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Smeltzer: Penn State Basketball= Too Big to be Small, Too Small to be Big

Penn State
Bryce Jordan Center

Penn State basketball is part of a big school with a big-time athletic program.

On Wednesday, Penn State and its fans felt the pain that small schools have known for what seems like forever.

Florida Gulf Coast and its “Dunk City” phenomenon captivated the nation 10 years ago by becoming the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.

Three days after the Sweet 16, Florida Gulf Coast’s coach, Andy Enfield, was hired by USC.

Last year, Shaheen Holloway and 15th-seeded St. Peter’s surpassed Florida Gulf Coast by making it to the Elite Eight.

Three days after the Elite Eight, Seton Hall hired Holloway away from little St. Peter’s.

Penn State isn’t a Florida Gulf Coast or St. Peter’s.

Those programs were the proverbial “little engines that could.”

Penn State basketball is too big to be small and thus has been closer to a “big engine that can’t” for most of its history.

Despite being surrounded by athletic brilliance— a football program that’s been an established brand for more than 50 years, a wrestling program that’s amid one of the best runs in college sports history and a volleyball program that’s won seven national titles over the last quarter-century— Penn State basketball just hasn’t cut the mustard historically.

Why is this?

Bad luck? Sure. A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic stopped Penn State from a sure-fire NCAA Tournament appearance, so that certainly qualifies.

Bad coaching? That’s probably a factor. Jerry Dunn and Ed DeChellis aren’t exactly Dean Smith and Roy Williams.

Apathy from the university/athletic department?

That’s a little harder to say. It’s not easy to pinpoint just exactly how hard the Penn State “powers that be” have tried to make the basketball program formidable over the last 50+ years, and there could be a separate article dedicated to that. But considering that Ohio State and Michigan— two other Big 10 schools that are football first— combined to make three national championship games and four Final Fours in the time it took Penn State to get one NCAA Tournament win probably indicates that Penn State failed somewhere along the line as a university.

Regardless of why Penn State basketball is dwarfed by football and wrestling when it comes to overall relevance and dwarfed by hockey when it comes to game-day atmosphere, the reality is that Penn State basketball fans— ones with common sense, anyway— have been bracing themselves for coach Micah Shrewsberry going somewhere else.

Penn State basketball is a big school with a small basketball tradition, and thus, is too small to be big relative to programs like Notre Dame.

Some have been bracing since the beginning of March, when Penn State began its terror that led to the first NCAA Tournament and Big Ten Championship Game appearances since 2011 and climaxed with Penn State’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2001.

Others went into this season knowing that, if Penn State had a big year, Shrewsberry could well be gone, because that’s just how it is with Penn State hoops.

A coach leaving for greener pastures— which Shrewsberry did Wednesday when he told Penn State AD Pat Kraft that he was taking the Notre Dame job— is easier to accept at smaller schools.

Enfield left Florida Gulf Coast because USC dwarfs Florida Gulf Coast. Halloway left St. Peter’s because Seton Hall is a better job.

But Penn State isn’t a Florida Gulf Coast or St. Peter’s.

The fanbase expects excellence because they’ve seen it from other University sports.

Because Penn State’s athletic department has been so successful in multiple areas and has an abundance of financial resources, it was reasonable for fans to expect the school to keep Shrewsberry around or at least be hopeful for it.

That hope stayed there until word got out that Shrewsberry was moving on.

It’s also reasonable for fans who are fed up with Penn State basketball being irrelevant at worst and a “stepping-stone school” at best to be looking for somebody to blame.

Some are blaming Kraft for not getting the job done.

Some blame Penn State’s prior administrations for not doing right by the basketball program and thus making it impossible for Kraft, who has only been the AD since July 1, to keep Shrewsberry. Others blame Shrewsberry himself, which is… well, stupid.

Of course, there are others who are more laid back about the whole thing. To some— such as, well, me, and apparently the man himself— Shrewsberry left mainly because he had a chance to coach a storied program in the best basketball state in America, a state which he happens to be from.

There was a lot that could have played into Shrewsberry leaving, and to fully get to the bottom of it would probably require a deep-dive into Penn State’s basketball program, both past in present, that’d be worthy for a separate article.

Regardless of why Shrewsberry’s time at Penn State is no more, his departure just days after the team was playing for a berth in the Sweet 16 shows that Penn State basketball is too small to be big relative to the Notre Dame’s of the world.

The fact that it hurts the fanbase the way it does shows that Penn State basketball is too big to be small.

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