BITTNER: New PSU basketball coach hopes to rebuild public trust shattered by administration
Penn State began a new era for its men's basketball program Tuesday under a cloud of uncertainty created by the administration's decades-old and scandal-ridden playbook of secrecy.
As vice president for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour stepped to the microphone to officially introduce Micah Shrewsberry as the team's coach, players who represent more than half of the team's scoring from this past season remained in the NCAA's transfer portal.
They are looking for a way out of a school that has thus far offered few public answers about the internal report that led to the October ouster of their former coach, Pat Chambers — answers that players in the portal have said that they want and, by all outward appearances, have not been provided.
And it's all unfolding less than a decade after Old Main's role in hiding the monstrous crimes of convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky brought the football program and the university itself to their knees.
Throw in the athletic department's historically apathetic posture toward the program that's resulted in just one NCAA tournament appearance since the turn of the century, and it adds up to a heavy burden for any coaching candidate to pick up willingly.
Shrewsberry, however, did just that Tuesday with enthusiasm and promises that he's prepared to do the difficult work of re-establishing transparency inside and outside the program.
"For me, trust is built over time," the former Purdue and Boston Celtics assistant said during an introductory news conference in State College. "When I talked to them for the first time, I didn't expect them to jump through the video screen and say 'Man, this is our coach and we love him.'
"It's going to take time. It's going to take a lot of conversations. And I want to give them that time. I want to have that time, and that's how you build trust. You build trust by showing people that you care, over and over and over again. And then they start to feel like you have their best interests at heart."
Conversations bearing some fruit: Those conversations have apparently already borne some noteworthy fruit in the early going. Last week, guard Izaiah Brockington recommitted to the program after entering the portal upon news of Shrewsberry's hiring. He will be a senior and, for the moment, the team's leading returning scorer after averaging 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 2020-21.
Fellow big names including leading scorer Myreon Jones, guards Jamari Wheeler and Seth Lundy as well as forwards John Harrar and Trent Buttrick remain in the portal and free to head elsewhere.
Shrewsberry said he has spoken to all of them and remains engaged to try to bring them back to a team that finished 11-14 and challenged for a March Madness berth despite the rugged nature of their Big Ten conference and the disruption of losing their head coach.
Recruiting other players: At the same time, he said he's also actively recruiting players from other programs who have entered the portal and can transfer with immediate eligibility to play next season. All with an eye toward building on the foundation Chambers had built and retaining its scrappy identity.
"I have much respect for coach Chambers and coach [ Jim] Ferry for what they did," he said. "I have much respect for the guys that played last season and how hard they played every single night.
"We're going to keep that underdog mentality. We're going to keep that chip-on-our-shoulder mentality."
Planning a free-flowing system: Offensively, Shrewsberry plans to spread the floor to create opportunities in a free-flowing system, one he had success running for head coach Matt Painter at Purdue this past season. His Boilermakers finished a lofty 26th in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
He emphasized the importance of remaining tough on the other side of the ball, as well, noting that most of the Big Ten's best defensive teams found themselves in the tournament this year.
A program that's suffered indignities: That's mostly fun and games for later, though. For now, the administration's handling of the program remains a top concern for many who've observed the indignities it's suffered over the years. They include players getting kicked out of their practice gym so that Bon Jovi could practice for a tour and closing the upper bowl of the Bryce Jordan Center to willing customers for a game a few years back.
Shrewsberry, at least, begins his tenure hopeful that those days are in the past and that others will soon see in Barbour's regime what her actions have not shown in recent months.
"I trust our administration," he said. "If I didn't have that trust in them, I probably wouldn't be here. But I trust everything that they tell me, and I believe in Sandy. I believe in Dr. [Eric] Barron and I believe in everyone else in this administration. I have that trust in them. Now I need to relay that trust to our players, and we'll keep making this a great situation for everybody."