3 worst head coach hires in Penn State basketball history

It's not easy to win on the hardwood at a football school, but these three coaches made it seem even tougher during their failed tenures at Penn State.

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Pat Chambers
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Pat Chambers / Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
1 of 3

At a true football school, it can seem impossible for the basketball program to gain traction and become a conference power. Like with any program, building sustainable success is all about hiring the right people, but the cruel trick at a Power Five football school is, that even when you do, the right people might just leave for better jobs. 

That’s what Penn State had to overcome last offseason, after Micah Shrewsberry took the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten Tournament final and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament, he fled for the greener pastures of South Bend Indiana. Penn State, with a gutted roster, hired Mike Rhoades from VCU, and even at 14-16 with one game left in the regular season, it looks like the right hire. 

It’s hard to say with certainty that Penn State got it right, but if they did, that’s a bit of a rare occurrence. The Nittany Lions have made the NCAA Tournament just three times this century and only 10 times in school history. 

John Lawther took Penn State to the big dance for the first time back in 1942, Elmer Gross and John Egli brought the Nittany Lions back three times in the ‘50s, Egli did it again in the ‘60s (when the NIT was the preferred postseason tournament), Bruce Parkhill and Jerry Dunn brought the team back twice in the ‘90s, and since the turn of the century, Dunn, Ed DeChellis, and Shrewsberry have all orchestrated tournament worthy seasons. 

The long gaps between tournament appearances are due largely to the efforts, or lack thereof, of these three men, and the flaws of the Penn State athletic department.

Dick Harter. 491. player. Dick Harter. 1978-83. . . Record: 79-61. 3. Dick Harter

I mean come on. I can’t begin to express to you how disappointing it is that a Power Five head basketball coach was named Dick Harter, and I wasn't alive to see it. I’m sure Harter was a lovely man and may he rest in peace, but his parents clearly didn’t like him very much right from the start with a name like that, or they thought he needed to be toughened up in middle school.

Once he was well past middle school (though does middle school humor ever end?), Harter began his head coaching career at Penn and took the team to the NCAA Tournament twice in five years. Then he rebuilt the Oregon Ducks out in Eugene. After a 6-20 season in 1971-72, he strung together six straight winning seasons before returning to Pennsylvania for a pay raise to take over in Happy Valley in 1978. 

Over his five-year tenure, Harter led Penn State to four winning seasons, but never surpassed the 20-win threshold and didn’t get the team to the NCAA Tournament. Eventually, Harter left for the NBA after failing to coalesce with football coach and athletic director Joe Paterno. 

Harter was known as a defensive-minded basketball genius and he proved it at Oregon and in the NBA, but he was not the right fit for the Penn State basketball program, which floundered without a conference for years. 

Harter overcame insurmountable odds to be taken seriously with that name, but at Penn State, he couldn’t overcome the failures of his predecessor, John Bach.