Penn State is fortunate to have Jim Ferry right now, during a crucial period in program history and a time when leadership and experience are desperately needed.
Ferry was put in a tough spot taking over after Patrick Chambers’ resignation last month, and the interim head coach responded by doing the best thing he could do for all parties involved.
This wasn’t about him. This wasn’t about the challenges he would face as Penn State’s interim coach.
This was about the players.
“The focus, from a staff standpoint, was just listening,” Ferry said. “We sat down as a group, and we listened.
“And then from there, we we’ve kind of guided ourselves back to somewhat normalcy, if that’s the word you want to use.”
This year has been far from normal for most people, and the buildup to this basketball season has been far from normal for Penn State.
At least on the outside.
When Chambers resigned under pressure Oct. 21, it meant removing the head coach, the face of the program.
But with Ferry taking over, the Nittany Lions still have a great deal of leadership and familiarity at the helm.
He has been a college head coach for 19 seasons, including at Division I Long Island from 2002-12 and at Duquesne from 2012-17.
All things considered, given the way Chambers was forced out a month before the season, just think of this: How many programs in the country would have an assistant coach already on staff ready to step in who has been a head coach for 19 years and who led two of those teams to NCAA Tournaments?
Jim Ferry is a good coach. Sure, things didn’t go well at his last stop, Duquesne, as he was just 60-97 there in five years. But that was an extremely tough rebuild, and he made progress, going 17-17 in year four before falling back to 10-22 the next year and being let go.
On top of all that experience he has as a head coach, Ferry knows this Penn State program and its players well after serving as an assistant on Chambers’ staff the past three years.
He can bring stability at a time when the program might otherwise be in danger of falling apart.
Ferry had already had built up relationships, rapport, trust and camaraderie with the players, and so he has relied on those things over the past month during a transition that he said “really wasn’t that hard.”
“We’ve been a program built on that, we’re a relationship-based, family-based program,” Ferry said. “And so talking to these guys about life is an everyday thing in our program. The relationship we have with these guys, whether it’s having lunch, having individual meetings, having group meetings with these guys, we’ve done that, we’ve always done that.
“So maybe the conversations were a little bit different or the topics were a little bit different, but it’s something we’ve always done. And it’s very, very important.”
Also very important to Ferry has been the concept of listening to the players.
“The listening started the first day,” Ferry said. “You just had to listen, right? I mean, I think that’s one thing that we all learned through this pandemic. Through the social injustice. I think the most important thing to do is to listen before reacting.
“Obviously the stuff that’s said amongst our team, I’m keeping amongst our team. But I did gain that there was this great leadership in this program.”
Not a whole lot will change with the way the Penn State basketball team operates under Ferry. He has been the offensive coordinator and Keith Urgo the defensive coordinator, and so the concepts and overall strategy will remain the same.
Ferry said the Lions are coming off “one of the best seasons in the history of the school last year, so I don’t think we’re really looking to change much.”
One thing that has changed with Ferry is he believes he’s now a better coach than he was the last time he was in charge of a program, at Duquesne.
“I became a better coach over the past three years being an assistant here with the staff and working (with Chambers),” Ferry said. “I learned a lot. Everybody knows me I guess as an offensive coach, but I do coach defense, as well. But I was able to learn a lot more.
“Your perspective changes. … I was not a willing change guy.”
Now, he feels like he’s able to see things differently with regards to strategy and to have better relationships with the players.
“As you get older, I think I’m seeing the game a little bit differently being in this league,” Ferry said. “For the past three years, this is a big-time league, this is the best basketball in the country. … You got to do things a little bit differently. So I really felt like I became a better coach over the last three years being here.”
How will all of that translate to what kind of team Penn State has this season?
The Lions are picked to finish 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten and will have a tough time replacing all-everything Lamar Stevens.
If things get tough from a results standpoint — and they very well could get tough — it will help to have someone with a lot of experience in charge of the team who already knows a lot about the players.
Ferry has a tough job this season. And yes, there’s no doubt he would like to do well enough to possibly be in position to get the job on a full-time basis after a national search in the spring.
Regardless of what happens in the future, these players on this team this year need guidance, support and leadership from their head coach during a very difficult time in their lives — both in sports and in real life.
Ferry has been coaching a long time, has seen just about everything and has the right attitude and personality to help the players navigate the challenges that await.
All of that stuff will be every bit as important this season as how the Lions do on the court.