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February 28, 2013

Column: By changing attitudes, Chambers wins big

Attempting to navigate an argument about 'good' and 'bad' guys in college athletics is a dangerous endeavor.

In fact, it's almost impossible.

Save for very few athletes and coaches I've come across in eight years covering Penn State athletics, the vast majority have presented themselves as earnest, high-character individuals. Obviously, with the amount of deserved distrust high-profile athletes and coaches have earned in the past decade, some caution has to come attached with statements about a person's character.

Still, in the time I've spent around Penn State men's basketball head coach Patrick Chambers, he's relentlessly proven himself as one of the good guys.

Wednesday night, as thousands of Penn State students flooded the floor at the Bryce Jordan Center following an 84-78 upset of No. 4-ranked Michigan, the easiest mantra to apply to such a momentous occasion presented itself:

Finally, something good happened for the good guys.

A validation, of sorts, for the tireless hard work and positivity the players and their coaching staff have shown throughout an excruciating 14-game losing streak.

Certainly, there's some merit to the notion.

When star senior point guard Tim Frazier was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon in November, the signs of what was to come were ever-present. For a team loaded with tales of overcoming personal adversity, but severely lacking in top-level college basketball talent, the idea that the single player who elevated its play to a competitive level would be lost for the season seemed, frankly, unfair.

Bad hands get dealt. Negative and positive events, entirely beyond our control, happen all the time in life.

How we choose to accept and deal with them are what define us, though.

For Chambers and the Nittany Lions, that has never once been in question.

In the immediate aftermath of Frazier's injury, I asked Chambers if he had given himself an opportunity to be pissed off at his incredible stroke of misfortune. Punch a locker. Slam a door. Anything as a release to the frustration at seeing his second season crumple on the hardwood in a near-empty Puerto Rico gym just two days earlier.

"No. I'm the leader of this program. They're going to follow me. They're going to watch my attitude. They're going to watch how I carry myself," Chambers said. "I'm not a loser. I'm not a guy that sulks. I'm not a guy that says I'm going to make a million excuses. That's not me. It's not going to happen, and it's not going to happen to this team. We're going to go out and compete.

"Don't feel sorry for us. Nobody does. We're going to go out and grind, and we're going to play Penn State basketball."

One hundred days, 16 losses, and six wins later - including the program's first against a top four ranked team since 2001 - Chambers' words no longer carry the tone of a man in denial.

Instead, the prophet of positivity has demonstrated something else entirely.

Had the Nittany Lions fallen to Michigan Wednesday night, then again Saturday at Minnesota, at Northwestern, and Wisconsin and finally in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, Chambers' effect on the Penn State program would not be any diminished.

The reality is, regardless of hard work, effort, or desire, tangibly good things happening to good people are never a guarantee in life.

Especially in the high-stakes world of college athletics, where wins and losses are usually the only currency for success or failure, Chambers' attitude and its effect on his players reveals the valor and merit of actually caring. Fighting adversity, whatever the outcome, is an indicator of character and integrity far beyond excellence without the same challenges.

Certainly, winning is an incredibly important indicator of a program's success, but the foundation of a positive attitude is the ultimate litmus test to whether or not success is even a possibility. Within a program that has become so used to failure that losing is a pervasive, aw-shucks, oh well mentality, Chambers' task of bringing true change has barely begun. Even now, the act of winning consistently remains in the distance.

Less than two years into the job, the attitude of relentless positivity, effort and hard work that winning is built upon, however, has arrived.

"Know your role, do your job, trust your teammates, play hard," Chambers told his team after Frazier's injury. "The sky is not falling. The season is not over. I mean, that's how I feel. You walk around here and it's like… it's going to be OK!

"We're going to go out there, we're going to compete, we're going to play forty minutes, and you're going to be proud of the way we play.

"The mentality needs to change, it really does. It's been like this for a year. Let's go! It's time to compete! It's time to play hard! It's time to be Penn Staters and be proud of it!"

Forget the win. Forget the 14-game losing streak. Forget the rest of the season.

The message has already taken hold and will only continue under Chambers' leadership into the future.

In that, he'd already earned a far bigger win than Wednesday night's outcome. At last, others may begin to notice.


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