Chambers' goal: Make BU a mini-Nova
He talked about attitude, diving on the floor for loose balls, playing hard, smart and together.
And I had to pause.
In my ear, I heard Patrick Chambers' voice.
In my head, I heard Jay Wright.
I covered Villanova for eight seasons, taking on the beat the same year Wright was hired as head coach. In those eight seasons, I became an expert on Jay-speak.
He talked about attitude, even starting something called Attitude Club, where players are awarded points for things like diving for loose balls, taking charges, setting hard screens. His team would play "Villanova basketball," one of those indefinable terms coaches love to toss around that mean nothing to us reporters and everything to them.
In Wright's world, Villanova basketball is defined by the signs hanging in his locker room: Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together.
So when Chambers, the newly minted Boston University coach, started talking, I started laughing and stopped him.
"You sound just like Jay," I told him.
Without pause, Chambers said, "Thanks. That's my goal -- to make this a mini-Villanova, at least at our level."
The 38-year-old Chambers certainly knows the blueprint. A one-time high school assistant coach, Wright pulled Chambers into the fold five years ago as the director of basketball operations. At the time, Villanova was recruiting Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson, players at the school (Episcopal Academy) where Chambers was coaching. Neither came to Nova, but Chambers stayed. When Fred Hill left for Rutgers, Chambers slid one seat over as a full-time assistant. And when Brett Gunning jumped to a gig in the NBA, Chambers became Wright's associate head coach last September.
He hitched himself to the Villanova wagon just as the tide was turning, enjoying NCAA-tournament rides to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, first round, Sweet 16 and Final Four in his tenure.
But Chambers also knows what it took to get there. He saw how the sausage was made, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that elevated the program off the court: the search for funding for a new practice facility, the efforts to bring former players on campus and cultivate the tradition, the upgrades in the locker rooms, the little things that no one thinks about but that matter in the dog-eat-dog world of recruiting.
"I hear Jay's voice in my head every single day, especially when it comes to getting things done for our program," Chambers said. "Our administration is totally behind us, but it's still a lot of work. As an assistant, I didn't appreciate all the little things that Jay would talk about. Now I get it, all of the things it takes to build a program not just for one year, but for the long haul."
It's that sort of foundation and infrastructure that Chambers wants to build. His ability to lay the bricks, BU athletic director Mike Lynch said, weighed heavily in his decision to make a coaching change.
The basketball community was stunned when Lynch fired Dennis Wolff. In 15 years, Wolff put together a 247-197 record, and despite injuries to starters Tyler Morris and Carlos Strong, took the Terriers to a 17-13 record this past season.
That Wolff's departure meant a potential $1.4 million buyout for a mid-major school in financially strapped times was equally stunning.
I hear Jay's voice in my head every single day, especially when it comes to getting things done for our program.” -- BU head coach Patrick Chambers on the impact of Villanova's Jay Wright
But Lynch thought the school needed a change from Wolff, a widely respected coach known as a stringent disciplinarian.
"When you have somebody here who gave 15 years of his life, it was the most difficult decision I've ever made," Lynch said. "But I felt at the end of the day, to take the next step as a program we needed a fresh voice. Things had gotten a little stale. Patrick brings a new era of expectations, a new energy."
On the court, Chambers is lucky. Unlike a lot of rookie head coaches, he inherits a good team. Leading scorers John Holland and Corey Lowe, both All-America East selections, return. So do fellow starters Scott Brittain, Morris and Strong.
If the Terriers can keep league rookie of the year Jake O'Brien in the fold -- he's weighing transfer options to Butler and Xavier -- Boston U should be among the favorites to win the league.
"We're working hard to keep him," Chambers said of O'Brien.
But off the court, the new coach has some of the foundation-building that Wright faced. The school's Agganis Arena is only 4 years old and is a top-notch facility for a school of BU's size, but last year the Terriers averaged just 1,156 per game, ninth in a 10-team league. In a building that can seat up to as many as 7,200, that doesn't look good.
So Chambers wants to court the on-campus and off-campus communities, luring alums and students to the arena while also trying to capitalize on the hoops passion reborn in the city thanks to the Celtics' rise.
BU students be warned: In his early days, Wright would personally stump for student support in the cafeterias and dorm rooms. Expect Chambers to be standing amid the lunch meat and cheese this fall.
Chambers said he's already burning the phone lines between Boston and Philadelphia, picking Wright's brain for ideas and pointers.
Wright, though, said his former assistant needs no help.
"Pat has incredible charisma and his energy level is amazing," Wright said. "He reminds me of [former 76ers president] Pat Croce. He's real positive like that, always positive and upbeat. I can see him going to BU and taking that place by storm."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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