Pat Chambers is set to enter his ninth season in Happy Valley, making him the longest-tenured coach since Bruce Parkhill, who was on the sideline for 12 years. And yet, if you follow the chatter online, you would think that his days were numbered. His contract runs for three more seasons and athletic director Sandy Barbour has been fully committed to Chambers throughout the toughest of times.
If next season turns out to be a successful campaign, a potential run to the NCAA tournament as many people expect, Chambers will likely get a contract extension. That would quiet some of the negative chatter toward the longtime basketball coach but some fans are too far gone to be won back. They want a new basketball coach and they won’t be happy until they get one.
In Chambers’ first two seasons he put up a record of 22-41 with six total Big Ten wins. Most if not all fans gave him a pass since he was hired very late, making it impossible to recruit for his first season. The cupboard was pretty bare and during year two he was hit with an injury to Tim Frazier, which left the team scrambling. Nick Colella, a walk-on, started 14 games while averaging 4 points.
The third season for Chambers is what could be described as the first disappointing year. The 2013-14 team featured both D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier, along with a solid if not deep supporting cast. The low-post play doomed that team, and it finished 16-18 but managed to improve to six Big Ten wins.
In 2014-15 D.J. Newbill averaged 20.7 points per game, but no other Lion averaged ten. The team struggled to a 18-16 record. It was not a great season for the team, but it was Chambers’ first winning season.
The next season was important because it showed that Chambers’ recruiting efforts in Philadelphia were beginning to take hold. It had long been his claim, that recruiting Philadelphia well could bring the talent needed to Happy Valley. Mike Watkins committed to the team, and while it finished 16-16, a 7-11 record in conference play showed improvement. Shep Garner, another Philly product, was doing well early in his career.
The most important part of 2015, for Pat Chambers and Penn State basketball, was the recruiting class that was brought in. It contained Tony Carr, who would go on to be the first Penn State player drafted by the NBA this century, and Lamar Stevens, who may prove to be one of the greatest players in Lions basketball program history.
With the arrival of Carr and company, 2016 gave Chambers and the Lions new life, though they finished that year 15-18, 6-12 in Big Ten play. The future was looking bright. The top three scorers on that team came from Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia. While the result that season was not what fans were hoping for, most people were patient to see what the talent brought in could do.
In 2017-18 Chambers won 26 games and an NIT Championship. The team got to 9-6 in conference before losing its last three games without the help of Mike Watkins. A sixth-place finish in the Big Ten will often get a team an NCAA invitation, but that year, it did not.
This past year, while the team played valiantly all season, it finished 14-18. To those people unfamiliar with Ken Pomeroy, or the NCAA’s Net Rankings, the season may look worse than it was. The team finished in the top-50 in the Net Rankings. Only three teams that finished higher than Penn State last season in the Net Rankings failed to make the NCAA tournament.
So for people that use the NCAA tournament as a barometer of a coach’s success, they should recognize that the past two seasons were near-misses, and the team that is coming back is stronger than any in recent memory.
So When Would You Have Fiured Chambers?
I have taken plenty of criticism for my support of the coach of the Penn State basketball team. Nobody seems to get mad at the support I give to Guy Gadowsky, Russ Rose, Cael Sanderson or James Franklin, but say something good about Pat Chambers and well, take a look at the comment section.
If it were up to me, I would not have fired Pat Chambers. Not in the past, not now. He is doing an excellent job, in my opinion. Not flawless, but excellent. Were he to take the team to the NCAA tournament this season, which looks extremely likely, his record over the past few years would be a clear upward climb.
An NCAA tournament run, combined with the strong finish to the season in 2018-19 and the NIT Championship a year earlier, would be as good of a three-year run as the team has had in many fans’ lifetime. The talent that Chambers has been able to bring in from Philadelphia is impossible to deny.
There are eight coaches on the Penn State basketball staff. Only one, Jim Ferry, did not graduate from either PSU or a Philadelphia university. And Ferry coached in-state at Duquesne before joining the Lions. The staff is as strong as it has ever been, and it is laser beam focused on recruiting Pennsylvania.
So why break this team up? If Chambers had been fired early in his tenure, who knows where we would be right now. It could be better or worse.
By 2015, the implications of firing Chambers would have been severe, at least in the short-term. The recruiting class of Carr and Stevens would not have come to Penn State. That’s potentially two NBA-drafted players, should Stevens improve his stock this year, that would not have played at Penn State.
It is possible that Stevens could leave Penn State as one of the best players in program history. Talor Battle is just 554 points ahead of Stevens on the all-time Penn State scoring list. If Stevens plays well, he should pass Battle sometime in March. It would have been a shame to have scared him off with a hasty firing of the man who brought him to Happy Valley.
It also would have made the NIT Championship and close NCAA run in 2017 very unlikely, as the new coach would have been in the beginning of his own rebuild.
And if Penn State makes the NCAA tournament this year, and maintains a strong team the following season, one that may not return to the tournament but play competitively, the progress will be too clear for even the most disgruntled fans to ignore.
It’s a critical season for the coach and program. A terrible season would all but end this conversation, considering the talent on the roster. A great year and the calls for Chambers’ job will continue online, of course, but for most fans it will become background noise that is easy to tune out while watching a fun team succeed.