tournament. They would go on to knock off Providence in the first round 69-59, before shocking the college hoops world by taking down #2 seed North Carolina, 82-74 (again, see video below).

The Cinderella run for the Nittany Lions would end with an 84-72 loss at the hands of Temple in the Sweet 16, which would lead to riots in downtown State College. While the 2000-01 would go down as a memorable one, it quickly became very clear that with Joe Crispin, Ivory, and Cline-Heard all graduating, plus Jon Crispin’ shocking decision to transfer, combined with a lack of decent recruits coming in to fill the gaps, disaster loomed ahead for the program...

2001-02 and 2002-03:

We’re lumping these together because both seasons saw the Lions finish 7-21 overall and the bottom completely fall out of the program, thanks to a revolving door of transfers over the previous few seasons, recruiting misses (hello, Gerry McNamara), sub-par coaching, and lack of buy-in from the players. You knew things were going quite poorly when it became a routine thing for a FIRE DUNN sign to get passed around the student section in a game of keep-away from the BJC ushers trying to confiscate the sign.

By the time Dunn resigned in March 2003, the program resembled the very flaming bus meme that is now a staple of every open hoops thrrad here on BSD. In fact, it was more like ten flaming busses piled on top of one another. Around that same time period, East Tennessee State head coach Ed DeChellis saw his 15th-seeded squad come within a missed three-pointer of upsetting #2 seeded Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament. A couple of weeks later, DeChellis would be tasked with extinguishing and untangling the pile of flaming busses that now resembled Penn State’s basketball program.