Penn State basketball head coach Pat Chambers announced his resignation on Wednesday night, leaving in the midst of an internal investigation centered around his treatment of players. You can read all about that here but, looking forward, the Nittany Lions now have to hire their first head coach since 2011.
The school has announced that assistant Jim Ferry will be interim head coach. But as the first opening of the not-yet-started 2020-21 season, this search has enough time to stretch as wide as it must go.
Penn State likely isn’t in the mix for some of the best unemployed coaches despite being in a power conference, so don’t expect John Beilein to suddenly show up in Happy Valley. There is a chance the program becomes a safety net for a big-name coach who may lose his job this season (thinking Shaka Smart or Archie Miller), and the availability of those names would really shake up the wish list.
But, as it stands, here are the top five candidates to replace Pat Chambers at Penn State:
5) Rick Pitino, Iona
OK, so, let’s all get that initial reaction out of our system.
The reality is that Pitino’s name is going to come up for basically every power conference opening between now and next offseason, even before coaching a game for Iona. He’s still one of the best coaches in the sport’s history and Iona opened the doors to prolong his career. Yes, there are a number of NCAA transgressions in his background, but he’s also the only head coach yet to serve any significant penalty stemming from the FBI investigation.
If Penn State wants to continue its recent winning years and get a coach that could take it to the next level, it’s hard to find a better answer than Pitino. But would the program be willing to pay him and deal with the potential backlash of hiring him? There’s also the question of whether Pitino would be willing to leave Iona after just one year, or if he would rather hold out for a better job. Penn State would be a low-pressure gig in a power conference, though, and that may appeal to Pitino at this stage in his career.
4) Jim Ferry, Penn State
Being the interim head coach obviously gives Jim Ferry the first crack at the job, yet there’s also a legitimate chance he keeps it. Ferry would provide some stability and continuity to the program since he has been on staff since 2017. Prior to that, Ferry picked up 15 years of head coaching experience at Long Island (2002-12) and Duquesne (2012-17).
He has been a big factor in Penn State’s recruiting efforts since joining the staff and might be the program’s best chance to keep its future recruiting classes intact, including the three-man class already assembled for 2021.
Ferry’s legitimacy will be determined by how the Nittany Lions perform the upcoming season. Expectations are already low following several key departures including Lamar Stevens, and undergoing a coaching change at this point certainly makes things tougher. If they can climb out of the Big Ten’s bottom four, there’s a chance Ferry gets to keep the job.
3) Luke Yaklich, Illinois-Chicago
Yaklich developed a reputation for being one of the nation’s top defensive masterminds while on John Beilein’s staff at Michigan from 2017-19, which followed an impressive stint as an assistant at Illinois State from 2013-17. He moved on to Texas last season after Beilein left for the NBA before taking the Illinois-Chicago head job in March.
Like Pitino, it remains to be seen if Yaklich would entertain leaving his first college head coaching job after just one season. It’s also possible that the Flames underachieve in Yaklich’s first season, making him a less desirable candidate. That said, he’s familiar with the Big Ten and is respected as one of the best young coaches in the country. Yaklich doesn’t have any immediate ties to the area, yet his track record of developing players and coaching defense should make him very appealing to Penn State.
2) Andrew Toole, Robert Morris
Toole is only 40 years old but has been the head coach of Robert Morris for a decade, winning two NEC regular season titles (2013, 2014) and two NEC tournament titles (2015, 2020). He also has five 20-win seasons on his resume and was at the helm of the Colonials when they knocked off Kentucky in the first round of the NIT in 2013.
Widely regarded as one of the best young coaches in the sport (he’s actually still the 6th-youngest coach in the country), Toole finished his college career at Penn, playing there from 2001-03. He has also been coaching and recruiting in the state since 2006 when he started his career as an assistant at Lafayette.
This would be something of a gamble for Penn State given the major step up in competition. However, the Nittany Lions might need to take that gamble since they are unlikely to attract the hottest names from the mid-major level. Toole is proven and knows the area well, whih should put him on Penn State’s short list.
1) Steve Donahue, Penn
Would Donahue want another shot at a power conference job?
Following a very successful stint at Cornell in which he led the Big Red to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a Sweet 16 berth, Donahue left for Boston College where he was fired after just four years. He returned to the Ivy League with Penn in 2015 and experienced success yet again, leading the Quakers to the dance in 2018.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Donahue returns to the major conference ranks at some point in the future given his success at the mid-major level and the continued struggles Boston College has had since his departure. Penn State would make a lot of sense for him to make that jump, too. He obviously is known in recruiting circles since he’s at Penn now, but he was also an assistant for the Quakers from 1990-2000. It’s also not a high-pressure job and he would have time to put his stamp on the program while building upon Chambers’ recent success.
Donahue likely checks the most boxes in Penn State’s search. He’s a seasoned coach who has proven he can have success at multiple stops and knows the area well. The 58-year-old may also be available before other coaches on the list if the Ivy League decides to skip the 2020-21 season. Don’t be surprised if he’s one of the first coaches Penn State pursues.
Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.