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Callahan: Consider Rowan's Crispin for Penn State's next head coach

02/22/2021, 11:00am EST
By Kevin Callahan

Joe Crispin watches his team play from the sidelines

Joe Crispin (above, in 2019) was one of Penn State's most accomplished players, ranking fourth in points and three-point field goals made and fifth in assists. (Photo: Rowan University Athletics)

Kevin Callahan (@CP_Kcallahan)
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Joe Crispin has a lot of time now to think about the Penn State head coaching job. But, he has been thinking about his alma mater’s basketball program for much longer than the current shutdown.

Penn State should seriously think about Crispin, too. 

“It’s a different job, it’s a different place,” Crispin said recently, “and I know it in my bones.”

Really, who else out there knows the job better than him?

Crispin, the head coach of the COVID-shuttered Rowan University men’s basketball team, was a four-year starter at Penn State from 1997 to 2001. He was named All-Big Ten twice. 

He talked openly about wanting to return to Happy Valley, but not for nostalgia or to bring his career full circle. No, Crispin knows he can win there as a coach, like he did as a player.

Crispin, a 6-foot-guard who liked to shoot as much as he is likeable, captained the 2001 Nittany Lions to a 21-12 record and a win over second-seeded North Carolina for a berth in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney.  No, that isn’t a misprint – Penn State was just two wins (on the scale of beating the Tar Heels) from the Final Four of the four-letter tournament after the previous two seasons of reaching the NIT Final Four.

For Penn State fans still alive, those are the glory years. And Crispin was pulling the Nittany Lions up their memorable mountaintop under coach Jerry Dunn, who is also from South Jersey. 

But the connection is way deeper the geography, which is why Crispin believes he can make the climb again.

“I’ve read a lot of stuff. I have a whole folder full for the next 25 years if they hired me,” Crispin said about his lifetime of preparation for the uniquely challenging job of head coach at Penn State.

Sandy Barbour, the vice president of intercollegiate athletics at Penn State, hopes to name a new coach at the conclusion of this season. Call Crispin. He has time to talk. More importantly, he knows what he is talking about.

When Pat Chambers resigned last October following allegations of inappropriate conduct, assistant Jim Ferry was named the Nittany Lions interim head coach. Under Ferry, who is being considered by Barbour to have the interim removed from his title, Penn State dropped to 7-12 after a 74-68 loss Sunday to Iowa.

Chambers, who played at Philadelphia University, went 148-150 in nine seasons at State College, including bringing the 2017-18 NIT Championship to Happy Valley with a 26-13 record. Last year, the Nittany Lions were 21-10, so the program was trending up after a long stretch of mediocrity.

Wisely, Chambers used his connections and recruited Philadelphia hard, including landing Lamar Stevens, who left Penn State last season as the school’s second all-time scorer. The program’s ticket to the recent upswing was punched in Philadelphia.

Chambers left Ferry with 6-4 junior guard Izaiah Brockington (Archbishop Ryan), 6-8 sophomore forward Seth Lundy (Roman Catholic), 6-9 senior forward John Harrar (Strath Haven), 6-foot junior guard Sam Sessoms (The Shipley School), 6-7 freshman forward Caleb Dorsey (The Hill School) and 6-5 junior guard Kyle McCloskey (Germantown Academy).

Since Ferry is being considered for the job, the obvious question/concern is if he can continue the Philly pipeline to Happy Valley.

Crispin hasn’t benefited from the chance for a live audition like Ferry, but he should be considered just as closely.

“I’m hoping they just give me the honest conversation because I have communicated with a bunch of people and I have shared some things,” Crispin said.

You can argue that the Penn State job is one of the toughest in the Power Five, right below Boston College. There are innate reasons this football factory has been to the NCAA tourney just twice in the last 25 years and only four times in the last five decades. 

The basketball job hasn’t - and isn’t - going to attract the “big-timers” like the football job, especially not when Chambers was the lowest paid coach in the Big Ten at $1 million a year.

So, after Ferry, where does Barbour search? 

Pat Chambers instructs his team from the sidelines

Pat Chambers (above, in 2020) resigned last October following allegations of inappropriate conduct. Where does Penn State look for its next head coach? (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The answer is mid-major coaches or Power Five assistants. But, why not a Division III coach like Crispin? After all, Crispin’s boss, Rowan athletic director John Giannini, went from coaching Rowan to taking La Salle to the Sweet 16.

Sure, the alumni will want the big-namer, but Barbour shouldn’t hesitate looking at a mid-level or a lower level coach. If there is a pause to do so, Barbour needs to look no further than the Big Ten Conference brethren, where Rutgers hired Steve Pikiell from Stony Brook.

Some mid-major coaches that need Barbour’s serious due diligence are John Becker at Vermont, David Cox at Rhode Island, Jeff Boals at Ohio, Mike Rhoades at VCU, Joe Gallo of Merrimack and Rob Krimmel of Saint Francis (Pa.). 

Two super successful mid-major coaches with local ties are Colgate’s Matt Langel, who played at Penn and was an assistant for the Quakers and at Temple, and Richmond’s Chris Mooney, who played at Archbishop Ryan and then Princeton, as well as coached at Lansdale Catholic and Arcadia University. Also, one former Big 5 coach, Phil Martelli, who is now an assistant at Michigan after coaching Saint Joseph’s for decades, has been mentioned as a candidate. All would be strong hires.

Making the Penn State search even more challenging is Boston College recently firing Jim Christian. As stated earlier but worth repeating, like Penn State, BC is one of the toughest Power Five jobs and will be looking at the same coaching pool of successful mid-major head coaches or Power Five assistants.

Some names being tossed around for the BC job include Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, Yale’s James Jones, Loyola-Chicago’s Porter Moser, Maryland-Baltimore County’s Ryan Odom, St. Bonaventure’s Mark Schmidt and Robert Morris’ Andrew Toole, who played at Penn. Becker is also a name to watch in the Boston College search.

Some Power Five assistants mentioned in the mix include Dwayne Killings of Marquette, who coached under Fran Dunphy at Temple when Boston College AD Pat Kraft was the Owls’ athletic director, and Michigan assistant Howard Eisley, who starred for the Eagles in the mid-1990’s. Sound familiar?

As a former star player who knows the uniqueness of coaching in Chestnut Hill against the blue bloods of the ACC Conference, Eisley is rightfully in the mix for the BC opening, just like Crispin should be at Penn State.

Crispin is Penn State’s fourth all-time scorer with 1,986 points. He is fifth all-time in assists (485) and ranks fourth in three-point field goals attempted (885).

More than past stats, though, he knows the terrain.

Really, where else is Penn State going to turn? Rick Pitino at Iona or John Thompson III, the former Georgetown coach who has been out of the game for the last few years?

Why not turn to the guy who knows the job the best and is one of the greatest players in the program’s history? But there is a better reason. Crispin has a plan. A plan that is unique as the job itself.

“Listen my basic premise is this is a different job and it requires a different way of doing things and that requires a different person and I’m a different person,” said Crispin, who is 67-42 at Rowan.

Consider: This season in league games, Penn State is averaging 69.8 points while Big Ten foes average 73.0 against the Nittany Lions. Now listen to what Crispin is saying:

“My biggest thing is scoring,” said Crispin, who wrote a book that was published last year, Offense Wins: A Player’s 12 Foundational Principles for Great Basketball Offense. “I actually just did a chart on Penn State in the Big Ten and Penn State’s record in the last 13 years and how many points they scored. They are 81-151 when they scored less than 70 points. They are 74-43 when they scored more than 70 and less than 80.

“And when they scored 80 or more, they are 59-12.”

Crispin has used scoring as a barometer for success at Rowan, also.

“I did something similar at Rowan, which I don’t think people understand, and I did the study when I came to Rowan of how many points you got a score to make the NCAA tournament? How many points do you have to score to be the best teams in the country?” he said. “People think I was just competing with Jersey City. No, I want to beat the best teams in the country and 80 is the minimum.

“So we lose games 100-96, but what other choice do I have? If you score less than 70 you stink anyway.”

Three decades ago, Paul Westhead left La Salle and brought a radical fast break, frenetic offense to Los Angeles. He recruited Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble from Philly and quickly put Loyola-Marymount on the national basketball map by outscoring opponents who simply couldn’t keep the pace.

Joe Crispin talks with Rowan basketball players

Crispin (center, in 2019) led Rowan to its first NJAC championship since 1999. Could he replicate that success with Penn State? (Photo: Rowan University Athletics)

Crispin could do the same, but with more defense. He has at Rowan.

Crispin, who replaced the popular Joe Cassidy in 2016 at the Glassboro college, led his first team to a 17-10 overall mark and the semifinals of the NJAC Tournament. The next year, the Profs went 13-13.

In 2018-19, Crispin’s squad went 22-7 and captured the first conference championship since 1999. The Profs also advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III tourney as Crispin was selected the NABC Atlantic District Coach of the Year and the D3Hoops.com Atlantic Region Coach of the Year.

Last year, a rebuilding season, the Profs advanced to the NJAC semifinals and finished with a 15-12 record.  He expected to compete for the league title again this year.

“We have to differentiate ourselves. We have to create a different brand and score and play the way kids want to play,” Crispin said. “Hey, we might lose 100- 90, but what’s the difference than losing 60-58? It was exciting.

“I’m not playing games with my career. I’m not running all over the country to fill up my résumé. I know what I got to do,” said Crispin, whose younger brother, Jon, also played at Penn State and is currently the lead college basketball analyst for the Big Ten Network. 

“I’m just afraid, though, they will just keep doing the same things and will try to beat Michigan at Michigan‘s game and that’s not going to work,” Crispin added.

Actually, Penn State needs to look no farther than Michigan and Juwan Howard for another reason to take the shot on Crispin.

The hire of the former Fab Fiver in May of 2019 was not only met with skepticism, but was labeled a “huge risk” and a “PR stunt” by some scribes since Howard had never coached in college and was limited to six years as a NBA assistant with the Heat.

But now in his second season, Howard has the Wolverines at 16-1, ranked No. 3 in the nation and boasting the No. 1 rated incoming recruiting class. 

Obviously, Michigan has many inherent advantages over Penn State in basketball, but like Crispin said, Penn State basketball is in his bones and he would treat the job with the same passion that Howard does.

Truly, for Crispin, basketball is in his blood. His grandfather, Cliff, was a long-time successful junior college coach at Camden County in South Jersey, and his father, Steve, was a championship winning coach at Glassboro High School.

He is a family guy, too, as he resides in Glassboro with his wife, Erin and their five children.

Crispin is the owner and director of Crispin Basketball, which has been conducting camps, clinics and leagues for players in grades K-12 since 2008. 

There is so much to like, to admire about him.

In addition, Crispin has pro experience, playing a decade for money. He played 22 games in 2001-02, for the Lakers and coach Phil Jackson, and then with the Phoenix Suns under coach Scott Skiles.

In 2003-04, he continued to play professionally with the Kansas City Knights of the ABA where he was the league’s Most Valuable Player. He also played for the 2004 USBL champion Pennsylvania Valley Dawgs, coached by former 76ers’ man-child Darryl Dawkins.

Crispin’s also played overseas in Ukraine, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Poland and Greece. In 2004, he was named to the All-Polish League second team with Anwil Wloclawek. He was an All-Star in Turkey while playing for Banvit from 2007 to 2009. While a member of Enel Brindisi in Italy in 2009-10, Crispin was named to the All-League second team as they won the regular-season title and reached the league final.

Yes, Crispin has the street cred to talk the game with young players, but also you have to believe that after earning his Penn State degree in telecommunications, if he went right into college coaching instead of playing pro ball, that he would be at least a mid-major head coach or Power Five assistant by now.

If Crispin hasn’t earned the right to be the Nittany Lions next head coach, he certainly deserves to be in the conversation. 

 “I’ve been thinking about that for years at Penn State,” Crispin said, “and that was my argument when I was at Penn State, to beat the big boys, we can’t play their game, we got to be different.”


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