"We had lost our competitiveness"
After nearly 20 minutes of speaking with three reporters deep in the halls of the Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour uttered five words that summed up the Friday news that the women's basketball program was moving on from coach Coquese Washington.
For anyone who had watched Penn State women's basketball over the last several years, even from a distance, the change seemed inevitable. After three Big Ten titles and two relatively deep runs into the postseason, the program had lost a step. In 2015, the Lady Lions fell 71-51 at Rutgers due in large part to a 38 turnover effort by Penn State, and it was a low point in a span of many that articulated the fall a once otherwise proud program had taken in such a short time.
Penn State went 7-24 that season, and despite going 22-11 in 2016, never managed to get its cumulative record above .500 over the span of the last five years. The Lady Lions fell 65-57 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday.
"I'm a big body-of-work person. I don't make decisions quickly or in haste," Barbour added. "Coquese and I had several conversations over the past few days. Get to the end of the season and look at the body of work over the season and the body of work over the last five years and she and I both agreed that a change in direction was the right thing."
As far as the financial bottom line goes, the numbers were no better. In the most recent fiscal report, Penn State athletics spent $4.86 million on the program that generated $847,407 in revenues. Since 2011, the program had generated more than $1 million in revenue only twice, while ticket sales dropped on an annual basis from $437,198 in 2014 to just $164,359 in 2018.
For comparison, men's basketball has seen ticket revenues rise nearly every season from $684,535 in 2012 to $919,031 in 2018. While ticket prices and various other factors impact the ability to truly compare the numbers, the broad trends are more important indicators of program health.
While Barbour was less keen to cite financials as a motivating factor for the move, in a department with big plans and big budgets, even losing less money from programs like women's basketball is essential. It remains to be seen how a new face in front of the program will impact those numbers, but it's difficult to imagine they would be worse. Barbour is hopeful to have a new coach in place sooner rather than later, but with the postseason and summer ahead, there are no immediate reasons to rush the process.
With the brief media session completed, there was a stark contrast in the hallways of the Bryce Jordan Center. The women's offices were dark and empty, a season over and done, the men's hallway bustling with activity as the season marches on.
Asked — again — how she assesses the trajectory of Pat Chambers and his program, one that has gone 6-3 over the past nine games but will once again (barring a miraculous Big Ten tourney) miss the NCAA Tournament, Barbour's answer was telling, and consistent with her season-long trend of vocal support.
"What I said in December and said again in January, nothing has changed," Barbour said. "I think the thing that is the same about both programs is that neither of them are where we think they should be, but I certainly assess them very differently in terms of their trajectory."
Whatever any given fan might think of the longevity of Pat Chambers' tenure and his prospects of making the NCAA Tournament in 2019, it's difficult to argue the Nittany Lions aren't competitive, and that a women's program that has a history of success needed to make change to catch back up with its own winning standards.