Penn State reportedly got down to business Tuesday, with athletic director Tim Curley interviewing the first of a string of candidates for its suddenly vacant basketball head coaching position.
Various sources indicated that Duquesne coach Ron Everhart and Boston University coach Pat Chambers are among those on the short list to replace Ed DeChellis, but the Penn State administration is doing its best to keep the process secret - which is pretty much what it usually does for the entire basketball program as well.
DeChellis resigned last week to take the head coaching job at the Naval Academy, touching off the predictable snickers about a Big Ten coach opting to relocate to the Patriot League. In a way, he merely chose to leave one program where it is hard to attract elite basketball talent for another, and got an upgrade in scenery to boot.
The job switch went deeper than that, of course. DeChellis is a sincere family man, a cancer survivor whose perspective on life isn't framed by enrollment figures and arena seating capacity. He said he felt a call to duty when he walked The Yard in Annapolis and saw the midshipmen in their dress whites parading off to a future of national service. He visited the office of the head coach with its view of the Chesapeake Bay. He said he felt at peace and at home.
That's fine as far as it goes, but DeChellis and his family are Pennsylvania through and through, and the reality is DeChellis made the difficult decision to leave the Nittany Lions before being asked to leave. He grew up in Western Pennsylvania, graduated from Penn State, served as a graduate assistant for two years, came back as an assistant coach for another 10 years, and, after establishing himself as a head coach elsewhere, returned again as Penn State head coach for eight years. DeChellis is 52 years old and has spent 24 of those years on that campus. He didn't just change homes because he could see a sailboat out the window.
The marriage between DeChellis and the Penn State head coaching job is only the latest of those unions to end in disappointment, although it isn't as if the school doesn't give them a chance. Starting with Bruce Parkhill in 1983, the Lions have had just three head coaches in 28 years. During that span, Penn State made the NCAA tournament only four times and won a total of three games.
The most recent appearance was last season, when the Lions shrugged off a so-so regular season, won three games in the Big Ten tournament, and earned an at-large berth. It was their first selection during DeChellis' eight seasons in State College and lasted only until a first-round loss to Temple.
After the tournament, the administration rebuffed a request for a contract extension and DeChellis knew if it wasn't happening now, it sure wasn't happening after next season, when the Lions would be without Talor Battle and the other three senior starters who anchored the team. The good news was that walking away from a Penn State coaching salary didn't constitute a huge hardship. DeChellis did take a pay cut for the honor of helping our future leaders learn to defend themselves against the high screen roll, but he also got a five-year contract at Navy.
At Penn State, the coaches and assistants are underpaid by Big Ten standards. When people wonder why the school isn't successful with basketball, that's a good place to start. Instead, the conversation always seems to be about something else.
There is the perception that the best African American recruits don't consider Penn State because the town isn't very exciting. (As if East Lansing, Mich., is South Beach or something.) There are the perceived slights, like the time last season when the team had to practice in the intramural building on crooked rims because Bon Jovi was rehearsing in the Bryce Jordan Center. (Hey, if you filled the building and Bon Jovi drew 7,000, then he'd be practicing in the IM.) There is the belief among many that Joe Paterno doesn't want football's preeminence challenged by a strong basketball program. (Utter nonsense.)
All that chatter obscures the fact that Penn State simply hasn't found the right coach yet, the one who will get the program going and silence the static. DeChellis is a great guy, but it took him a year longer to take a Big Ten school to the NCAA tournament than it took him to get an Atlantic Sun Conference team there.
The question is whether Penn State can identify the right guy and then persuade him to take on the challenge. Opening the wallet a little would help the convincing process. Would Chambers - the up-and-coming Philly guy who has been very successful in two seasons at BU - be interested or will he keep the dice and roll for something better? Will someone like Everhart - 17 seasons as a head coach, zero NCAA appearances - really represent the best Penn State can do?
It really can't be as hard to change course as Penn State has made it look for the last 30 years. It just can't. We'll see what happens as athletic director Curley hires the coach he hopes will finally turn the tide. And meanwhile in Annapolis, Ed DeChellis, who tried for eight years, knows that some tides can't be fought. You have to raise the anchor now and then and let the current take you away.