The Post-Journal

Hoops Make Headlines At Penn State

When you think of Penn State, you usually think of football. But the Nittany Lions’ basketball team is trying to put an end to that. Or at least the cagers want to let Penn State fans know that there is something else going on athletically in State College, Pa., after the Nittany Lions’ usual bowl appearance and the start of spring football practice.

The Penn State basketball team won its opening game in the NIT, its first postseason win in 34 years. Then the Nittany Lions lost in the second round Monday night to Villanova. If Penn State had won, it would have set a school record for wins with 21. However, Penn State lost to finish the season at 20-12, only the third time the “Happy Valley” school has won 20 games.

As I watched the loss to Villanova on ESPN Monday night, I thought Penn State graduates and fans must be beaming. The Nittany Lions are finally getting some basketball exposure and I figured a person who must be really pleased is Chuck Crist.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” he said Tuesday from his office at Alfred State University, where he is the defensive coordinator for the football team. Crist played basketball at Penn State in the early 1970s when it was a second-rate sport on campus. Now that has changed. “The comments made on ESPN last night were an indication,” he said.

Crist is known in the area for playing in the NFL with the New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers, but he never played college football. Even though he attended a football powerhouse after graduating in 1968 from Salamanca Central School, where he was a standout in football, basketball, track and baseball, he didn’t play for football at Penn State. “I chose it (Penn State) because of school,” Crist recalled. “Initially I was recruited there for football.”

Crist began to lean toward basketball and decided to skip playing football. The football staff wanted him to play both sports for a year and then make a choice, but Crist had already decided to trade his shoulder pads for sneakers. He became a three-year basketball letterman (freshmen were not eligible for varsity then), capped off with the team’s Most Valuable Player award in his senior season of 1971-72. While football is king at Penn State, there are a couple more successful sports in the winter that leave the basketball team even more forgotten.

“The gymnastics team was absolutely fantastic,” Crist said and he mentioned it used to attract more than 7,000 fans for its meets when he was at Penn State. The wrestling team was also successful and it attracted nearly 7,000 for its meets. Meanwhile, Crist and his teammates on the basketball team where playing in front of about 2,800 fans. He said the basketball players didn’t get upset about their lack of attendance. “We realized the situation. We didn’t go there for exposure.”

The team was 13-11 during Crist’s sophomore season at Penn State and then dropped to 10-12 his junior year. But he remembers one big win in that sub-.500 season – a 65-48 victory over visiting Army, coached by Bobby Knight. Crist had a friend on the Army team who never forgave him for the defeat because Knight made the entire Army team stand at attention in the aisle of its bus the ride back to West Point.

The 1971-72 season found Penn State going 17-8 and Crist, who was the MVP, recalls a big win was at home against Virginia, which was ranked sixth in the nation at the time.

Penn State had a chance for a bid to the NIT that season if it had finished 18-7, but the eighth loss, at home in overtime to Pitt, ended any postseason hopes. Even though Penn State got plenty of exposure through football, it could never attract top basketball recruits.

“Today kids are looking for national exposure,” said Crist, who coached basketball and football at Cattaraugus Central School before moving on to Alfred University. “Secondly, basketball is an urban game. Penn State is in a rural setting. Trying to attract inter-city kids to Penn State wasn’t easy.

Now it is, thanks to Penn State’s membership in the Atlantic 10 Conference and the television exposure on ESPN, which will probably lead to more exposure.

I fully expect them to do well next year,” Crist said, noting Penn State has a 6-10 redshirt freshmen ready to join the team. And he give the credit to Coach Bruce Parkhill, whose brother Barry played at Virginia when Crist and Penn State beat the Cavaliers. “He’s beginning to get players from other parts of the country.” So it appears Penn State is on the way to finally gaining a basketball reputation.

“It’s nice to be associated with it 20 years later,” Crist said. “I can take my head out from under the pillow and say. ‘Hey, my basketball team is doing pretty good.’”

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