Series Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series about Penn State basketball’s efforts to make a name for itself in Philadelphia recruiting-wise. This story looks at the coaching staff’s attempts to connect with Philadelphia recruits and bring them on campus to draw interest.
Recently, Forbes Magazine ranked Penn State football the No. 13 most valuable program in the country with a value of $79 million.
Considering its financial reach and the lack of a major college football program in Philadelphia, the Lions football program has become a big name and destination spot for many city athletes.
Not only is the football program highly televised in the Philadelphia area, but also the team’s roster last year boasted 13 players from the Tri-State region.
But, does Penn State basketball have the same influence within those bounds? According to some of the players, not so much.
“I never really thought much about Penn State basketball [in high school],” said Lions guard D.J. Newbill, a Philadelphia native. “In the city, Penn State basketball isn’t really talked about. It’s more of a focus on the football program.”
While the football program has been thought of over Lions basketball, not understanding the Philadelphia scene and failing to make a conscious effort historically doesn’t help matters for the basketball program.
Both Philadelphia University coach Herb Magee and Germantown Academy coach Jim Fenerty said former Lions basketball coach Jerry Dunn, who was at the helm from 1995-2003, did a solid job reaching into southern New Jersey and snagging a few recruits for Penn State.
Dunn led the Lions to the 2001 Sweet 16 — their best postseason outcome since a Final Four appearance in 1954 — along with scorers Joe and Jon Crispin from Pitman, N.J.
But since Dunn’s departure, the feeling from folks around the city was that Penn State basketball lacked a commitment to further recruit the area.
“Occasionally people would come through [Penn State], but they weren’t people who knew the landscape of Philadelphia,” Fenerty said. “And when I say Philadelphia you’re basically talking southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.”
With that being said, Fenerty said Chambers and his staff have made strides to fill that void.
However, Penn State assistant coach and West Philadelphia native Eugene Burroughs acknowledged that researching and rekindling relationships around the city can only go so far.
For the Lions’ staff, getting recruits and their families to visit Happy Valley and the team’s practice facilities is half the battle.
“Our biggest obstacle is just getting people from the Philadelphia area up here and really getting a feel for what Penn State basketball is all about,” Burroughs said. “…In our tenure here, we’re trying to get people from Philly here and get them to come visit the school. Recently all the kids, families and coaches that come up walk away blown away by our facilities and the environment here.”
And while getting high school prospects to make the three-and-a-half hour drive to State College may be a hindrance, bringing Penn State basketball to Philadelphia is another avenue the Lions have used to reach out.
Not only did Penn State visit St. Joe’s on Philadelphia’s City Avenue last season, but the team also made the trip to the historic Palestra this season to face La Salle.
The Palestra — known as the “Cathedral of College Basketball” and home to Big 5 hoops — not only was the venue for the game, but also provided a forum for basketball fans around the city to see Penn State in action.
And while they wish the 25-point loss could be changed, the coaching staff hopes that the trip still made a positive inroad for those in attendance.
“Obviously you want to go down there and win games, but we have to start somewhere,” Burroughs said.
“For us to get down there into Philly and play games is great for our basketball program, for our kids that are from Philly and also it’ll let people see that we’re coming to the area. By coming to people hopefully they’ll latch onto that.”
And if head coach Patrick Chambers has anything to say about, attempts to get in the faces of Philadelphia basketball fans and players will continue to happen.
When asked if Chambers would like to continue the trend of playing Philadelphia schools and making trips to the city, his beliefs resonated with Burroughs’.
“Yeah. That’s what we did this year. Hopefully we’ll be able to do it next year and the year after that,” Chambers said with a smirk. “…I think it’s important for people to see us.”