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Hoops dream weavers: Krimmel, Chambers have worked magic turning around Red Flash, PSU programs

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Mirror file photo Rob Krimmel, shown here in a game from 2017, has rebuilt Saint Francis from an NEC cellar dweller into a conference power.

There’s a chance that both Penn State and Saint Francis will be playing in the NCAA Tournament in two weeks.

I honestly cannot believe I just wrote those words.

The Nittany Lions have been to a grand total of five NCAA Tournaments since 1965. Saint Francis has been to only one, in 1991.

The fact that both programs could make it in the same year is astounding. And wonderful, if you’re a college hoops fan in central PA.

Penn State already has locked up a spot in the tournament and just has seeding concerns the rest of the way.

Saint Francis opens play as the No. 2 seed in the Northeast Conference Tournament on Wednesday and needs three wins to make the NCAA tourney.

Both teams actually did reach “The Dance” in 1991, when Mike Iuzzolino and the Red Flash lost in the first round to Arizona, while PSU beat UCLA in the first round before falling to Eastern Michigan.

Since then, the Flash have endured a number of years when they were simply terrible. They failed to reach double digits in wins a staggering 11 times in 21 seasons from 1993 to 2013, and in six of those years they won six or fewer games.

I began covering the program in 1999 and have seen the lowest of the lows, including a disastrous 4-24 season in 2005-06. I like to joke with people that I’ve covered a lot of bad college basketball, but that’s really not a joke.

Don Friday was 6-23 his final season at Saint Francis in 2011-12, then was fired and replaced by Rob Krimmel. As I’m reminded occasionally by random people, we at the Mirror were highly critical of the Krimmel hiring at the time.

But, once again, let me remind everyone of the facts.

I had no problem with SFU hiring Krimmel, an outstanding person whom I had gotten to know as a player and then assistant coach for many years.

My issue was with the way the hiring took place. The son of the athletic director at the time, Bob Krimmel, was hired by the school for its most prestigious sports job one day after the previous coach was fired and with no search taking place whatsoever.

I would criticize any basketball program – or even any company — anywhere if that kind of move was made without a search. The way everything went down was a bad look for the school from a potential nepotism standpoint.

As it turned out, there is absolutely no doubt Rob Krimmel was the best choice Saint Francis could have made.

He has turned out to be an excellent college head coach.

I’ll even go a step further.

My belief is that Krimmel is one of the better head coaches in all of college basketball.

From recruiting, to player development, to game decisions, to the consistency the program has shown in recent years, Krimmel has proven to be phenomenal for Saint Francis.

Again, let me remind you that I watched a whole lot of bad basketball from the Red Flash over the years. Many of you did, as well, because despite the lean times, there has always been a loyal fan base that has shown up consistently at DeGol Arena.

It appeared for so long that Saint Francis basketball was a lost cause. There wasn’t going to be another superstar such as Iuzzolino fall into the program’s lap via transfer, and short of that, it seemed pretty hopeless that the Flash would ever become a consistently good program.

How could it? The school is tiny and isolated, sits on top of a mountain where they get about a million inches of snow and, most importantly, it has no natural recruiting base for men’s basketball.

None of that has really mattered since Krimmel took over the program.

He has found diamond-in-the-rough recruits such as Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon and turned them into stars. He develops his players so that they improve every year. He runs a good, player-friendly system that’s solid on offense and defense. His players are mentally tough and find ways to win.

You can pick any big-name coach in the country, and I’ll contend that he couldn’t come to Loretto, Pa., and do a better job than Rob Krimmel.

No, Krimmel hasn’t reached an NCAA Tournament yet with the Flash, but he’s won at least 18 games three years in a row. This year the team has 20 wins for the first time since 1991 and just the second time since 1967.

Krimmel understands that some people may judge him on the fact that he has yet to reach an NCAA Tournament.

“I couldn’t care less,” he said. “I accept that challenge and accept that as how we’re all judged in college basketball. But at the end of the day, I don’t judge myself on wins or losses or all-conference kids or 1,000 or 2000-point scorers. I judge myself as a father.”

As a father myself, all I can is Amen to that.

Krimmel and his wife have two sons, 10 and 7 years old, and they are a very close family. Saint Francis also is his family, as he came there as a player in 1996 and has never left.

Krimmel is such a good college head coach that he should be able to leave Saint Francis for a much bigger job where he makes much more money. It’s believed he makes less than $200,000 per year, and he’s good enough to be in the $1 million range for a mid-major program.

If he makes the NCAA Tournament this year, or several in the coming years, there could be some big schools knocking on his door.

But even if that happens, if the big schools come calling with big money, Krimmel said this emphatically:

“I’m going to be at Saint Francis, 100 percent. I’m not going anywhere.

“Where I am right now as a father, with my family, as a coach, with the university, I’m at the right place at the right time where God wants me to be. I have no passion to try to chase anything other than make Saint Francis what it can possibly be.”

Krimmel is a State college native with extensive family ties to Penn State. He said Chambers “has done a tremendous job” in his time at PSU and called this an “exciting time” for the Lions.

Krimmel also knows how much it would mean to this area to have its two local college teams in the NCAA Tournament in the same year.

“Any time you can make basketball important in this area, you’ve got to seize those opportunities and those moments,” Krimmel said.

“For Coach Chambers and our program here at Saint Francis to be able to seize that moment of March Madness would be a special moment for basketball in this area.”

I’ll write a lot more about Chambers in the coming weeks as Penn State goes to the Big Ten Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament.

Suffice it to say, Chambers has done a tremendous job with the Nittany Lions this season. Many fans have wanted to see him fired at multiple points during his tenure, but the school remained committed to him, and it’s finally paying off.

This year isn’t some fluke. Chambers has done an excellent job bringing talent to PSU, building a deeper team than we’ve been used to seeing. He’s lost a ton of close games over the years, drawing criticism for his coaching in the final minutes, but on the flip side, the Lions have pretty much always competed with everybody in the Big Ten.

This year, they’ve found a way to beat a bunch of those teams, and it will pay off in an NCAA Tournament berth.

“This league is just so good,” Chambers said after a huge win over Rutgers on a last-second shot last week. “I mean, every night if you’re not playing at your best, if you don’t give your best 40 minutes, you’re going to (lose).”

My concern with Penn State is that it may have peaked too soon, during its eight-game winning streak in the Big Ten. Everything was going the Lions’ way during that stretch, and they even won some with second-leading scorer Myreon Jones out with an extended illness.

Some offensive struggles have caught up to PSU of late, and the team has lost three of four heading into Tuesday’s home showdown against Michigan State.

No matter what happens from now until the NCAA Tournament starts, or where they get seeded, the Lions are good enough and have enough pieces in place to make a deep run.

It would help considerably, though, if PSU can close strong and remain in position for somewhere in the neighborhood of a 5 seed. That’s not a terribly difficult path to the Sweet 16, as opposed to an 8 or 9 seed, where the Lions would meet a 1 seed in the second round.

“Right now we’re trying to do something special, something that Penn State hasn’t seen before,” Chambers recently said.

The Lions have only made it to the Sweet 16 one time during the NCAA Tournament’s modern era (roughly the late 1960s), and if Chambers can get there and beyond this year, he will have cemented his legacy in program history.

“Pat’s done a great job there,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told the Washington Post last week. “I mean, we’re a football school, but they’re a football school. Convincing kids that Penn State basketball can matter can’t have been easy. But he’s done it. He’s gotten good players. They’ve become a very tough out for everyone in the league.”

Like Krimmel, Chambers is a wonderful person and someone you truly can root for. He has represented Penn State exceptionally well, even during lean times, and has the perfect passion and spirit that it takes to succeed in basketball at a place like PSU.

It’s been so hard for so long for college basketball fans around these parts. If you love the sport, you’ve pretty much had to gravitate toward being a fan of Duke or North Carolina or Villanova or Syracuse — some major program that enjoys success and won’t break your heart every year.

Thanks to Krimmel and Chambers, Saint Francis and Penn State basketball fans now can hold their heads up high and have realistic hopes that their own hoop dreams can come true.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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