Lions’ new coach knows a challenge
Power-5 conferences seeking new leadership in football or basketball generally have two choices: A head coach at a mid-major program who has had success, or a rising assistant from a bigger-name school.
In Micah Shrewsberry, Penn State chose the latter.
Shrewsberry has spent the last 13 years of his career at the highest level, serving as an assistant under Brad Stevens (Butler, Boston Celtics) and Matt Painter (Purdue).
One of the biggest transitions for assistants ascending to head-coaching positions is they suddenly become, not only the focal point, but the leading spokesman.
They go from making suggestions to making decisions and then having to explain it all.
The introductory press conference is an important first-impression glimpse, and Shrewsberry came out of that 1-0.
At least two or three seasons will be needed to gauge how much success he’ll have as the Nittany Lions’ new coach, but he said some things Tuesday that impressed me with his foundation, humility and demeanor.
Penn State is definitely a blue-blood name across the college sports landscape, but its men’s basketball program has not carried that same cache.
In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. It’s one of the tougher Power-5 basketball jobs in the country, evidenced by just five trips to the NCAA tournament going as far back as the Lions’ days in the Eastern 8.
And that’s five if you count 2020, when the Nits were going before the coronavirus short-circuited the dance music.
Shrewsberry seems well aware of the inevitable rebuilding job that still includes several potential returnees stewing in the transfer portal.
In fact, he welcomes the challenge.
“I didn’t play high-level basketball,” he said of his experience at Division III Hanover College in Indiana. “I was just a solid player — I didn’t have the backing on a strong Division I coach pushing me to help me get a job. I had to grind it out, as the kids say, through the mud.”
He was the head coach for two seasons at Indiana University of South Bend, an NAIA school (he went 3-28 and 12-20 in two seasons), and it was anything but glamorous.
“I did the laundry, drove the van and swept the floors,” he said. “Nothing about my journey has been sexy. That’s how I want my program to be — nothing comes easy. We don’t want anything. We don’t expect anything. We’re going to work for everything. That’s who I am.”
Shrewsberry, 44, was a graduate assistant at Wabash and DePauw and then got his break at Butler. The state of Indiana, regardless of level, has historically produced some of the nation’s best coaches, and we’re not talking about Gene Hackman.
Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said Shrewsberry “rose quickly from a very deep and talented pool” of candidates and believes he is the right choice to take the program beyond the fleeting moments it gained under Dick Harter, Bruce Parkhill, Jerry Dunn, Ed DeChellis, Pat Chambers and, as the interim coach last season, Jim Ferry.
“We want to build on the success we have had,” Barbour said. “That’s our challenge. We’ve had success as a basketball program. It’s just never been sustained.”
She’s seeking “sustained success” that will allow the Lions to challenge for the Big Ten championship, which would then translate to national prominence.
Getting a head start on the search after Chambers’ forced resignation in October spread out a process that didn’t have to be rushed.
“We had a long time to vet candidates, and it gave us a chance to really dig in,” Barbour said. “We literally talked to hundreds of people about candidates, and not one person we spoke with didn’t believe we could achieve our stated goals — to compete for Big Ten titles.”
Shrewsberry obviously believed it, too, saying he sensed “trust” with the PSU administration.
“We want to build, show progress and develop young men every day,” Barbour said. “We’ll be patient. This will not be easy.”
She said it was important to find “the right leader,” something she clearly did not think Chambers was. Plus it’s believed Penn State has upped its ante to the $2 million range annually, approximately doubling its commitment to Chambers.
“As you look at our programs, they all have an identity,” Barbour said. “Let’s build a basketball identity that we can recruit to.”
Shrewsberry talked to a number of ex-Penn State players and coaches and knows this won’t be a quick fix in the rugged Big Ten.
But he’s sure of a few things:
“This journey is not my own,” he said, thanking his wife, four children and his parents and mentioning Penn State’s 700,000 living alumni. “Trust your gut, be yourself, be confident, and I want to do everything I can to make everybody proud.”
Rudel can reached at email@example.com.