Penn State Basketball Program Hits Reset Button Again

Tim KingCorrespondent IMay 27, 2011

TUCSON, AZ - MARCH 17:  head coach Ed DeChellis of the Penn State Nittany Lions coaches during their game against the Temple Owls in the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at McKale Center on March 17, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The last thing that Tim Curley expected last week when Ed DeChellis walked into his office was that the basketball coach had his letter of resignation in hand. DeChellis had just taken his Nittany Lions to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade ,but that event didn't have teams racing to State College to sign America's next hot coaching talent out from under him.

Curley and most of the athletic department in Happy Valley were stunned that an alum would walk out the door and take a pay cut to go to a lesser program after eight years on the job and three years left on his contract.

But through the tears at his press conference later that afternoon, it was clear that Ed DeChellis knew exactly what he was doing. 

Sure, he was leaving Happy Valley and some great friendships. At the bottom of it all you'd want Ed DeChellis as a friend.  He is as decent a man as you will ever meet. The tears spoke to leave that part of himself behind in a place where he left Beaver County and first became a man.

But DeChellis had also seen the future in Happy Valley and it wasn't what he wanted or needed. 

A wobbly program with another major rebuilding effort on the horizon, more competition for money, support and recognition from the fledgling hockey program setting up shop across the street, three years left on a contract that he likely would not coach to the end of, all of those hours on the road recruiting kids who could play but didn't fit the Penn State mold and the stress of more losing must have seemed less than appealing.

He also saw the future at Navy: a 50-percent cut in pay but a chance to coach for almost as long as he wanted, a school full of athletes who don't want to be anywhere else in the world, loyal alumni, lower expectations on the court (but not where it counts), a nice place to live and a chance to make a difference in the lives of young men who are going to make a difference in the world.

When you survive cancer as DeChellis did several years ago, you learn that there are more important things in life than wins on a basketball court. The competitor in you still wants to win, but there is a realization that life is about more than that. As much as anything else, the chance to do something grand and still win a couple of games along the way made the decision for the 52-year-old coach.

DeChellis will do just fine in Annapolis. He was a good small-time coach before he arrived at Penn State and should be able to turn the ship rather quickly in a place without Big Ten expectations.

On the other hand, without a coach, Penn State faces a far more uncertain future. It's no great state secret that the basketball program is the poor red-headed stepchild of Happy Valley.  Students refer to it as something to do between football seasons and they are right.  

But now with the volleyball program winning titles left and right, the wrestling team following the same course and a well-funded high visibility hockey program about to launch, the hoops team is falling behind further and faster than ever before. 

Which path to take? The present one, where the kids all graduate, the team wins occasionally and the team just about breaks even financially? Or the one never traveled, where Penn State spends the money for a high-profile or at least highly-recognized coach who recruits kids who don't really fit the Penn State tradition. Kids who aren't academic All-American but can light up a scoreboard. Kids who win but don't stay long. Kids that always before told Penn State "no."

Which will it be: the next Ed DeChellis or Butler's Brad Stevens?

Penn State has been at this crossroads before; in fact, three times since 1990. Each time Penn made the comfortable choice and the program sunk back to its previous low-water mark. Is this the time to damn the torpedoes and sail into uncharted waters?