The world has changed since Pat Chambers was announced as the head coach of the Penn State men’s basketball program in the summer of 2011.
Standing between then-President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley, Chambers was simply the latest in a line of energetic new coaching hires ready to take Penn State athletics to a new level. The Sandusky grand jury released 155 days later and trial that followed changed all of that, there was no going back to business as usual.
Penn State basketball has never been the poster child of the athletic department, often chalked up to the enormity of the big brother across the street. The door has rarely opened far enough for the program to sneak through in to the spotlight.
There were no winners in the Penn State scandal. But as fans filtered from a somber Beaver Stadium following a 17-14 loss to Nebraska only days after the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, many of them made their way to the first game of the Chambers era.
The 70-55 victory over Hartford that followed displayed a glimpse of what the future would hold: a gritty style of play that let few possessions by the opponent go unchallenged, and few games ever out of reach. It was a style of play that fans could relate to: battling, moving forward, hard work and effort.
Whether he wanted to or not, over the next several months, Chambers became the most familiar face in Penn State athletics, appearing everywhere in town and perpetually greeting students and community members.
While hosting some basketball talent this past summer, Chambers hobbled into the gym , still recovering from knee surgery. Suddenly the intensity picked up. Bodies flew, fast breaks were just a little faster, the squeaking of sneakers was just a little louder. When the whistle blew, players ran to Chambers, not noticing the newly hired coach standing to the side of the court.
“Guys, go say hello to (football) coach (Bill) O’Brien,” Chambers said, pointing toward the first-year football coach who had slipped in to watch practice.
The players headed for O’Brien, half interested in meeting O’Brien, half interested in finding their water bottles. The two coaches shared a moment, shook hands, and O’Brien made his way back out of the gym.
Only a few weeks later Penn State was looking to pick up the pieces again following the announcement of the NCAA sanctions. O’Brien, hired in January to replace Paterno, was working the national media outlets. Chambers joined his colleague in the battle by appearing on multiple national radio shows himself to spread the mission of the athletic program.
Much like his team, Chambers was battling.
“When I took this job at Penn State, you know, it comes with the territory.” Chambers told StateCollege.com. “Even though basketball isn’t a cash cow here, we’re still in the Big Ten, we’re still recognized. With what has happened it has kind of catapulted us, people want to talk to you, people want to hear your message, what you’re feeling, what your team is going through, what the community (thinks) … everything.”
This fall, Chambers stood outside of Beaver Stadium with his wife following a fundraiser with many of the community’s prominent business figures. Standing alone across from Gate A, Chambers reflected on the past few months.
“What I was saying was what I felt in my heart,” Chambers said. “It wasn’t anything I didn’t feel truthful about, I’m glad I’m here, there is a reason I’m here, I really believe there is a reason for everything.
“Look I was stabbed,” Chambers said, the scar on his neck still visible years later. “I believe there is a reason for everything. I’m here to help in any way I can, that’s why I don’t push my program during those interviews. I try and push the university, and the entire athletic department and try and push football, because we really need football, let’s be real, I want to be able to support Bill O’Brien and those kids.
“(O’Brien) is going to be the guy that you want to throw a football helmet and the shoulder pads on for him. He inspires me every day with what he has done.” And then Pat Chambers crossed the street to greet students camped at Nittanyville. Penn State will open practice on Oct. 13, Chambers will be there, moving forward with his team, and taking the University along with them.