There’s a notion in sports that you shouldn’t have to tell people how good of a team you have. If, in fact, you have a good team, everyone will know it because they’ll be able to see it.
Penn State picked up a nice victory in a must-win game Thursday night, 75-67 over a struggling Rutgers team. Everybody thought the Scarlet Knights were a good team a month ago, when they were 6-0 and No. 11 in the country, but they’re a mess right now and have lost five in a row.
After the game, Penn State interim coach Jim Ferry was talking about how fantastic the Big Ten is, answering a question I had asked about the league. Ferry gave a good answer, calling it the “Greatest league in the country. By far. It’s not even close.”
Then Ferry said this, which brought back a cringeworthy memory.
“We’re a good team, guys. We’re a good team,” he said.
I was sitting in the media room at Pitt on Dec. 3, 2013 when Patrick Chambers uttered that phrase, which I have always believed was very ill-advised and frequently mentioned so the first half of Chambers’ rocky tenure at Penn State.
The Nittany Lions had just lost at Pitt, 78-69, to drop to 6-3 on the season.
The following excerpt is from the column I wrote that night for the Altoona Mirror:
“I hope people start taking us seriously,” Chambers said angrily. “We’re tired of everybody talking about we’re not a good team. We’re a good team. We’re a good basketball team. Get used to it.”
Does he think people believe it’s a good team?
“No, not at all,” he said.
“I’m sure because of history,” he replied. “I feel like we can compete every night, whether it’s Pitt or whoever in the Big Ten,” the coach added. “I feel like we have a good, solid team.”
Then came a haymaker of a question, thrown from the second row of the packed media room. It was from a Pittsburgh media member, one who had been listening to what Chambers was saying about how people should respect Penn State but didn’t seem to buy into it.
“Don’t you think beating Bucknell would help that?”
Chambers didn’t flinch. He could have flipped out like a Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim or Jim Calhoun would have, but instead he answered truthfully.
“Yeah, I agree,” he said before curtly adding, “Nice low blow, by the way.”
Penn State had indeed lost at home to Bucknell three weeks earlier, 90-80.
A month and a half after Chambers told everybody to get used to the Lions being a good team, Penn State was 0-6 in the Big Ten and 9-10 overall.
No, Penn State was not a good team that season.
Yes, it was capable of playing well at times against quality Big Ten competition. But you are what your record says you are, and that PSU team went on to finish 6-12 in the league and 15-16 in the regular season.
Chambers was a fiery guy. He worked his tail off. He took over the Penn State program when the cupboard was bare and had to scratch and claw for every ounce of respect.
But respect isn’t given, just because you want it to be by proclaiming, “We’re a good basketball team. Get used to it.”
It took a few more years, but Chambers did eventually earn respect with the Lions, winning the NIT championship in 2018 and earning the right to go to the NCAA Tournament last year, although the tourney was canceled.
It’s unfortunate in so many ways that Chambers was forced to resign in October because of his behavior and school investigations. He had done a nice job bringing talent to Penn State, and the program was very much on the upswing.
The people remaining in the Penn State program badly want to be considered a good team. The players and certainly Ferry, who took over in a tough spot and is doing the very best he can.
But I don’t like Ferry pulling out the “We’re a good team” line. Not when PSU is 1-5 in the Big Ten. He wasn’t emphatic saying it, like Chambers was years ago at Pitt, and just threw it in casually while answering a question. I still don’t think he should have said it.
No coach should say it, because it sounds as if you’re asking for respect when you just haven’t earned it.
Is Penn State, in fact, a good team? Maybe, maybe not. The win at Virginia Tech was excellent, and the Lions played great for most of the game against Seton Hall, but then they blew it.
Being a good team doesn’t mean playing well for 35 out of 40 minutes, then losing.
Being a good team is playing well for 40 minutes and finding a way to win, which is something this particular team is still trying to prove it can do.
The Lions got up by 18 Thursday night against Rutgers, and it looked like a good team.
Then the Lions looked like a terrible team as the Scarlet Knights trimmed the lead to four in the closing minutes.
But Penn State won, and any win — ANY WIN — in the Big Ten is a good win.
I asked Myreon Jones if he thinks Penn State is a good team.
“Yeah, we still believe that,” he said. “It’s been going around our locker room, all we need is one win. I feel like since we got that one, we’re on a roll now.”
Penn State is 1-5 in the Big Ten, with home games coming up against Northwestern and Wisconsin. If the Lions can win those, they certainly will prove to more people that they are indeed a good team.
But just because the coach says so doesn’t make it the case.
If Ferry wants to prove his claim, he’s gonna have to do so going up against extremely difficult competition night in and night out. Because most of the competition in the Big Ten truly will be good teams.