May 25, 2011
By Bob Socci
Ed DeChellis had been back in Happy Valley for four seasons when sadness struck in the summer of 2007, leaving him to eulogize the man he still considers "my best friend in coaching."
His confidant and colleague, Skip Prosser, was at Wake Forest, where he went out for a jog, returned to his office and collapsed in his chair. At age 56, he was dead of an apparent heart attack.
Days later, DeChellis addressed the hundreds, many of them his basketball peers, crammed into Holy Family Catholic Church in Clemmons, N.C.
"The man I count on for direction is gone," he told the mourners. "My compass in life has gone to another place."
Four years later, the memory of if not the compass himself, seemed to be pointing DeChellis to another place. On Monday, just two months after leading his alma mater Penn State to the NCAA Tournament, and only two seasons removed from a NIT title, DeChellis was hired by the Naval Academy.
He arrived at his decision after touring Annapolis, accompanied by his wife, Kim, daughter, Lauren, and constant reminders of a dear friend.
DeChellis had grown especially close to Prosser when both were college assistants. Eventually, he took ownership of East Tennessee State's program, before returning to PSU, while Prosser rose in the profession from Loyola (Md.) to Xavier to Wake Forest.
But one position Prosser never held was the one he always professed to want; the one that last weekend was made available to DeChellis.
"(Skip's) dream job was the Naval Academy," DeChellis said by phone on Tuesday, making one of the 50-to-60 return calls he owed to media and colleagues around the country. "Each year in the spring time, when jobs would circulate, he always talked about the Academy."
Prosser romanticized about frequent visits to Annapolis during Navy's halcyon days of the mid-to-late 1980s. A hard-nosed kid he coached in high school, Doug Wojcik, was the lead guard for the "Elite Eight" Midshipmen of 1986 and their captain a year later.
"He always talked about how special it was seeing Doug playing," DeChellis remembers. "Years ago, I scouted a game at Halsey Fieldhouse. I understood what (Skip) was talking about."
And when he recently came back to The Yard, walking with Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk, watching midshipmen march past and feeling a "great sense of pride," DeChellis thought of Prosser.
The inexplicable enormity of it all, at this stage of his life and career, moved him to act.
"It was something that was very, very powerful," DeChellis said during a press conference early Monday evening in University Park, Pa. "I can't explain it, unless you've been there and done it. It was more like, without being too philosophical, it was like a calling, like this was something I needed to do and this was where I needed to be."
Call it his civic duty. DeChellis does, if only "in some small way."
"Believe me, I'm a very small part of it, but this is something I can give back" he said of his newly chosen role coaching soon-to-be officers.
Outside of Annapolis, such sentiments have evoked responses ranging from curiosity to incredulity, as demonstrated by lines of questioning during Monday's presser and in Tuesday morning's analysis.
Why, some wonder, would the 2009 Big Ten Coach of the Year depart a power conference so lucrative that it's contemplating paying players? For the Patriot League, which until 2006-07 still fielded a member abstaining from athletic scholarships?
Was there discontent in Happy Valley, coaching in football's 360-degree shadow? Did his contract status leave him feeling underappreciated, disrespected or insecure? Could it be all of the above?
It was, DeChellis stresses, none of the above.
"It's not about going from the Big Ten to the Patriot League, it's about working at the Naval Academy and having to work with young men who want to serve our country," he said on Monday.
DeChellis paused several times to compose himself during the course of his 16 ½-minute media session. He was PSU Class of 1982, assisted three different head coaches for a total of 12 years and presided over the Nittany Lions for eight seasons. He and his wife raised three girls and became grandparents there. Saying goodbye is hard to do.
The following afternoon, DeChellis summed up his thought process.
"I wasn't leaving Penn State," he said, "I was going to Navy."
To the person who knows DeChellis best, fully understanding his inner being and personal bearings, his decision in the end wasn't much of a surprise.
"(To) my wife, driving home last week, I said, `What do you think?'" DeChellis recounted. "She just said, `This is who you are, this is what you stand for: morals, ethics, hard work, determination, all those words.'"
Saccharin as those words might seem to skeptics - especially considering some of the stuff we've heard from too many ethically-challenged coaches - DeChellis's reputation appears beyond reproach.
And if accepting a reported pay cut to take a supposed step down on the coaching ladder seems unfathomable, you should understand that DeChellis sees life differently than most of us.
He was in his early 20s when his father, Richard, the family breadwinner, died from stomach cancer on Halloween of 1981. With poor health coverage and little life insurance, the DeChellises were forced to sell their family home.
The disease would revisit decades later. DeChellis's mother Audrey succumbed to pancreatic and liver cancer at 6:08 a.m. on Christmas Day in 2007.
Between the losses of both parents, DeChellis awoke on a Friday morning seven years ago to blood in his urine. He suspected a kidney stone. The next day, a doctor delivered a grave diagnosis: DeChellis had a tumor in his bladder. It was malignant.
Today cancer is in remission, yet remains part of who DeChellis is. It shapes his perspective.
"No question," he says. "I live six months at a time. My next doctor's appointment is in June.
"You look at things differently. You learn that having lots of money, fanfare, TV (notoriety), whatever; it's not going to help you."
In 2009, DeChellis was one of five Division I basketball coaches among more than 6,000 American Cancer Society representatives who converged on Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers to do more to help families ravaged by the disease physically and financially.
He's also helped Penn State raise hundreds of thousands through his work with Coaches vs. Cancer. Last year alone, according to a school press release, the Nittany Lions generated more than $200,000.
Considering what he confronted, and how he's acted on his convictions, there's no doubting DeChellis's sincerity when he tells you that coming to the Academy is "about what I wanted to do with my life."
And, he adds, making a difference in his players' lives.
That includes helping the Mids reach the NCAA Tournament. Navy hasn't been there since 1998.
Like his friend Don DeVoe, who led the Mids to three Patriot League titles in a five-year span, DeChellis comes to Annapolis after guiding two other schools to the NCAA tourney.
At East Tennessee State, he inherited a 20-loss program before averaging nearly 19 wins his final three seasons, including a Southern Conference crown in 2003. DeChellis then succeeded Jerry Dunn at Penn State, which had gone to the NCAA Tournament only eight times in its history.
Any Nittany Lion tradition in basketball, for the most part, is in the women's game. The Penn State men's program is truly a Big Ten outlier. While five conference foes have advanced to the Final Four since 2000, it hasn't been that deep since 1954.
Nonetheless, under DeChellis, the Nittany Lions captured the NIT Championship with their 27th victory of 2008-09. Last March, they reached their first-ever Big Ten final and earned the school's first NCAA tourney bid in a decade.
As you know - and as he's already discovered - DeChellis faces unique challenges inherent at a service academy. He laughs about trying to reach a Navy player this week, only to learn of the Mid's unavailability. His ship, literally, had sailed.
But DeChellis's rolodex is filled with invaluable resources. He intends to call on DeVoe and Wojcik, now the head coach at Tulsa. He plans to reach out to Paul Evans, Pete Hermann and Emmett Davis, all of whom have strong coaching ties to the Academy.
"I want to see what their formula for success was," DeChellis says. "History can repeat itself if you pay attention."
In many ways - especially on defense and under the boards - he'll try to duplicate what was done at Penn State. When successful, his Nittany Lions weren't quite winning on style points. Sometimes they won without many points, period.
Like in the 2011 Big Ten quarterfinals, where the score was: Penn State 36, Wisconsin 33. And no, the shot clock didn't malfunction.
Of course, that's an extreme example. Nonetheless, DeChellis will soon be coaching where prevailing by grit and grind isn't just accepted; it's expected. This is, after all, where the football team has won twice in three years without ever completing a pass.
It's also where the Mids of the mid-90s made winning ugly at times an art form. Most of DeVoe's tenure, defense and rebounding were paramount. Offense often was a by-product of the two.
And though the dynamics of the now-scholarship Patriot League are different than many of those seasons, Navy was good enough to place second just four years ago. The Mids have been talented enough to feature the conference's top scorer three of the past four seasons.
But with a style predicated on three pointers - sometimes for better, sometimes not - they still found the league's quarterfinals inescapable. Navy hasn't won a postseason game since 2001.
If the likes of Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan and Wojcik believe DeChellis has what it takes to change that - and they most certainly do - well, to coin an expression familiar around Annapolis, expect to win.
"I'm proud that we proved we could win at Penn State," DeChellis says. "I'm ready to do something different."
Albeit by means tried and true, in both Navy and Penn State blue.
"You have to be a tight-knit group and have a togetherness to you, with no missing pieces on the floor," he says of his coaching philosophy. "You have to defend, and you better take care of the basketball to give yourself a chance to do well.
"Togetherness, toughness, defense; those three things have to be staples in our program."
Especially togetherness and toughness; those are cornerstones of the Academy. DeChellis is ready to start building around them.
"It's a different lifestyle; a different way of life," he knows. "But it's basketball; it's competing...We will be as competitive as heck and I think we are going to put a great program together. But it's not about those other things with me anymore. It's just not."
It's about something an old friend understood long ago.
"Penn State is a special place for me and my family," DeChellis says, "but I found another special place in the United States Naval Academy."