STATE COLLEGE — Penn State students, white T-shirts over their winter jackets, were massing outside the Bryce Jordan Center last Tuesday night when Pat Chambers donned the clothes he’d selected for Michigan State.
This was no polo shirt-and-khakis game. A victory would sustain his Nittany Lions’ slim hopes for a first-ever Big Ten basketball title. So the Philly-bred coach put on a gleaming white shirt, nestled a blue foulard tie into its spread collar and slid into a dark pinstriped suit so finely tailored it might have come from Jay Wright’s closet.
As elegant as the wardrobe was, however, it was merely a fleeting necessity for Chambers. It never would mean as much as another outfit he kept in his office, the blood-stained reminder of a night his life nearly ended and his career path began.
“That,” he said, “is what propelled me to go live my dream, compelled me to live my passion.”
In 2002, while with friends at the bar of Center City Philadelphia’s Wyndham Franklin Plaza, Chambers was assaulted by a crazed man convinced he’d been flirting with his wife. The attacker stabbed him twice in the neck with a broken glass, opening a gash that ran from just below his left ear to a point centimeters from his aorta.
“Wrong time, wrong place,” said Chambers, a wide scar still visible. “But when I look back, it was a blessing in disguise.”
If not for that horrific incident, he said, he might be working for the family business, coaching some Philadelphia-area high school, obsessing over the possessions that seemed so important then.
“You almost lose your life, your perspective changes,” Chambers said. “When I was blessed enough to wake up that next morning, without my front teeth and with 1,000 stitches from my neck to my back, I got a second chance. You sulk a little, say, ‘Why me?’ But at some point, I had to get busy living. That’s what I did. I said I’ve got to go do what I love. And that was basketball.”
Now, 18 years later, the 49-year-old Chambers, having ascended rapidly in his chosen profession, is battling as hard as he did with eight older brothers who schooled him on the basketball court outside their Newtown Square home, trying to help his NCAA-bound Lions rediscover their mojo.
When he arrived at Penn State in 2011, a few months before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, he found it was like being home again. Instead of big brothers, he had had 11 better-established conference rivals to contend with. At the financial table, he had to scrap for whatever crumbs he could wrest from football.
The feisty Chambers tried everything. He recruited Philadelphia harder than his predecessors. He bought a golf cart and drove around campus distributing T-shirts and drumming up student support. After the Nittany Lions went 85-109 in his first six years, he even hired psychologists, one for his team and one for himself.
“The first four, five years were challenging,” he said. “I was used to winning and the losing really wore me down. It wears on your family, wears on your staff, wears on your players. So how do you combat that? How do you stay positive? That’s something I’ve really worked at.”
The Big Ten tournament opens Wednesday and for a first time in his nine seasons a Chambers’ team will enter it virtually assured an NCAA bid.
At 21-10 with an 11-9 conference record, Penn State won’t win the Big Ten regular-season title, something that seemed possible until its late-season slide. But it was ranked for most of the 2019-20 season, climbing into the top 10 at one point for the first time since 1996. It beat No. 4 Maryland and No. 21 Ohio State. And since Jan. 11, the Nittany Lions, historically at or near the bottom in league attendance, have averaged crowds of more than 11,400.
Chambers’ roster includes six Philadelphia-area players, including top scorer Lamar Stevens. He’s increased fund-raising and managed to bump up his budget to $7.3 million, nearly $2.5 million higher than when he arrived.
In doing so, Chambers, who has two years remaining on the four-year extension he signed in 2018, almost certainly saved his job.
“I was blessed that [athletic director] Sandy Barbour saw something in me and stuck with me when things weren’t going well,” he said. “She saw the culture, saw the way we run things, saw recruiting, saw the talent getting better … and she gave me enough time to be able to turn it around.”
It’s a turnaround no more remarkable than the one Chambers, the youngest of 12 children, accomplished in his own life.
His father, Rube, was a fiery baseball star growing up in Germantown and Southwest Philadelphia. Older brother Tim was a football standout at Penn. Brother Paul would play basketball there.
“With all those brothers, you didn’t have a choice,” said Chambers. “You learned to play sports.”
By the time his formal basketball training began at St. Anastasia’s grade school, where he backed up Paul at point guard, he was more than ready to compete.
“I never had to teach them intensity,” said their coach, Tom Rayer. “They got this commitment and toughness from their parents that was unbelievable. They were tough, smart and very intense.”
Chambers played for Dan Dougherty at Episcopal Academy then went to Drexel. But he didn’t fit into the basketball culture there and soon his family was lobbying Herb Magee to give him a Philadelphia University scholarship.
“I played golf with his dad and two or three brothers,” Magee said. “They were lobbying me and I said, `Let’s wait and see what he can do.’ ”
Chambers walked on and became the school’s all-time assists leader.
“He played exactly like I like my point guards to play,” Magee recalled. “He was tough defensively, very unselfish, looked to pass. He did all the right things and he was a great leader.”
After graduating, he worked in sales for the family’s printing business. To satisfy his competitive fires, he found coaching jobs. He was a Delaware Valley College assistant when Dougherty asked him to help at Episcopal.
“I thought high school and my day job was what I wanted to do,” he said. “When I was stabbed, I was going for the Archbishop Carroll job. I couldn’t interview. I was in bed for a month.”
Afterward, convinced coaching was his fate, he went looking for the ladder’s next step. He found it in 2004 when Wright had an opening on his Villanova staff.
Wright, he said, taught him the “holistic approach,” to be a CEO, overseeing recruiting, raising money, uniting the school community. The Wildcats reached the Final Four in 2009 and afterward, Chambers applied for and got the Boston University job.
Two years later, after leading BU to the NCAA Tournament, Penn State, where Ed DeChellis had unexpectedly quit, hired him. It was a big move, if not geographically, then psychologically.
“I’m Delco through and through,” he said. “And there’s no doubt I miss Philly. But I grew up on Penn State, the plain jerseys, the black spikes. I wanted to play football here. And I was someone who actually watched PSU basketball. I had three siblings go through Penn State. Two brothers and a sister. So I’d come up to visit and go to whatever was going on, basketball, football.”
His first November in State College, on the morning his Nittany Lions played their first scrimmage at Slippery Rock, he heard the news about Sandusky and felt the ground move beneath his feet.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “When it hit the papers, it just spread like wildfire. It was already a difficult job. We were already down 10. Now all of a sudden we were down 20. But we stuck together, kept a great attitude.”
Penn State won just 22 of 63 games his first two seasons and hovered near .500 the next three. Then in 2016, he recruited three Roman Catholic stars – Stevens, Tony Carr and Nazeer Bostick – and a light appeared at the tunnel’s end. Suddenly, for a first time it seemed, Penn State was in play for Philly’s basketball talent
“I’m a guy that played in the Sonny Hill League,” Chambers said. “My roots in Philly run very deep. Guys know me. We don’t turn our backs on local kids. We strive to put them in the best position possible so they can have success. Philadelphia is a very important place for us.”
Chambers has tried to stay close to his players, treating each, he said, as an individual. He’s also been protective, urging his kids to “put up walls around themselves.”
“There are so many distractions,” he said. “It’s overbearing, overwhelming, suffocating. It’s difficult for them to stay present and in the moment. to focus on the task at hand, on getting better, on one another.
“I tell them you’ve got to reduce your inner circle, put your phone down. You’ve really got to micro-focus to become the best you can be. You can’t if you’re reading all the headlines, reading all the tweets.”
The 79-71 March 3 loss to Michigan State was the Lions’ fourth in five games. Chambers stood on the sideline throughout, arms crossed, body compressed so intensely that he resembled a missile ready to launch.
“That Michigan State game was the championship,” he said later. “You win that game, you win Saturday, you have a chance to go be co- or tri- or quad- Big Ten regular-season champion. It’s unfortunate we didn’t get that done, but it’s a great position to be in.”
Penn State’s season ended with another loss, Saturday to Northwestern. But as the tournament neared, Chambers looked for the positive. Myreon Jones, a sophomore guard averaging 13 points, was back after missing several weeks with an unspecified illness. He played in the final two regular-season games but at times looked rusty.
“He was playing at a high level when he was healthy,” Chambers said. “When he did that, we were a very good team. He goes out and we’ve hung in there to the best of our ability. But now he’s back and we’ve got to get him going.”
However Penn State fares from here on, whatever outfits he chooses, this season has validated the decision Chambers made after that bloody night in 2002.