There were only five reporters in the Bryce Jordan Center media room on Tuesday afternoon as Penn State coach Pat Chambers entered for the latest iteration of his weekly-ish media session.
At 7-8 the Nittany Lions continue to trudge through the thick of the Big Ten slate with the same annual “so close” emotions that accompany a decently competitive loss at No. 2 Michigan, and the belief that the Nittany Lions should have beaten Indiana and probably could have upended Maryland in College Park.
If the almost-won-but-didn’t narrative feels like déjà vu, that probably won’t change anytime soon, nor will the size of the media contingent documenting that journey. The Nittany Lions are objectively among the nation’s least experienced teams and are saddled with the privilege of facing the fifth best strength of schedule in the nation. There is little respite on the horizon, only more of the grind.
The sad irony for Chambers is that, despite all of this, Penn State has been fairly close to actually getting over the hump. It’s the kind of close-but-so-far belief that has turned Penn State basketball fandom into something of ritual self-flagellation rooted in eternal optimism.
Which was probably why, at least in part, Chambers gave freshman guard Myles Dread a firm shove in the chest last week during a timeout in Ann Arbor. It was contact that earned Chambers a one-game suspension, forced to watch Penn State’s ensuing loss to Wisconsin from his basement not far down the road.
The frustration? The Nittany Lions are talented in the individual sense, but they are disjointed as a unit on the offensive end of the floor, saved only by an otherwise tenacious defense that has been the program’s calling card since day one. Mike Watkins is recovering mentally and physically, Lamar Stevens is giving everything he has, and Josh Reaves is turning into a shooter despitenot really being one while still playing All-Big Ten defense. All three are waiting to see how many of their teammates, largely all unproven, have found their shot on any given night. It is a team that could beat anyone and lose to anyone, and so far they’ve done a bit of both.
It has resulted in exactly what has transpired 15 games into the season. Penn State has been so close, and yet so far, very good and very bad in every way possible. In turn, it ferments a growing frustration somewhere deep in the belly of an otherwise optimistic man.
Of course the ability to logically unpack why Chambers might have shoved Dread is somewhat secondary to the fact he did it. Even if the act was largely harmless in the grand history of altercations between coaches and players, it wasn’t justified. The great coaches that have laid hands on their players are far and away outnumber by the ones that have not. It’s not society it’s just reality.
That was something that Chambers acknowledged on Tuesday.
“I’m still learning, still growing,” Chambers said. “Still trying to become that leader and that head coach everyone wants you to be. And that’s a process and it’s a growth process and I’m working really hard at that. I was truly apologetic to Myles and his family. I apologized to Myles right after the game, called his father the first thing the next morning. I thought that was really important to let them know how I felt. Because I love Myles, I love my players.
“Myles is a terrific kid and his parents were very supportive and I appreciate that.”
For Penn State, the challenges ahead will last far longer than this singular incident. Chambers’ track record over the years has undeniably been one of support, nobody goes to bat for his players more than he does. His care for them is genuine. He has always been passionate and, if anything, far more subdued in recent years than earlier in his tenure.
Even so, it’s difficult to cast Chambers as the victim in this situation, no matter how out-of-the-ordinary the transgression might have been or how well-intended his motivations might be. Even if the suspension was an optics save more than anything else. College coaches pride themselves on the belief that they prepare young men and women for the rest of their lives.
And if becoming physical with a college student is the only way to get a message across, it might not be the player that needs to change.