COLLINS: Fired or not, Penn State men's basketball coach Pat Chambers to serve as example

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
Pat Chambers

I met Pat Chambers seven years ago at Genetti’s in Dickson City.

He came through town with former Penn State football head coach Bill O’Brien as part of the Coaches Caravan just after the completion of his second season guiding the Nittany Lions men’s basketball team. I haven’t spoken to Chambers much since.

My first impression of Chambers is one of the most memorable in the 20 years I’ve been covering sports. We spoke for 15 minutes that May evening, and it’s hard to forget the passion with which he spoke of the basketball program’s potential. He had near-term plans for the program that bordered, it seemed, on delusions of grandeur — especially for a program that ranked a distant third in the pecking order behind football and wrestling. He was confident; maybe too confident. He seemed to elevate the responsibilities of his job, embrace the competition of his league, appreciate the father-figure role a coach has on a young man. But you can also overdo that.

He seemed like a good guy, though, or at least one enjoyable enough to talk to for 15 minutes before a fundraiser dinner. But sometimes those guys who feel it so intensely, who push that hard, who always have their foot on the gas, overstay their welcome quicker than others. There were times since that day when I’ve thought he did a good enough job to be named the Big Ten’s coach of the year. There also were seasons after which few would have been surprised if Penn State fired him.

Another crossroads: The university sits at another of those crossroads with Chambers this week.

Earlier this week, former Penn State freshman star Rasir Bolton revealed why he transferred to Iowa State before the 2019-20 season, and it’s considerably more disappointing than it is shocking in this day and age.

In a statement released on his Twitter account, Bolton said he left Penn State because of a conversation with Chambers in which the veteran coach referenced a “noose” being around his neck.

According to a report by The Undefeated, Chambers approached Bolton, talking about relieving the pressure on the youngster after a few poor shooting performances. He said something like, “I want to be a stress reliever for you. You can talk to me about anything. I need to get some of this pressure off you. I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck.”

Thankfully, we live in a time now where a young Black man like Bolton can speak about his experiences in relation to experiences of people who share his skin color. But there’s a reason this statement came out in July 2020 and not in July 2019. George Floyd was publicly and unabashedly killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, and protests have embroiled the nation since, largely pushing harmony and awareness of social injustice. It should make us all think about who we are and our experiences in this country and what they could be for everybody.

Mentioning a noose in a somewhat casual conversation with a Black person is wholly inappropriate, but it’s a slip of the tongue (at the very least) that all too often gets loose without proper understanding.

PSU response: In a statement, Penn State vice president for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour acknowledged the pain Chambers’ words caused for Bolton, and in a way, admonished her own department for acting so slowly on Bolton’s request for repercussions that weren’t acted upon.

“Patrick has committed to educating himself and he is actively working to learn and grow, which will be imperative to his future success at Penn State,” the statement said. “Our Black community of students, faculty and staff must have the opportunity to feel safe, respected and welcome at Penn State, and clearly our past actions and words have not always contributed positively to that goal.”

For his part, Chambers apologized and released an impassioned statement acknowledging his own ignorance, recognizing his responsibility to understand the feelings and experiences in the Black community, and vowing to “keep listening ... keep learning.”

“I have much more to learn,” he wrote.

Should he be fired? Is this a fireable offense regardless? For sure.

Should Pat Chambers be fired? That’s a more difficult question to answer.

It sounds like Chambers will keep his job. Granted, I’m someone privileged enough to not have a ton of words or imagery in the English language that can evoke that kind of pain. But there are some benefits to seeing how this plays out, to giving Chambers a chance.

It goes back to those first impressions. His words were irresponsible. But, he cares, or at least, he seems to. He says he understands his shortcomings. And at some point, don’t we have to allow him and others who come far short of “getting it” to try to get it?

He can be made an example of how wrong we can be, or he can be an example of how much we change.

And couldn’t we use the inspiration of the latter these days?