UK Men's Basketball

Penn State welcomes road trip vs. UK amid scandal at home

Penn State coach Patrick Chambers called a play against Long Island during an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011, in State College, Pa.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers called a play against Long Island during an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011, in State College, Pa.

Winning. Losing. Concentrating. Strategy. November. Road trip. New coach. New system. Playing Kentucky.

The humdrum of a college basketball game permeated Friday's teleconference featuring Penn State Coach Patrick Chambers. Given the unfolding horror of a child-sex-abuse scandal involving Penn State's football program, probably never has blah-blah-blah been such a meaningful distraction.

"Our hearts go out to the families and the children," Chambers said when asked about the atmosphere on the Penn State campus. "But, in some way, we have to try to get some 'normalcy' back."

Chambers, who learned the coaching ropes on Jay Wright's staff at Villanova, noted his attempt to imprint the words "keep tapping" into his players' hearts. That meant to concentrate on the coach's system. Block out thoughts of such a high-profile opponent as Kentucky on Saturday in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.

Left unsaid was the attempt to block out — or move past — the more than 40 charges of sex crimes leveled against former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky earlier this month. Those charges led to the Nov. 9 firing of coaching icon Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier. Athletics Director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz were charged with perjury and failure to report an alleged on-campus sexual assault to police.

When asked how he and his players and assistants handled the news, Chambers said, "A lot of team meetings. I spent a lot of time with them.

"During that first week, we held three or four team meetings, three or four staff meetings. Just telling them to air their opinions (and) their concerns. Just talking about it. I think it's best to get it out there and get it off your chest. ...

"Now we're ready to try to move on and try to get some normalcy back."

Chambers expressed the hope that leaving campus to play UK will be "beneficial" to his team. When asked how it could help, the coach stuck to the basketball platitude of team-bonding on a road trip.

Mike Poorman, a Penn State professor who teaches sportswriting and a class titled "Joe Paterno, Communications & The Media," said the football scandal shook the campus.

"Walking around campus, it's quiet," he said. "There's a lack of sound. Kids are not texting."

Of the Penn State students, Poorman said, "They've withdrawn within themselves."

The football scandal became "Topic A" in his classes, Poorman said. "I threw away my syllabus. ...

"You don't want to be a therapist. But you want to walk them through it."

Lou Prato, author of a book titled Penn State Football Encyclopedia, said the word "sad" best described the attitude on the Penn State campus. He added that "anger" was the next best word.

When asked to whom the anger was directed, Prato said, "In a lot of directions." First and foremost, at Sandusky, he said. Some anger is directed at the media.

Reporter Todd Jones of The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio spent several days on the Penn State campus. He reported on a campus community shocked and fearful of the damage the scandal could do to the university.

Kathleen Karpov, a neighbor of Paterno, reflected on the football coach's long tenure when she told Jones, "The toughest part for me in this is 46 years of trust. You can't buy it or borrow it. You have to build it. And we're back to zero."

Prato suggested Chambers, who coached at Boston University last season, and his team served as a respite for Penn State's community. "A little bit of an outlet from all the other stuff going on," he said.

Perhaps the trip to Connecticut to play Kentucky on Saturday and then either Old Dominion or South Florida on Sunday will serve as a respite for Chambers' team. Or will it?

Poorman wondered about the Penn State basketball team leaving the "insular" environment of Penn State.

"They're inside the castle and the moat's up," the professor said. "What's it going to be like? How are they going to be received? Are they wearing a scarlet letter?"

Meanwhile, back at State College, Pa., Prato asked a reporter to call back after the local television news. Prato wanted to see whether there were any new developments in the football scandal.

"Be kind to us," Prato said when the reporter called back later. "We're not all monsters."

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