UNIVERSITY PARK — Perched in the northwest corner of Penn State’s campus, Rec Hall’s simple brick façade masks the years of prominent athletic moments.
The building does not host as many events as it used to, and while the cheers still ring out most notably for Penn State’s wrestling and volleyball teams, memories of the gym’s steep bleachers filling up for a basketball game are just stories or grainy film.
That changes Saturday.
Penn State will be back in its old gym for the first time in almost 18 years, as the team hosts Princeton at 2 p.m. in what the program has dubbed the “Return to Rec.” The game was announced in July, and something coach Patrick Chambers said he and his staff have worked on making a reality since he took the job 2 1/2 years ago.
It took some patience and a lot of help from others, but Chambers was able to overcome some logistical obstructions and get his team back, just for a game, to where the Nittany Lions spent some years thriving in front of thunderous crowds.
“Here we are. I can’t believe it actually. I can’t believe it,” the third-year coach said Thursday with an astonished look on his face. “All the hard work my staff has done to get us to this point. We’re finally here, it’s pretty amazing.”
Penn State began playing in Rec Hall in 1929, but has not had a game there since Jan. 7, 1996. In more than 68 seasons, the team had a 514-183 record (.737 winning percentage) in Rec Hall. In four separate seasons, the average attendance was more than 6,000 for basketball games in Rec Hall, and the team announced earlier in the week it had sold out of its 6,022 tickets for seats, with just standing room only tickets left.
Not having a ticket did not stop fans from seeing games back in the day, and Chambers believes he and his sister may have snuck into the track for the only basketball game he ever attended at Rec Hall. It was the Lions’ heartbreaking loss to Indiana in 1993, which featured a very controversial call at the end in favor of Bob Knight’s team. But other than the Penn State loss, Chambers had fond memories of the game, and called the place “bananas.”
The most crowded Rec Hall ever got for a basketball game was in December of 1973 when 8,600 huddled in to watch Penn State play Virginia. Former State College High School star Barry Parkhill (whose brother Bruce went on to be Penn State’s head coach) played for Virginia, and the town came out in droves to see him against the Lions.
Jim Hopey, the assistant director of Pollock Dining Commons at Penn State, was a sophomore at the time and attended the game. Hopey said “there was standing room on the track, it was like 10 deep. By today’s fire code, they would never permit it.” He added Rec Hall had a distinct aura about it, that is not matched by the Lions’ current home — the multi-purpose 15,261-seat Bryce Jordan Center.
“My first time over there when I was a freshman in ’72, I was like ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ ” Hopey said of Rec Hall. “It was like a museum. It just reeks of college sports. You go over to the Bryce Jordan Center, there are all these ads for companies, and you’re like ‘Really?’ It’s like a commercial.”
The museum-ness of Rec Hall comes in its concourse, where pictures, trophies and other remembrances of past Penn State teams of all sports are showcased. Each case is like its own time capsule, and when Chambers was hired, he made sure to drink in the history.
“One of the first things I did when I got the job was walk the halls, so I had a better understanding,” said Chambers, who turned 43 on Friday. “It’s easy to grab a media guide and say ‘I know everything.’ But I wanted to take it a step further, and I went to Rec Hall and walked around and looked at all the pictures that are over there and accolades and great teams.”
Last season, Chambers took a similar journey around the nostalgia, only this time he brought his team with him after holding a practice at Rec Hall. Chambers said he wanted to show his squad there is a tradition of Penn State basketball, even if it’s not shown in the form of NCAA Tournament berths.
The coach also noted he made sure to get some film from games at Rec Hall and watch them to better appreciate the spectacle of what went on in the gym. And some of those tapes came in handy when he and his staff needed to pitch the idea to administration. They not only evidently impressed some of the university brass, but made players look forward to getting a chance to play with fans right on top of the action.
“I saw the tape that they showed to the AD and all the people about Rec Hall, and saw the guys all wearing jeans in the front row,” fifth-year point guard Tim Frazier said. “I was there, I saw a lot of it, and I was like ‘Why wouldn’t I want to do that? Bring that history and tradition back.’ I’m hoping we can bring the same atmospheres as they did back in the day.”
Once the fanfare subsides Saturday, however, there is still a game to be played, and against a team which has had a successful first month of the 2013-14 campaign. Princeton enters the game at 7-1, with its only loss being a three-point defeat to Butler. The Tigers also beat Bucknell — a team Penn State lost to by 10 — and downed Rutgers earlier in the week.
Chambers was a few minutes late to his Thursday press conference because he said he was busy watching Princeton film, and he said he is reminding his players that there is still a game to be playedSaturday.
The court was shipped by a flooring company and finished being installed Friday afternoon. Chambers said both teams will have normal gameday use of it as far as warmups go. Dozens of former Penn State players and coaches are expected to be on hand for the game, and the 1991 team, which won the Atlantic 10, will be honored at halftime.
Chambers was unsure on if any future games would be played in Rec Hall, and said he and administrators would have to digest how Saturday goes before they know. But it’s clear the coach wants to bridge the gap to the past.
Even if it’s as simple as moving down the road for one day.
“The players need to know they’re playing for others, they’re playing for those who have gone before them,” Chambers said. “You’re not just putting the jersey on for the guys in this locker room, but you’re putting it on for all those who played before you.”