Palestra game a good idea, but Penn State basketball must cultivate better atmosphere at home
I’m not much of an architecture buff, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that one man is responsible for the construction of three of Pennsylvania’s most recognizable buildings: Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, Penn’s Palestra and Penn State’s Recreation Hall.
Here are three separate communities — all points of immense pride within the Commonwealth but all with unique identities and lukewarm feelings about one other — whose most beloved gathering places all sprung from the mind of Charles Klauder, a Philadelphia architect who died in 1938, before most people who enjoy his work today were born.
What a legacy, huh? He’s no Frank Lloyd Wright, but in a modern world where cookie-cutter academic and sports complexes rise and fall within a few decades, it’s hard not to appreciate a man who cranked out three gorgeous, enduring masterpieces that became perfect fits on three very different campuses.
And it’s hard not to wonder how he’d react learning news Monday that Penn State is, for the second year in a row, skipping out of its modern digs at the Bryce Jordan Center to play in one of his 90-year-old venues. The Nittany Lions will host Michigan State at the Palestra on Jan. 7, a year after moving shop across campus to Rec Hall for two nonconference games.
I imagine this move makes for pretty nifty bragging rights in Klauder’s afterlife, and it’s a pretty thrilling prospect for the living, too. The Palestra isn’t just a pretty building, it’s the home of Philadelphia’s iconic Big 5 rivalry games among Temple, La Salle, Villanova, Penn and St. Joseph’s, a scene steeped in rich history that Penn State has long envied.
Now another Philly guy, coach Pat Chambers, is putting his program front and center against a marquee opponent and in a season that Penn State welcomes the most highly touted recruiting class in its history, loaded with — you guessed it — Philly guys.
The buzz will be real. With the game falling at the end of Penn State’s winter break, there should be many students and alumni nearby to pack the building and create an electric atmosphere that was somewhat lacking the last time the Nittany Lions visited for a game against Drexel last year, when many students were still back in Happy Valley.
It should also be a hit on the recruiting front. Much like the Dec. 10 game against Pitt in Newark, N.J., the game is an opportunity to take the team to a major East Coast population center on which the program’s recruiting efforts have increasingly focused under Chambers. For a program that has struggled to feel local as an Eastern outpost in a Midwest-focused conference, that’s important. It sends a message that a prospect can go to Penn State and still play important games near friends and family.
If this season is going to be a success, though, Penn State has to make that excitement translate back to the Jordan Center, a building twice as big as the Palestra and a fraction as interesting.
A big part of that responsibility falls on the team, obviously. Nothing drives ticket sales like winning, or at least competitiveness with the top teams in the Big Ten, and that’s something only the guys on the court can control.
That said, Penn State administration also needs to step up its game in making the BJC a fan- and team-friendly environment. This means no more kicking everyone out and making the players practice on crooked backboards in the IM building so Bon Jovi can rehearse for a tour. It means no more turning people away from a building that seats 15,000-plus when there are fewer than 9,000 in the building, as happened last year when Penn State officials refused to lift the upper-deck curtains for a game against Purdue. It means having enough staff on hand to handle larger crowds.
The Jordan Center’s design will always make it a poor place to watch a basketball game. Not only are there too many seats to support the fan base, creating a cavernous feel even when a nice crowd of 10,000-plus shows up, but the end zone seats are roughly halfway between the court and Bellefonte.
That is not, however, an excuse to treat people poorly. If Penn State really wants to hook fans and prospects this season, it needs to take care of its own house first.
Showing appreciation for unique, historic venues like Rec Hall and the Palestra is something I’ll never complain about. Too many modern arenas feel exactly the same, streamlined in their design to maximize efficiency, convenience and comfort, and it is nice to see Chambers and his staff be so willing to break up that monotony.
Those guys can’t be the only ones trying to make this work, though, and at some point the gimmicks have to give way to a consistent atmosphere that players and fans will embrace.
Now is the time to get that act together. Let people sit where they want to sit. Don’t make them wait in long lines to buy tickets and concessions. Hire more staff members who are interested in being helpful and friendly. (Although there are many who are already.) And maybe dangle a few more perks to lure potential season ticket holders.
It’s that kind of attention to detail that Klauder used to make the Nittany Lions’ former home great. Show it to the fans now, and it will create a sense of ownership in a program on the rise and maybe make up for the lack of his genius in building the new barn.