‘You’ve got to invest.’ How Penn State’s AD wants to change perception around basketball

Mike Rhoades spoke matter-of-factly as he sat in his new office inside the Bryce Jordan Center.

That office looks much different than when it belonged to his predecessor, Micah Shrewsberry. There are no Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum Boston Celtics jerseys framed on the wall — which is of no surprise given that the new Penn State men’s basketball head coach is a Pennsylvania native.

There is not much of anything in the office quite yet. It’s a sure sign of the fact that Rhoades has spent his first month and a half on the job filling a roster that will only have three of the same scholarship players as the one the year before.

As he builds that roster, he must also build a program — one that Penn State never invested much into prior to his arrival.

And all of that comes with goals in mind, like the ones Rhoades has for the long-term health of the program that made it to the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time since 2011.

“I want to put our stamp on it and build this so that we’re in the NCAA Tournament every year,” Rhoades told the Centre Daily Times earlier this month. “We’re competing in the NCAA Tournament every year. Heck, we’re in the Big Ten. Let’s get to the upper half of the Big Ten. That gets you to the NCAA Tournament and anything can happen from there. Why can’t we think like that? Why can’t we put that out there?”

It will take time to get there, but more importantly, it will take investment. The investment of time and effort from Rhoades and his staff, but more importantly the financial investment from the Penn State athletic department.

It will take money that — after plenty of harsh criticism from fans after Shrewsberry’s departure — athletic director Pat Kraft says his department will be putting into Rhoades and his program. Money that will allow Rhoades and his staff to recruit at the highest level and could even mean a standalone practice facility down the road.

“I want to win national championships,” Kraft told the CDT in late April. “I’m here to win national championships. I think Penn State should win national championships in all 31 (sports). ... That’s the only way I know how to do it. ... Why can’t we win in basketball consistently? Doing what we did should become the norm. Other schools do that, right? We’re winning all up and down the roster of sports right now. So what do you have to do to win? You’ve got to invest. And you’ve got to be focused on the right investments to get us to where we want. ... And by the way, people are pretty passionate about basketball here.”

Mike Rhoades shakes hands with Penn State athletic director Pat Kraft after being introduced as the new Penn State men’s basketball coach during a press conference at the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
Mike Rhoades shakes hands with Penn State athletic director Pat Kraft after being introduced as the new Penn State men’s basketball coach during a press conference at the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

Establishing an NIL presence

In modern college basketball, that starts with having a way to provide money to the players on the roster through name, image and likeness (NIL) deals.

There were reportedly issues with NIL over the last year-plus under Shrewsberry. Those issues concerned the program’s ability to compete with other programs in that domain.

Kraft said those weren’t brought up until later in the 2022-2023 season.

“We had a conversation about where we were (with NIL),” Kraft said. “We’re always trying to evolve. What can we do, how can we maximize it. It is a space you’re always trying to help and try to improve. We were behind in so many ways so building the infrastructure to get to that point was really important for us. ... Micah and I talked a little bit about that, but it was how we can improve.”

Regardless of when those issues were brought up, the program is attempting to make progress on that front for the future.

That comes with help from Doug Fillis, the founder of Accelerate Sports Ventures — a company that provides education and solutions for athletic departments like Penn State’s when it comes to NIL.

Fillis helped Boston College with NIL when Kraft was there and now works with Penn State in the same way.

According to Fillis, that was a necessity because the Nittany Lions lagged behind even a program like Boston College. There has been substantial progress made by the department in that realm, with Fillis saying in late April it’s “night and day” when comparing where it was for men’s basketball in November to now, adding that there was less communication than he would like with the previous staff.

So why have things changed for the men’s basketball program?

Fillis said it has a lot to do with that communication between himself and the program.

“We have teams at Penn State that are doing great or much better than where they were July 1 of last year,” he said. “That’s because it’s a two-way street. When they need something they’re reaching out to the right parties. When they’re concerned about something ... it’s a two-way street. Just being candid, I speak to football 100 times a week. I can’t fill up my schedule with calls that are coming from football. ... It’s a great collaboration. With the new men’s basketball staff — unbelievable in communication and collaboration.”

Even in late-April, a month after Rhoades started, Fillis said there was already a marked increase in communication. He said the new head coach is “accessible at all times” and that he feels like he’s known Rhoades for years despite recently meeting him.

That has manifested in a staff meeting with compliance and a separate strategy meeting between the staff and Fillis — who said the fan base and alumni have already committed to “significant dollars.”

“I couldn’t be more excited about where it’s going,” Fillis said. “It’s unfortunate some of the ways that this got characterized. But it’s gonna be for the best at Penn State now because the fan base has responded. It’s not just big one-time checks. It’s all facets of the fan base stepping up to support Mike and his staff and his vision.”

Notre Dame did not respond to a request for comment from Shrewsberry on the matter.

While increased communication can help, it still has to turn into actual financial investment. That’s where Penn State’s collectives come into play. Collectives receive funding from outside sources, like alums and fans, and can use that money to sign athletes to NIL deals.

A source with knowledge of the situation indicated the program had around $1 million available to provide to players during the offseason through collective support, and that number is expected to be recurring in future years. According to another source, the previous staff was aiming to have between $750,000 and $1 million.

As for the new staff’s goal, Rhoades declined to put a specific number out there.

Penn State’s new men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades answers questions during his introductory press conference at the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
Penn State’s new men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades answers questions during his introductory press conference at the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

Investing in facilities

For all of the noise about NIL and its importance, there are other areas of program building where Rhoades will need help to make progress.

That means improvements in facilities — or even the creation of one.

The perpetual boogeyman of Penn State basketball remains the Bryce Jordan Center. The common complaints about the arena remain valid. It’s large for a college basketball arena, and doesn’t have the type of “on top of you” seating that most great venues along that vein do.

Kraft noted the Bryce Jordan Center’s one practice court and the need for the men’s and women’s teams to have their own space.

“I think really looking at the practice facility is a big issue right now,” Kraft said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s the best way. I think everything is on the table. ... A practice facility is something that would be down the road right now, but I think it’s something we’re really looking at.”

The ability to practice for both the men’s and women’s basketball program would help alleviate some of the issues the teams have, but it could also be used to pitch to prospective players when they come on recruiting visits.

That will always be a priority in many of the decisions because at the end of the day the players on the court will decide the health of the program.

But no matter the issues with the Bryce Jordan Center, one of the biggest remains the abundance of blue seats visible during any given weeknight game.

Kraft noted the change in crowds for weekend games, something he said they need more of. And while the Bryce Jordan Center has its flaws, Kraft said he doesn’t necessarily see there being another permanent venue for games. However, that doesn’t mean it will be the only place the team plays.

Penn State men’s basketball fans cheer during the game against Illinois on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.
Penn State men’s basketball fans cheer during the game against Illinois on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.

“Could I see us playing a couple games at Rec (Hall)?” Kraft said. “I think that’s a really cool experience. The Palestra game is amazing so we’re looking at some of that stuff just to get us out.”

All of those more noticeable changes would be apparent to fans — it would be hard to ignore games at different venues or an entirely new practice facility — but there are other smaller issues Rhoades has pushed for already.

There are issues with the carpets and the basketball offices in general that lie in the Bryce Jordan Center. There’s the need to make sure Rhoades and his staff can get out and recruit whenever and wherever they need to — something Kraft prioritized as well.

Not to mention, the need to invest in the ability to get the best people for the job and then to empower them to stay at Penn State.

“I’m big on investing in people,” Rhoades said. “So making sure I had the staff and the people I wanted, that’s huge to me. Bricks and mortar are great, but they don’t make the program. The players and the people do.”

At the end of the day none of the aesthetics will matter if the functionality isn’t there with it.

“From an investment standpoint, it’s really about personnel,” Kraft said. “It’s about the ancillary stuff that goes with just making sure all of our student athletes are taken care of at the highest level. At the end of the day, you could have the Taj Mahal but if you’re not taking care of your kids then it doesn’t matter. And I think the other thing is continuing to allow our staffs to go recruit the best athletes and giving them the best opportunity to be successful in the recruiting landscape is key. ... How you travel is really important and how we take care of both programs in that regard because I believe we can win. There’s no doubt about that. I’m here to win.”

That will always matter more than the visual aspect of change, but right now the visual aspect is necessary too.

That’s because, for years, the optics of the program were not good. Penn State men’s basketball became synonymous for lack of investment. The program was what happened when a football school didn’t care about its men’s basketball team.

Kraft is out to change that perception. He’s out to build a winner out of the athletic department’s second-highest financial earner.

Time will tell if he actually can.