For DeChellis, Annapolis is a safe harbor

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Eight years ago, when Penn State hired Ed DeChellis as its men's basketball coach, I ripped the decision in the student newspaper.

DeChellis was an uninspiring choice. He was notable mostly for being exactly the coach that any fed up Penn State basketball fan (there are like 12 of them, maybe) dreaded. He came from a Penn State lineage, having begun his career as a graduate assistant before returning to serve for 10 years as an assistant to Bruce Parkhill (9 years) and Jerry Dunn (1). That, in case you're rightfully unfamiliar with middling college basketball coaches, is not a good thing.

But it was seen as a selling point for those that powered the Penn State spin machine then; the words loyalty and family hung heavy in the air during those days. And it's not as if DeChellis had no resume: he was coming off an NCAA tournament appearance with East Tennessee State, which he had built into a Southern Conference contender over seven seasons.


DeChellis simply had no juice. No current. Nothing about him gave any indication that he was the guy to drastically change a situation that had stagnated for decades. He was another in a line of likeable coaches to inherit a job in which you must be far more than just likeable in order to recruit good players.

My lasting memory of DeChellis -- I covered him from up close for a season, then from afar as a beat writer covering Indiana hoops -- is of him sitting near the top of the bleachers at an AAU event in Cincinnati. While Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim and the like plopped down in the dead center of the bleachers, waiting to be seen, and ambitious assistants scurried from court to court in search of hidden talent, DeChellis sat alone away from the pack near a corner.


These events, to be fair, aren't exactly engaging. This particular one was set up so that six games took place at once, and if there'd been a turnover counter covering all of them simultaneously it would have never stopped moving. Summer ball is sloppy due to a lack of coaching combined with the feeling many players get that they must show off for the coaches who are hardly watching anyway (few of them take any notes at all).

DeChellis could not have worn his resigned exasperation any more plainly on that day. He fidgeted and flipped through the program -- sold to coaches for several hundred dollars -- while every now and then glancing at a court nearby. Penn State was not in serious contention for any of the very best players at the tournament. The three great players DeChellis brought to Penn State arrived there because they went unnoticed (Geary Claxton), or jumped at an early scholarship offer (Talor Battle) or were overlooked due to size and injury history (Jamelle Cornley).

And those were the sort of players DeChellis wanted to build around. They fit him. They'd never been anointed by anybody. They just showed up and worked and, in the case of those three, proved doubters wrong.

Yet in DeChellis' eight years at Penn State, the Nittany Lions qualified for the NIT twice -- winning it once -- and the NCAA Tournament once (last season). They lingered, for the most part, toward the bottom of the Big Ten and never captured the attention of Penn State fans. That, I think, was the worst part for DeChellis: in many ways, he built a team that lived up to the image he hoped for, and few seemed permanently moved by it. Resilient and undaunted under pressure, the Penn State men's basketball team nevertheless still served as a worthy diversion in meaningful games only. Any embrace from the students was fleeting at best.

My friend Dave Jones offers his take that DeChellis didn't feel he had the sort of support needed from the administration to win games. That's certainly a part of the problem. Penn State, of all places, should know that it gets what it pays for; the school spent $500,000 to lure Cael Sanderson away from his alma mater, Iowa State, and two years later won a national title.

As Jones points out, the irony of DeChellis stepping away is that, despite his protestations to the contrary, he left for the same reason he was able to stay. Penn State doesn't spend enough to have the right to set high expectations. That's why it didn't fire him after seven seasons without a trip to the tournament. So the program gimps along with little help from the administration, while fans mostly wonder why football and basketball can't co-exist, as they do at Ohio State and Wisconsin.

So who could blame DeChellis for wanting to spend the final decade or so of his career at the Naval Academy? If his teams there are tough and compete for titles on a regular basis -- which they will -- he'll be respected. And that -- winning a Patriot League that usually has parity -- is the extent of the expectation. He's not supposed to lift a program up into something it has never been. He just needs to take a few soon-to-be-servicemen and show them how to play ball. His recruiting will change, too, with toughness -- like the kind that you need in order to join the Navy -- being the primary trait sought. Building the Midshipmen won't involve courting AAU coaches with platitudes and graft. It will mean making sure the players get the recommendations they need to get in.

Those kids, in turn, will already see basketball as an extra-curricular activity to which they will dedicate four years before moving onto the duty they are actually preparing for at school. Even at Penn State, most of the players harbor dreams of being one of the few to make a career out of playing basketball. That  creates another level of pressure for the coach, as they try to scrunch athletes into the role of student.

So DeChellis won't show up on the Big Ten Network every day. He may coach on ESPN five times the rest of his life instead of five times per season. Instead of marching into a packed Breslin Center, he'll travel to Hamilton, N.Y. and Lewisburg, Pa. And that's fine. Big-time college basketball is a consuming, messy thing. Especially when you coach at a school where the fans expect one level of performance and the administration pays for another.


DeChellis never seemed to get a fair shot at Penn State. He will at Navy.

The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, have few places to turn. They need a young, dynamic coach. They need to find the next Brad Stevens or Josh Pastner or Shaka Smart. Though the school wisely brought on Eddie Fogler to assist with the search, I still worry that the focus will veer toward a coach with success at a lower level -- such as Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter, or Duquesne's Ron Everhart -- instead of a candidate who can create pipelines to Philly, Pittsburgh, DC-Baltimore and New York City instead of working the fringes.