Series Note: This is the first installment of a three-part series about Penn State basketball’s efforts to make a name for itself in Philadelphia recruiting-wise.
Upon arriving in State College, Penn State guard and Southern Mississippi transfer D.J. Newbill gained popularity fast for his ability to get to the rim and cross up defenders.
While these attributes of Newbill were a positive sign for the Nittany Lions, it was perhaps what didn’t show up in the box score — or a dictionary — that has rubbed off on this team: “Philly swagger”.
It’s a phrase that has been thrown around quite a bit since Newbill’s arrival, and even head coach Patrick Chambers can relate.
“I’m going to use a very popular word right now: swagger,” Chambers said at the team’s media day in November. “He just has that ‘Philly chip.’ We all know what it means. He’s got that toughness. He’s from the streets of north Philly. He’s going to grind.”
Newbill introduced this style to the players, but Chambers has owned the same energy since his playing days.
Growing up the youngest of 12 children in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square, the Lions coach spent a chunk of his childhood and adolescence becoming a student of the game and started to manifest Philly grit in his own way.
It didn’t matter if he was religiously following Big 5 basketball or sneaking into tripleheaders at the historic Palestra, Chambers simply couldn’t get enough of city basketball.
Throughout his playing and coaching career thus far, Chambers has soaked in and embodied what Philadelphia basketball demonstrates: a straight-forward and gritty approach.
With that being said, it’s no surprise the fiery coach and his coaching staff have made a conscious effort to establish a name for Penn State basketball within the city. Considering the Lions’ lack of program prestige coupled with the prowess of “Big 5” schools (St. Joe’s, Temple, La Salle, Penn and Villanova), there has been a mutual disconnect between Philadelphia players and hoops in Happy Valley.
However, that desire for Philadelphia basketball still lives in Chambers, and he’s trying to change the perception of Penn State basketball within Philadelphia through recruiting the city heavily.
“We have to recruit [while in Philadelphia],” Chambers said before the Lions’ contest against La Salle at the Palestra on Dec. 5. “We want to get there as much as we can, and do it intelligently.”
Returning to their roots
Chambers started out learning under Philadelphia high school coaching icon Dan Dougherty at Episcopal Academy, just 30 minutes outside of the city.
After being mentored there, Chambers advanced to Philadelphia University, where he was guided by another legend in coach Herb Magee.
Magee — NCAA basketball’s all-time winningest coach and a 2011 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee — coached Chambers from 1990-94 at Philadelphia (formerly Philadelphia Textile) and helped him leave the school as its all-time assists leader.
“He's a tough guy. I mean he did not have much skill as a basketball player but he was as tough as nails,” Magee said about Chambers’ playing days.
Piggybacking off his passion for Philly hoops throughout high school and college, Chambers also jumped into the coaching profession starting in no other place than southeastern Pennsylvania.
After a one-year stint at Delaware Valley (Pa.) College, Chambers returned to Episcopal as a top assistant under Dougherty in 1999 and stayed until 2004.
In 2004, Chambers got his first big break as the Director of Basketball Operations at Villanova, and he quickly rose the ranks from assistant coach to associate head coach in 2009.
As an assistant under Wildcats coach Jay Wright, Chambers most notably helped haul in a 2009 recruiting class that was ranked No. 3 in the nation by ESPN.com and welcomed in four ESPNU Top 100 players.
Chambers was then hired to be the head coach at Boston University. He spent two successful seasons at the school before returning to the Keystone State when Penn State hired him in 2011.
When Chambers arrived in Happy Valley, he brought with him some assistants from the City of Brotherly Love. Both Eugene Burroughs and Brian Daly had relationships with Chambers through the web of Philadelphia basketball.
Burroughs, a West Philadelphia native, played basketball with Chambers at Episcopal, and Daly was a four-year letterwinner at St. Joe’s.
And now the Lions’ coaching staff is refocusing a lot of recruiting attention back to all the people they built relationships with along the way.
“For us it’s more of exhausting your network of people you know from the years of being in Philly and coaching there,” Burroughs said. “…When you're from that area you know guys that have kids that are in eighth and ninth grade, so it starts with building those relationships and staying in contact with those guys.”
Building those relationships has certainly helped when Chambers and his staff are recognized walking into a room or watching a game by basketball moguls around the city.
For Chambers and company, a big part of making recruiting inroads within Philadelphia is retracing their steps to high schools and coaches that they once competed for or against in their respective playing and coaching careers.
“I think [Chambers] has a good reputation in Philadelphia already because of the time he played around here in high school, at [Philly U] and when he was an assistant at Villanova,” Magee said. “So people know who he is when he shows up in the city, which is important.”
Germantown Academy head coach Jim Fenerty echoed Magee’s thoughts about Chambers and his coaching staff’s presence within Philadelphia.
Fenerty — one of only seven boy’s high school coaches in Philadephia to reach 500 wins — said Chambers and his staff not only have the recognition factor working for them, but also the respect from inside the Philadelphia basketball circles.
“With Pat and his staff, they know the people down here,” Fenerty said. “And then there’s one thing to know them, but they also get that mutual respect.”