Why Philly recruits bypass Penn State basketball

Nits coach Ed DeChellis excited about exposure from NCAA bid.
Nits coach Ed DeChellis excited about exposure from NCAA bid.
Posted: March 17, 2011

TUCSON, Ariz. - Historians, take note. The time period was the early 1950s. The Ivy League was a notion then, not an athletic conference. But the Harvards and Yales and Princetons were in the process of making the affiliation official and remaking their sports programs by de-emphasizing them, especially football, and keeping scholarships out of the equation.

Penn - then a national football power, a school where Bednarik once roamed the earth - had a decision to make. It chose the academic prestige of the Ivies over the athletic prestige of the big time. Among other things - and this has been acknowledged by no less a historian than Joe Paterno - that decision nearly 6 decades ago opened up the state of Pennsylvania for a football program with the vision and the resources to build another national power.

It is impossible to predict what might have happened to Penn State football had Penn committed to the big time rather than the Ivies - if the biggest population center and media market in the state had been locked up by a school that sold out Franklin Field every Saturday and had already dominated the headlines for decades.

Or maybe it isn't impossible to predict. I mean, how can everyone not understand what the Penn State basketball program is up against?

"My colleagues understand, especially my Big Ten brethren," said Ed DeChellis, the Penn State coach. "We sit around and talk, and you look at their rosters, and they're filled with kids from their state. The Illinois kids are all from Illinois - same with Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State. Ohio State is built on Ohio kids. That's what I've always tried to do.

"I've tried to get to Philly, to get your name and face down there. It hasn't worked as well as we'd have liked it to, but that doesn't mean we're not going to continue to work."

The Nittany Lions are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001. Their opponent in today's second round, the Temple Owls, draws a bright line under the issue. Of all of the big state schools, Penn State has less access to the state's major population center than any of them. No one else has to deal with such a thing as the Big 5 (plus Drexel). No other state school has to attempt to penetrate such a culture of splendid, cherished insularity.

"Every school has its challenges, and we do, too," DeChellis said. "We don't have a great population near us with an abundance of recruitable talent. We just have to keep swinging.

"Philadelphia is a Big East town. Pittsburgh is a Big East town, mediawise. It's hard sometimes to get stuff in the paper, to get your message across. And kids on the East Coast, they can stay closer to home and their folks can see them play. They can have breakfast at home and be at school for lunch. And kids in Philly, I don't think they think west. It's just east.

"I can make it from my doorstep to the Schuylkill Expressway in 3 hours, but it still seems long for them because everything is so convenient, so quick."

Assistant coach Dan Earl, who played at Shawnee High in South Jersey, has plenty of Philadelphia contacts. He also has had phone conversations with potential recruits that began with, "What, is it 8 hours away?"

The logistics of his business dictate that if Earl wants to see a Philadelphia kid, it sometimes means having to miss his own team's practice that day. Penn State coaches have to make decisions about recruiting trips all of the time, about whether it is worth it to pursue a kid if his heart and his family and his tradition are in Philadelphia.

Temple's Lavoy Allen said that Penn State was one of the first schools to recruit him. But when asked if he ever heard Philadelphia kids talk about Penn State as a possible destination, Allen said, "No, I haven't really heard much about them from other Philadelphia guys."

The current Penn State roster features only one Philadelphia-area player, senior forward Andrew Jones from Abington Friends.

"We try to get down to Philly as much as possible," Earl said. "Philly has very good basketball talent and, as a generalization, there aren't as many players in the rest of the state. So we try, but it has been a challenge. When you win games, when you get into the NCAA Tournament, hopefully people recognize you more.

"The challenge is, you're battling all of those schools for kids. Often, it's just a matter of getting the kid to campus. When you see the facilities, what's going on, Penn State, in general, it helps. It's half the battle."

This tournament, after the Nittany Lions' run to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament, is another piece of the fight. DeChellis said that last weekend was the first time in his 8 years that the Penn State basketball team played on CBS.

"What we've done in the Big Ten Tournament already has helped," DeChellis said. "Just from the voicemails to my assistants: 'Hey, so-and-so called me back today and they have a kid.' Before, we were always the one calling.

"You can't buy this exposure. It just gives you a little more zip."

No one, though, should underestimate the hurdles - starting with the history, maybe the biggest hurdle of all. *

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