Arrested Development

How does a school with such a strong athletic tradition have such a ho-hum hoops program?


Oct. 20, 2006

By Bryan Armen Graham



Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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Its effective absence from the city's sporting landscape has relegated college football in Philadelphia to a cult status elsewhere reserved for English Premiership soccer and Ultimate Fighting Championship.


With five tradition-rich collegiate basketball programs strewn throughout a 17-mile radius in Philly's backyard, it doesn't take a genius to understand why college hoops is king in the City of Brotherly Love. Those compelled to take up a gridiron gang often gravitate toward the city's nearest traditional football power: Penn State.


Growing up in such a hoop-saturated environment -- witnessing schools like Temple and later Saint Joseph's build national programs with limited resources -- I had always been mystified by PSU's ongoing struggle to put together a competitive program in a sport where just one or two recruits can change the fortunes of a program.


How does a world-class institution of higher learning with such a pristine academic reputation and athletic tradition, that has played in a high-profile conference since 1991, make just three NCAA tournament appearances over the last 45 seasons?


How has sustained basketball success eluded Penn State?


I enlisted the help of one of the nation's most gifted basketball writers -- Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News (who moonlights as an analyst for Penn State's radio broadcast team) -- to take a closer look at this Happy Valley enigma.




"Football dwarfs everything at Penn State," Jerardi said, summarizing the basketball program's plight. "And there are only so many resources to go around."


Ed DeChellis, the coach who has led a modest resurgence in his three seasons at the helm of the Nittany Lions, is the first to admit that hoops hasn't always been a priority in State College.


"It's a matter of taking advantage of every opportunity that you have," DeChellis said. "I think there have been times where we didn't really do that here."


Football was the sport that put Happy Valley on the national map. With over 770 victories and a pair of national championships, the program has enjoyed a level of success that most schools can only dream about. Men's basketball receives a healthy chunk of revenue from membership in the Big Ten and the television contract, but that sum pales in comparison to the football program's annual windfall.


"I think it's a matter of allocating resources and tradition," Jerardi said. "The amount of money that's brought in by that football program pays for every other sport and then some. So naturally, when that's worked for years, that's where the marketing dollars are going to go -- that's where all the resources are going to go.


"It's true almost everywhere, it's just human nature: What works is what attracts the dollars. Penn State football has worked for half a century. I don't think it's a conscious decision."




One of the most understated aspects of Penn State's hoop struggles has been its location -- three hours from Philly and two hours from Pittsburgh, where high-level hoops prospects are seldom produced. Jerardi notes that Penn State is one of the only state schools located in a state where basketball really matters in its biggest city.


"It's just different here," Jerardi said. "I can't think of another big city in the country -- and I mean a big city, like one of the top 10 or 15 -- that takes college basketball as seriously as Philadelphia does. New York doesn't -- St. John's is the only thing anybody cares about but if they're no good then they really don't care. Washington really doesn't. Baltimore doesn't. Boston doesn't. So that puts [Penn State] in a tougher spot than most other big-time state schools."


Few state schools must deal with such heated competition for recruits so close to home. Philadelphia programs -- and nearby schools in the much-publicized Big East -- have seemed to establish a monopoly on the region's top-flight recruits.


"There are five teams with great traditions and serious aspirations in that city," Jerardi said. "Penn State rarely gets involved with the best players in its own state. [Philadelphia prospects] either go to one of the TV teams or they play in the Big 5."


DeChellis concedes that Penn State must improve its recruiting inroads in Philadelphia for the program to make the jump to the next level. The Monaca, Pa., native hopes that his tenure's first city signing -- rising freshman and West Philadelphia native Andrew Jones -- can open the floodgates in that area.


"The Big Ten has not gotten the media coverage and the television coverage there, so it's made it harder to recruit than one would think," DeChellis said. "But if we can keep our kids in Pennsylvania home playing at the state university, we can be as good as anybody in the Big Ten -- and sustain it."




Some of the newer basketball powers on the national scene -- like Florida and Oklahoma -- have been able to field football and basketball teams that compete for national championships on a regular basis. But from a historical point of view, these two-sport contenders are exceptions to the rule.


"There are still not that many state schools that do both well: Indiana plays hoops, not football. Same at UNC and Kansas," Jerardi said. "It is really a question of commitment."


But with teams like the Gators and Sooners proving that it can be done, Penn State seems to be embracing the challenge moving forward. For the first time in anyone's memory, the program has demonstrated a pronounced commitment to winning -- as indicated by the contract extension through the 2010-11 season inked by DeChellis in August.


"They went into the Big Ten when they weren't ready to be in the Big Ten for basketball. They just weren't. So it's taken them a little while to grasp what it's going to take to compete in that league," Jerardi said. "I think there's more of a commitment from the people up there -- more money and a recruiting budget and that kind of stuff. And it takes time. When [DeChellis and his staff] got up there, the program had really hit a low. They just didn't have Big Ten players in the program."


With four of five starters returning -- including all-Big Ten choice Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley, the league's reigning Freshman of the Year -- the days of substandard talent in Happy Valley appear to have passed. The Nittany Lions should be a middle-of-the-pack selection, with designs on the program's first NCAA bid since 2001, when the Big Ten releases its preseason poll at the conference media day on Oct. 29 in Chicago.


"We want to be in the NCAA tournament. We want to have a chance to win the Big Ten title. We want to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten," DeChellis said. "Those are pretty specific goals."

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