For The Glory

On Wednesday night, one of the most impressive recent streaks in basketball finally came to an end. I am in fact not referring to the Suns’ loss at Philly, which left them one game shy of a Leastern Conference sweep. No, I’m talking about my Penn State Nittany Lions’ 74-72 win over Iowa, which ended a 13-game losing streak.

Ok, so maybe “impressive” was the wrong word.

It’s been a pretty brutal run for my alma mater, which returned most of the important pieces from a team that made the NIT last season and figured to have a half-decent shot of making the Big Dance this year. Non-conference losses to Shippensburg and Stony Brook did not bode well, but still, they were 10-5 going into Big Ten play, and they opened the league schedule with 26-point thrashing of Northwestern, so there was still reason to hope.

That was January 3. Check your calendar. Before last night, they hadn’t won since. Yeah.

There were blowouts along the way, but what made this baker’s dozen slide so painful were the close calls. A four-point loss at Purdue. A five-point loss at Minnesota. A two-point loss to the same Northwestern team they’d eviscerated a month earlier. But the losses to Ohio State hurt the most. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Penn State had to play OSU and Wisconsin twice each in a span of just 14 days, they decided to give the Buckeyes two of their toughest games of the season — and lost both of them.

The first came at our place: the fact of a midweek game, a snowstorm that caused Greg Oden & Co. to arrive at like noon on gameday as opposed to the night before, and the perceived quality of opponent all combining to make OSU look like they didn’t much care about this one, because they probably didn’t have to. Thad Matta’s boys led by 23 early in the second half before dozing off and allowing Penn State to get back into it; thanks to some truly inspired basketball, we came almost all the way back. Somehow, it actually came down to a prototypical Nittany Lion guard (a 6-foot-nothing white kid) getting a clean look from three to win it at the buzzer. He missed. Buckeyes win.

A week later, in Columbus, and you either figured OSU would be out for revenge and win by 30, or be distracted by their upcoming 1-2 battle with the Badgers and overlook Penn State yet again. The truth, as it usually is, was probably somewhere in the middle. My boys actually led 27-24 at the half, which, if you do the math (and I did), means that over 40 consecutive minutes of head-to-head basketball, Penn State had outscored No. 1 Ohio State 70-48. The fact that those 40 minutes were spread out over the second half of one game and the first half of another is, in my deluded mind, beside the point.

Anyway, to my point. The Penn State basketball team plays in a big stupid personality-free gym known as the Bryce Jordan Center, which is apparently a great venue for attracting terrible bands like Nickelback, but not so great for an atmosphere that’s conducive to winning college basketball games. Of course, gyms don’t help teams win games, but the fans in them sometimes do. Which is what I’m yammering on about now…

Meet The Nittwits, the “official student section of Penn State Basketball.”

I love these kids.

Simply put, the Nittwits are college hoop diehards at a school where, more often than not, the basketball team dies pretty easily. They’re the kind of fans who truly believe they can have an impact on the outcome of a game. I’d like to think they’re the fans I would’ve been had the internet been prevalent in the early-mid ’90s, back when I had front-row seats at Penn State’s wonderfully throwback Recreation Building, aka Rec Hall. The old gym was cramped and sweaty and smelly and small, but the atmosphere for big games — especially in Penn State’s early Big Ten days, when I was lucky enough to be front-row for Mike Finley, Big Dog, Bobby Knight and the Fab Five — was as good as any in the country.

The Jordan Center can claim nothing of the sort. But at least the Nittwits are trying.

Having seen these guys in action at the handful of games I’ve attended since moving up here in January, I was impressed by the effort. Despite being limited by the impersonal nature of the gym, a general sense of student hoops apathy at a school where football gets all the love, and (I’d heard) a lack of cooperation from the administration, these guys succeeded in bringing at least some sense of a homecourt advantage to the BJC. Granted, they couldn’t do a damn thing about all those empty seats in the upper levels or the relative lack of talent on the court, but they were doing what they could.

So, I got at them — namely, Nittwits founder Justin Casavant and president Bryan Schuster — to figure out what motivated a couple of college kids to expend so much time, energy and passion on a seemingly losing cause. The convo follows below.

And a quick note for those who’ve gotten this far: This isn’t just about Penn State, not really. I’m pretty sure this applies, at some level, to kids at Miami, Nebraska, Colorado, Rutgers, Arizona State and, um… LSU? Ok, so it’s not just about the current standings, but you get my point.

Beyond that, any real college hoop fan should be able to relate. As much as I love seeing a Kevin Durant come along and dominate as a rookie, or some dope UNC team with a half-dozen McDonald’s All-Americans running things, college basketball would be pretty boring if it was only about the NBA-ready talent. You need the little guys, the Cinderellas, and even the underachieving, tough-luck Big Ten teams to make things interesting.

But I digress. Listen to what Justin and Bryan have to say. If nothing else, you’ve gotta respect the love.

SLAM: Alright fellas, I’ll start with Justin: Give me a quick breakdown of how the Nittwits became a reality, and Bryan, if you want to follow up with how you got involved.

JC: Back in the 2003/04 season, I got the idea of writing a newsletter (now Forty Minutes) for the student section modeled after one that [PSU] Coach [Ed] DeChellis brought back from a game they just played at Illinois. I used it as a recruiting tool for others to join me and starting an organization to run the student section, which, at the time, was highly disorganized and not impressive at all. After the season a few of us met with the Athletic Department throughout that spring to lay the groundwork for what would become the Nittwits. One of the key cogs was to get free matching shirts for all of the season ticket holders. Unfortunately, I left school for the next two years to work and the club floundered somewhat without any direction. Communcation within the organization was poor, only a limited number of shirts were produced and had to be sold for a fee, and the growth I had hoped for never materialized. This year, under Bryan’s leadership we are finally beginning to realize our potential. Communcation between the Athletic Department, the University, and us has been fluid and has enabled us to reach out and become more visible to the student body moreso than in years’ past. Free shirts by Nike were provided to all season ticket holders, and they are actually being worn. Despite the team’s record, we have experienced the loudest and largest crowds at the Big Joint in many years with Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State coming to town. We still have a lot of work to do, but we have laid a solid foundation for the future.

BS: I was a transfer coming in as a junior. I really didn’t know anyone on campus all that well, but being a huge Penn State basketball fan, I went to the first preseason game by myself. That was when the last president Jennifer Oswiany came up to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of the Nittwits. I started coming to games and sitting with them. Once I realized what great people they were and were as passionate about PSU b-ball as I was, it was just a natural fit to not only be one of them but to also want to help them grow. At the end of the last season Jennifer approached me about being the next president. I wasn’t sold on the idea because those were some big shoes to fill and I didn’t know if I saw myself as the president type. At the same time I didn’t want to see the up and coming club to go to the wayside, so I decided to take the role.

SLAM: I’ve heard stories about the athletic department making things hard on you guys to get things started…

JC: It’s really an issue between the Bryce Jordan Center staff and us. The Athletic Department has been extremely accomodating to us this year.

SLAM: What about the team? After the OSU game, I noticed Geary Claxton
making a point of high-fiving all you guys after the game, which would’ve been an easy time for him to hang his head and mope off — it seemed like a sign that they appreciate what you’re trying to do.

JC: While I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to the team that much, many of the [players’] parents have expressed their gratitude to the Nittwits on numerous occasions. I’m sure the guys appreciate it as well. We just want to give them the support they deserve and that other teams across the Big Ten enjoy from their student sections.

SLAM: What about DeChellis? Has he ever said anything to you guys, pre- or postgame or whenever?

JC: He thanked us at a pre-season pep really. Coach [Eldon] Price [Director of Basketball Operations] supports us and attends our meetings with the University to give us suggestions and pointers as to things other schools are doing. He’s been a big help to us.

SLAM: Going back to that OSU game — I gotta tell you, it reminded me a lot of the Indiana game at Rec Hall in ’93. Me and a bunch of my friends were front-row season ticket holders, on the sideline across from the visiting bench, and while Rec Hall had a rep for not being a good home gym, the switch to the Big Ten and all those incredible early-mid ’90s teams meant we were there at the best possible time. Anyway, I’m guessing you guys know what happened: We basically beat Indiana when they had Bob Knight and were still No. 1 in the country and we were (I think) dead-last in the league, only to get screwed by a horrendous call late in the game, one that even Knight acknowledged afterward. Anyway, we were so floored and depressed about it, we could only imagine how the players felt, so we actually ended up typing up a letter to then-coach Bruce Parkhill and the team — we felt like we had to do something — just letting them know how proud the students were of them. On one level it was corny, but of course I’m still proud of it. Parkhill wrote us a handwritten note a few days later, and you could tell this meant a lot… Anyway, I’m guessing after that OSU game, you guys can relate to the feeling.

JC: I’ve seen that ’93 Indiana game many, many times. Unfortunately, though, the Big Joint will never be Rec Hall (nor will it even come close). But when the momentum began to swing in the second half of last week’s game and the guys got within 10, we definitely felt we were picking up the team and willing them to a victory… we just ended coming up a little short (or long). Their effort was superhuman down the stretch.

BS: Yeah, while that OSU loss might have been the hardest loss I’ve stomached since the Michigan football game two years ago, I think there was a definite mutal respect for each other after the game. The guys were down 25 and never gave up (we appreciated that) and the fact was we were down 25 and a lot of students left, and I think G was just saying thanks for not leaving and sticking with us. Coach DeChellis has been really grateful towards us. Just about every meeting we’ve had this year with the school, Coach has made sure to send one of his assistants to sit in on it. We got to meet him during the photoshoot for this year’s b-ball poster and he couldn’t stop telling us how thankful he was for our support. He’s a great guy and really doesn’t deserve all of this heat. I’m not saying he is the answer or criticism shouldn’t be allowed, but I think we need to give him next year to see what these incoming freshmen and redshirt freshmen can do.

[But] like I said, I haven’t felt that pain in a long time. It’s easier when you feel that pain as a Penn State football fan because you know there are probably millions of PSU football fans that feel the exact same way. B-ball is sooooo different. It’s you, the team, and what, maybe a few thousand fans who are diehard PSU b-ball fans? I had been telling friends for months that we would win that game regardless of our record. I just had a feeling and knew we would. I can’t tell you how many text messages and calls I got at halftime saying “Oh man you were sooo right, I think they’re going to win after that first half” even my girlfriend was getting on my case about skipping the “blowout” game for her (she was cool about it though, more a joking thing). All of a sudden we’re making a comeback and I’m thinking, Hey, let’s get it to 10 and it won’t look too bad in the paper tomorrow. Next thing you know it’s down to two and we have the ball with 10 ticks left. In my mind there was no doubt we were going to make that last shot… come on, we just came back from 25 down, it was like a storybook ending. I had one foot on the table ready to storm the court only to see it go off the back iron. Any life literally left my body and I just fell to the concrete ground. We would have been the SportCenter lead-in story, I could have told all of my friends to go to hell, and my senior year of being president could have been salvaged. Instead my friends call and say well you guys gave it your best and think that I should be happy with a moral victory. They just don’t get it.

SLAM: Justin, to your point about Rec Hall. I don’t know him well, but I had the chance to bring this up with DeChellis a year or two ago — why not move back to Rec Hall? When it was full for a big game, it was undoubtedly one of the most intimidating places in the country to play — standing in the front row of the bleachers, you’re literally 8 inches from being in play. I have no question we won games back then that we never would’ve won in a place like the BJC. Having some awareness of that history and that potential, is that something you guys would think about or even push for?

JC: It’s an idea I’ve bounced off some Athletic Department officials for one or two non-conference games per year. With the Big Joint’s floor being portable, I think it is within the realm of possibility. If others are aware of the idea and pressure the Athletic Department, it could catch on and action may be taken to make it a reality.

SLAM: DeChellis’ reply to me, and one that other people close to the program have echoed, is that “you can’t recruit with Rec Hall.” Point being, I guess, that you need a big shiny newish building to impress kids who come on recruiting visits out of season. I get that, but (and I realize that this is an absurd comparison on many levels) I’m guessing Coach K doesn’t feel compelled to replace small, aging Cameron Indoor when he brings kids down on a visit. To me, the value you get out of a place like Rec Hall, where big games are guaranteed to be loud and hectic and the opposing players are gonna have guys like you screaming in their ears from inches away, would pay immediate dividends on the court, and the word would get out to recruits that this is a great place to play if you’re on the home team.

BS: No question about it. I feel like the BJC is one big sterile cave. I guess I’ve never pushed or even asked because really, do you see the powers to be at PSU or the BJC allowing that? I’m sure there is a convenient excuse for them not to be able. I even thought, Well, since the world revolves around marketing, why not make it a “Throwback Thursday”? No doubt in my mind we would go from a place (BJC) where visiting teams cosider it a neutral to homecourt advantage to a place (Rec Call) where guys say “Damn, we have to go there next.”

JC: Penn State never invested the money into a complete Rec Hall renovation that places such as Cameron Indoor and Gallagher-Iba got over the years. I still believe the Gallagher-Iba expansion/renovation that was completed a few years back was the course of action Penn State should’ve taken with Rec Hall.

SLAM: Well, Rec Hall did get a pretty nice makeover a few years ago — after
the basketball teams were already out of there, of course — but sadly, yeah, it may be too late. As it is, I love the idea of one or two “throwback” games a year. Hopefully they’d see how hype the crowd would be — and hopefully the crowd would be into, which would be on you guys — and they’d rethink their position.

Anyway, speaking of Duke, who I hate but have to respect, they’ve kind of been the longtime standard-bearers of a crazy, intense student section. You mentioned borrowing the idea of the newsletter from Illinois — who else have you guys taken inspiration from?

JC: I grew up in North Carolina as a Duke fan since I was a wee boy, so I have always taken a great deal of inspiration from the Crazies. Among our Big Ten bretheren, I look up to the Izzone at Michigan State. They really had their act together when they visited in January.

SLAM: I want to go back to Bryan’s earlier point, that sense of even a lot of your fellow students kind of mocking you for being so invested in basketball at a place like Penn State. Obviously, we all know it’s a football school, and while that probably always will be and should be the focal point here, places like OSU and Florida have proven you can be national title caliber in both sports simultaneously. So, three-part question:

1. Why do you guys go so die-hard for a bad basketball team at a football school?

2. What do you think it would take to get PSU hoops up to the level of our football team — or is it even possible?

3. Would you be willing to sell the program’s soul to the likes of, say, a Bob Huggins type, who’s in the process of taking Kansas State from an irrelevant program in a part of the country that doesn’t have much to offer potential recruits to, quite possibly, a national title contender next year? Or does maintaing the reputation of a clean program where kids actually graduate mean too much to risk a move like that?

BS: 1. I guess a part of it is because basketball is my first love. I played 12 years of football and one in college, but basketball was still #1 in my heart. It’s then pretty much an easy fit: #1 love b-ball plus #1 love PSU = PSU b-ball fan. It’s also seeing the Dukes, UNCs of the world and wanting to be that. I can’t physically go out there and help the team, but I can make sure I give 110% being a fan and make sure I don’t leave a game without losing my voice. Being a diehard now is just going to make it soo much sweeter when we get things turned around and are a two sport threat. It may not be the cool thing to do or might even have a social stigma attached to it, but that would never stop me from being a true Penn Stater.

2. It may not seem possible to reach football status but tell that to the fans in Columbus. The bottom line is: winning cures everything and that will bring the fans out. As much as I would love to see b-ball reach the status of football, it would be a very bittersweet moment for me. Of course, I would be thrilled to see a packed BJC knowing where we once were, but at the same time I would be pissed that the BJC was full. Where were they during seasons like this (10-16, 12-game losing streak)? They were the ones making fun of the program: “Oh, we have a basketball team” (my personal favorite), but of course now that they’re contenders: “Oh, I never lost faith yada yada yada.” We Are Penn State, but I think many of us are fair-weather fans, and I really don’t think they deserve to be in the BJC when we turn it around. I’m not too bitter, am I?

3. I think there has to be a happy medium when comparing the two. Is it ok to be the annual cellar dwellers as long as you have class and honor? I love Penn State and everything it stands for but ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! I’m tired of the “all in the family” mentality. Why does it have to be “Let’s find the best coach available with Penn State ties”? How can you sell that to a recruit? “Well, come play for us, you may not know the coach but hey he’s a Penn Stater and that is what we stand for.” I would love for it to work that way, but it just doesn’t. I feel like Penn State has this stigma attached to it where everything has to be done the Joepa way. Everything must be old school and done the traditional way. It’s like “Hey, we may suck but look at us, we’re classy and honorable.” This basketball team needs their own identity. They need some swagger. We need a wake up call. Obviously, if you bring in a Bob Huggins he may have some baggage but he also has a standard to live up to (success with honor, to a degree). The school, boosters, and alumni would never let him get away with not graduating players, so I don’t think that would be the issue. Plus you finally have a reason to get recruits to come to Central Pennsylvania. Like I said, I love Ed, but you look at USC and their coach (Tim Floyd right?) he’s made a quick turnaround and they’re looking at a possible tourney berth. He was a possible hire for us, but we had to stay in the family. I think we as a University just need to break free from some of these old traditions and mindsets. Can’t we be a ‘clean’ program without the ‘holier than thou at all costs’ attitude? Because as of now I don’t think it’s really getting us anywhere as far as a good basketball program goes.

JC: 1. Despite my upbringing as a Duke fan, I don’t think it’s so much that I’m die-hard for the basketball team as I am die-hard for Penn State. Truthfully, I hate the game of basketball. I’m short and clumsy and couldn’t play if my life depended on it. However, I thrive off the intimacy of the game and the energy a good student section brings to an arena. That’s why I follow college basketball. Whether we’re 1-12 or 12-1, I’m still going to give 200% in the stands though I’d much rather have the latter record.

2. To re-itirate what Bryan said: it’s going to take a winning formula and better fan support. I really don’t think we’re that far away on the winning end… just look at the two Ohio State games and the Wisconsin game at home. We play well but are not consistent. There’s always a 5- or 10-minute lapse every game where we just lose focus and let a game get away. If we solve that, we’ll be just fine. As far as fan support, Bryan is pretty much spot-on about how I feel.

3. Never in my lifetime would I sell out to Bob Huggins. If, God forbid, Coach DeChellis does not turn the team around (though I’m confident he will based on the new horses in the stable and the returning talent), there are plenty of top coaches and assistants who have clean records and graduate their players that we could look at. The approach Penn State is taking requires patience. Yes, we had a setback this year, but the future looks bright for us.

SLAM: Cool… alright, couple more things. Give me some details on the Nittwits, as far as how you’ve brought people in, how many people are actual “members” now, what it takes to be a member, and the coolest stuff you guys have done so far.

JC: The Nittwits include all season ticket holders, which number over 1,500. That’s really all it takes to be a member. They all get matching Nike t-shirts to wear to identify themselves as such. But really, I think to think of the Nittwits as the entire student section, regardless of ticket status. The most fun we’ve had were the Seton Hall and Michigan road trips earlier in the season. Also, verbally sparring with Thad Matta and his payroll — I mean Buckeyes — over the years has always been entertaining. Probably the most elaborate skit we ever pulled was at the Wisconsin game when we rigged up a boombox during the pre-game shootarounds and blasted Alando Tucker’s theme song that was written by a Madison radio station right into his ear. He got a real kick out of that and seemed to put him to sleep for about a half.

SLAM: Who’s your most hated league rival? It seems like UM and OSU are the obvious targets for football, but hoops kind of lacks someone we
can call a true “rival.”

JC: It’s gotta be Ohio State. True, they are a natural border rival, but ever since Thad Matta called us out in a post-game presser a few years back for our newsletter, we’ve by far prepared more for them than anyone else. We’ve played them close in recent years depsite their high ranking, and that adds to the hunger to want to beat them. We love to hate them.

SLAM: What did Matta say?

JC: He got a hold of Forty Minutes somehow and one of the beat writers said Matta’s question at the presser was “Are the guys who write Forty Minutes here?” I don’t know what that implied really, but we ripped him up pretty good in the newsletter. It’s on our website… the one he referred to was from 2004/05.

BS: I would have to agree with Justin and say O$U. I think they’ve natually become our rival over time in all sports. You always get up for any ranked teams that come into the BJC, but my blood boils when the scarlett and grey come in regardless of where they are ranked. For example this past home game against O$U, I dressed up in a white suit for it, and I consider myself to usually be rather reserved. It’s just when they come to town, you have to step your game up. I think our fan bases are identical, the Bucks players usually interact with us more than other teams, and it’s really easy to hate a team with a coach like Thad on their bench (BIGGEST WHINER EVER).

SLAM: Alright, last thing: Give me your realistic best-case scenario from where the program will be 5 years from now (emphasis on “realistic”) and your worst-case scenario for the same timespan.

JC: I think it’s realistic to expect with the new talent that we should finished in the top half of the Big Ten year-in and year-out. Probably not the top two teams, but that second tier. There’s no reason why we can’t challenge for an NCAA bid every year and have a packed house full of Nittwits every nite. Worst case is that we stay in the lower half near the bottom, but I don’t see that happening at all. Coach DeChellis has too much talent waiting in the wings and has worked too hard to let that happen.

BS: In five years I personally see COACH DECHELLIS keeping this team in the middle to upper pack of the Big Ten and on the cusp of the top 25. I see us having an annual realistic chance at the big dance with an NIT appearence being disappointing. I don’t think it’s too wild of a dream with the recruiting Ed is bringing in. I do think the futue is going to heavily depend on this year’s incoming class combined with the redshirt freshmen. If they can bring it together, obviously we’ll have success on the court, which can only strengthen recruiting possibly bringing in more 3 and maybe some 4-star players.

Worst case… Penn State basketball not only being irrelevant to college basketball fans but also in the hearts and minds of the Nittany Nation.