Friday, July 1, 2011

A stone untapped: The story of Patrick Chambers' tenure at and departure from Boston University

By Craig Meyer/DFP Staff

As he walked off the court and strode through the bowels and arteries of the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., Patrick Chambers was content if not downright and outwardly satisfied.

The Boston University men’s basketball coach had been at the helm of and overseen one of the most accomplished seasons in the recent history of the program and was fresh off an NCAA Tournament appearance in which his Terriers were within single digits of the No.1 seed University of Kansas for a majority of a game played in front of a national television audience.

Even though his team ultimately lost by 19 points, it certainly didn’t feel that way for many close to the program; rather, there existed a prevailing sentiment of pride and accomplishment for an admirable performance and perhaps more than anything, a sense of excitement and anticipation for what laid ahead of the program with their perpetually-energetic 39-year-old coach leading the way.

But perhaps for Chambers, bliss derived from ignorance, for amidst all the joy and eagerness that had overcome the BU program in the aftermath of an America East title and a berth in the Big Dance rested a salient truth – Chambers has just coached his last game for the Terriers.

Just over two months and a two-year contract extension later, the school announced on June 3 that Chambers, the young up-and-comer who had turned around the program in just two short years, had left BU to accept the head coaching position at Penn State University.

“I looked at those kids at the end of that game in the locker room and I knew we were close to building something really special and we had to keep it going,” Chambers said. “That’s all I was thinking about.”


For BU, it represented the culmination of a stint that was brief as it was memorable, leaving many with a sense of loss, left to wonder what the program could have become had it been able to retain Chambers for at least a few more years.

For Chambers, the move to Penn State and the Big Ten signals a pivotal shift in the career of a promising head coach, a career that had begun just two years prior when BU selected him as the man to jumpstart and elevate the stature of the program after a stagnant end to Dennis Wolff’s 15-year tenure on Commonwealth Ave.

It was then and there in April 2009, standing at a podium before family members, a handful of local media representatives and the group of BU players he was hoping to win over that Chambers made a bold declaration that would define his brief tenure at the university.

“I look at this program like the Gonzaga or Xavier of the East,” Chambers said that day.

For a first-time head coach taking over a program that had not been to the NCAA Tournament in seven years, let alone one that played in the fledging America East Conference, it was a daring and entirely risky move, one that could potentially create a lofty standard that may never be reached regardless of how well his teams performed.

But it was a stance that Chambers held firm to, one that he blazed an encouraging path toward in each of his two seasons. In his first season, Chambers managed to take a talented, veteran-laden team featuring seniors like guards Corey Lowe, Tyler Morris and Carlos Strong and exceed the 20-win plateau despite a discouraging start to the season in non-conference play.
The team ultimately fell a game short of the NCAA Tournament, losing to a familiar foe in Marqus Blakely and the University of Vermont in the AE Championship.

With a decorated senior class graduating, Chambers brought about a full-fledged transition, one with his distinct brand and personality attached to it. Gone were the likes of Lowe, Morris and Strong, but in to replace them were three experienced transfers and a banner recruiting class loaded with talented players from the Philadelphia area, a class that was widely-ranked in the top 10 among mid-major programs.

The 2010-11 season proved to be a landmark one for both Chambers and the BU program as a whole. It began with another lackluster start, one that extended into conference play as the Terriers stood at 10-13 in early February following a humiliating 60-48 loss at the University of New Hampshire. However, it was at that time that the makeshift team featuring just three returning players banded together and set out to right what appeared to be something of a sinking ship.

Led largely by senior forward John Holland, BU reeled off 11 consecutive victories, a run that took them through the regular season, AE Tournament and into the promised land of the NCAA Tournament, where the loss to the Jayhawks ended the winning streak and the season.

The image of the once-apathetic and entirely uninterested BU fan base rushing the Agganis Arena court in throngs after the Terriers captured the AE crown appeared side-by-side with a shot of Chambers standing and cheering triumphantly on top of the scorers’ table in the very montages that have come to define March Madness and college basketball itself.

Perhaps the program wasn’t to the point of a perennial mid-major contender like a Gonzaga or a Xavier, but at the very least, the long-dormant, over-looked program appeared to be gaining a sense of visibility and identity that came with success.

And at the forefront of it all was Chambers, the man who had become the face of a BU basketball program that had lacked one for so long. There was a growing sense that BU athletic director Mike Lynch had managed to attract one of the game’s up-and-coming coaching prospects and would have him leading his program for the foreseeable future.

Even opposing coaches took notice.

“When’s the extension?” quipped University of Hartford head coach John Gallagher after his Hawks were ousted by BU in the semifinals of the AE Tournament.

Fittingly enough, Chambers inked a two-year contract extension on May 5 that would keep him at BU through the 2015-16 season.

“This is where I want to be. We’ve made this my dream job and again, you don’t get this type of support anywhere,” Chambers told The Daily Free Press shortly after cutting the deal. “We love the city of Boston, we love the university and we’re very grateful of this opportunity that they’ve given us and for BU basketball and what it’s done for us in this short time as a head coach.”


On the heels of an appearance in the Big Dance and with a new contract in place, the offseason appeared to be going normally and smoothly enough for Chambers and those surrounding the BU program, especially with the annual coaching carousel firmly in check.

Chambers and his wife Courtney even began looking to move out of the house they rented in Brookline in order to buy one for themselves and their two young children, Grace and Ryan.

However, days after Chambers signed the extension, a move took place that went largely unnoticed in the college basketball world at the time, but it proved to be one that brought the Patrick Chambers Era at BU to a premature close. Billy Lange, who had been among those who recommended Chambers to be Villanova University’s director of basketball operations in 2004, opted to leave his head coaching position at the United States Naval Academy to accept Chambers’ old position at Villanova as associate head coach.

A bigger collective shockwave came weeks later on May 23, as it was formally announced that the opening at Navy left by Lange would be filled by Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis. It was a hire that left many wondering why a Big Ten head coach would leave for a pay cut at a Patriot League school, let alone one with the strict academic and admissions standards of Navy. Many in the national media speculated that DeChellis left because he was likely to be ousted the following season, a reality compounded by what many perceived to be an overall lack of institutional support for the men’s basketball program at the football-crazed school.

Regardless of DeChellis’ motives for departing his alma mater, his move to Navy left an open seat for an aspiring coach looking to break into the coaching ranks in one of college basketball’s most prestigious and competitive conferences.

Names began to surface for the position, ranging from the likes of Duquesne University’s Ron Everhart and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Ron Jeter to coaching icons like Bob Knight and Larry Brown. But through it all, one name seemed to gain momentum as the search carried on for weeks – Chambers.

The perpetual energy and enthusiasm of the young coach, combined with his deep recruiting connections in nearby Philadelphia were enticing and bordered on ideal for many Nittany Lion faithful – and ultimately for university and athletic department officials.

Exactly one week after DeChellis unexpectedly left, Chambers said that he was contacted by the school late on the night of May 30. A series of interviews followed and toward the end of the week, the writing wasn’t necessarily on the wall, but it was certainly on the verge of being drafted and etched.

Penn State had zeroed in on their man and that man was Chambers.

A tweet from CBS and MSG Network college basketball insider Jon Rothstein on June 2 said that Chambers was likely going to be named the next Penn State head coach and from there, other reports followed, all of them indicating much of the same. As many candidates do when they know they’re not going to get offered the job, Everhart pulled his name from the search on Thursday, with Jeter following suit on Friday.

As Friday dawned, Chambers was officially offered the position and was set to accept it, but before he did so, he had to break the news to his players.

Sitting from Chambers’ position, the move made enough sense. It was a chance to coach in the Big Ten Conference, his salary would be nearly tripled (his base salary at BU was approximately $250,000 a year) and perhaps most importantly, it was effectively a move back home, only a couple hours away from his native Philadelphia.

But while most everyone understands that college basketball, despite the NCAA’s moniker as a “non-profit,” is a business above all and that Chambers was acting in his own best interest, it is not so cut-and-dry, so logical and sensible to those with whom he was the closest -- his very own players.

“I did it a little differently – I talked to some individually, one in a big group,” Chambers said of his announcement. “Regardless of what is printed and what is said, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

“I really do care about those kids. They sacrificed and they gave it up, and I think about them all the time.”

Among those that Chambers cared about and left behind was senior forward/center Patrick Hazel, who will now be playing for his fourth head coach in his four years of college eligibility.

There was also senior forward Jake O’Brien, who Chambers convinced to stay at BU after O’Brien was on the verge of transferring after Wolff was fired and Chambers was brought aboard. With the announced hire of Boston College associate head coach Joe Jones on June 22, O’Brien and senior center Jeff Pelage will now be playing for their third coach in their time on Commonwealth Ave.

Lastly, there was Chambers’ banner recruiting class, one that featured sophomore standouts like guard D.J. Irving, forward Dom Morris, guard/forward Travis Robinson and guard Mike Terry, among others. While the team that Chambers inherited at BU was comprised largely of Wolff’s recruits, this was the class in which Chambers was to make his mark at BU, a class that fittingly featured six players from the Philadelphia-area. Most of all, it was the class that would leave a lasting impression and help forge BU’s path to one day become an elite mid-major basketball program.

Over a year removed from Chambers sitting in the respective players’ living rooms and assuring the players and their families that his program above all others in the country was the right choice, he was gone, leaving behind the young players who were left to see who fate would choose as the man to coach them for the majority of their college careers.

But while he cared immensely for his players at BU, the opportunity that Penn State presented was ultimately too much to turn down.

“It’s the Big Ten – it’s one of, if not the best, league in the country,” Chambers said. “It’s got a great reputation, it’s got the Big Ten Network, it’s got football, it’s a BCS school. There’s a solid foundation.

“My two brothers went to Penn State, my nephew’s a walk-on at Penn State, so there were a lot of variables.”


Chambers’ departure from BU is nothing out of the ordinary in the college basketball world – in fact, it’s a mere anecdote in a greater trend that regularly takes place in what can be known as the proverbial coaching ladder. After working for years as an assistant, someone like Chambers finally gets a chance at being a head coach, usually at a low-major school like BU. If successful, he will likely attract attention from larger, mid-major programs offering more money and incentives, and more often than not, said low-major coach will jump at that opportunity. From there, there is a plethora of high-major jobs of varying quality and desirability in the six primary conferences that pay seven figures and offer a coach a chance to be at the forefront of the sport.

While his move to Penn State – going from an AE school to a Big Ten basketball program that isn’t a mid-major but certainly pays like one – doesn’t fall in line with the basic coaching trajectory, Chambers made the same kind of move that his mentor Jay Wright did when he left Hofstra University for Villanova in 2001, the same sort of career decision that coaches have been making for decades.

The decision to leave for Penn State makes enough sense to any observer of the game given all the variables at play, but for some, resentment and disappointment may linger with Chambers’ departure. The man who came in to the program promising to turn it into the next Gonzaga or Xavier had just left after two seasons on the job. While two postseason appearances in two seasons is nothing to scoff at, it certainly doesn’t amount to the sustained excellence of a Gonzaga or Xavier, programs that regularly advance in the NCAA Tournament, success that comes from years of diligence and hard work in building the respective programs.

Chambers acknowledged that he can understand a sense of disappointment from the growing BU fan base, but he also noted that he could have never anticipated the series of events that developed in early June.

“I hope they appreciate the hard work that we put in to BU and the basketball program, and I’d like to think that we’re leaving the program in a [better] place than when I started,” Chambers said. “I thought we brought in great kids and good character kids, ones that were into getting their degrees and showed that on the floor, and represented the program and the university in the way that you want it to be represented.

“It wasn’t like I was looking to leave – I signed a two year extension, we were looking for a house. It’s bittersweet. It wasn’t my intention to get there and leave as soon as I could. That wasn’t the plan at all – the plan was long-term. I think we built something special there.”

With his departure to State College, Pa., Chambers will no longer be in charge of building BU into the next Gonzaga or Xavier, but in his mind, his departure does not stifle what he sees as the long-term potential of the Terriers basketball program.

“The talent is there – we had six seniors coming back with some talented sophomores,” Chambers said. “It’s there, but somebody’s just got to keep it going and get those guys to play hard and believe. They’ll do it too because there’s great leadership there [at BU].”

Lynch and the leadership that Chambers alluded to conducted an extensive three-week search in which they had a pool of 50 candidates, 12 of whom Lynch talked with directly and seven of whom interviewed for the position. Ultimately, Lynch and BU administration tabbed Jones as Chambers’ replacement.

But while there is a sense of continuity bringing in another Jay Wright protégé who promises to play an up-tempo style of basketball, the series of events represents a new era of BU basketball, a new tenure with a new coach in place who will craft and mold the program to his own specifications.

Two years after Chambers moved his family and his career north to Boston, he packed his bags and boxed his belongings to head back home. He left behind a bare office and a clean slate for someone new to continue the tireless work and wholesale change he brought about in his 26 months on the job, a stark reality that stands in contrast to his routinely-referenced mantra of “tapping the stone.”

Years from now it is unsure what will become of Chambers’ decision and the direction of the BU basketball program. Chambers could prove many skeptics and pundits wrong and turn what many perceive to be a “dead-end” job at Penn State and make the Nittany Lions a perennial Big Ten contender, a feat that would likely grant him a job at a more prestigious basketball program. Or the possibility always remains that he could fail to do what DeChellis, Jerry Dunn, Dick Harter and many others before him failed to do, which is lure top recruits to rural Pennsylvania, regularly make the NCAA Tournament and make people (and administration) care about basketball at the football-centric school.

As for BU, the hire of Jones could be a different chapter in the same story of BU basketball coaching hires in which the school replaces a successful, up-and-coming coach who bolted for greener pastures (Rick Pitino, Mike Jarvis, Chambers) with someone who fails to continue his predecessor’s work and the program slides back into a state of mediocrity and indifference. Then again, BU could do exactly what a program like Xavier has done and replace its outgoing coaches with someone who can maintain the program’s positive momentum, a situation in which Jones could turn out to be the Sean Miller to Chambers’ Thad Matta. And though his tenure may not end as quickly as Chambers' did, if Jones find success at BU, he too will leave as so many before him like Pitino, Jarvis, John Kuester and his predecessor have.

But regardless of how things play out down the road, Chambers maintains that he will always remember his brief career at BU.

While the stone which he constantly referenced -- one that was actually displayed in his office, having retrieved it from Cape Cod before his first season -- applied more to his individual teams and their goals for the season, the stone was something of a metaphor for the BU program itself. Under those parameters, Chambers was the artist, architect and master planner all in one, the one who would shape, mold and define the figureless boulder he was given.

But even with the conference title, the NCAA appearance and the promising showing against Kansas, Chambers never acknowledged that his teams had truly tapped that stone. And for all the progress Chambers made in two years with the Terriers, the program itself remained in a similar state.

Even if the stone he constantly alluded to was never entirely tapped, Chambers maintains that regardless of where he is and what his personal achievements are in the future, he will never forget the school that took a chance on him and started what he hopes to be a long and prosperous career as a college basketball head coach.

“I know it was only two years, but we developed trusting relationships and I’m definitely going to miss it, there’s no question about it,” Chambers said. “We loved where we lived and loved Boston – it was an incredible experience.

“If you told me two years ago that I’d be sitting here as the new head coach at Penn State, I would have thought something was wrong with you. It’s just true.”

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