Ed DeChellis knew he wasn’t the people’s choice when he took the East Tennessee State basketball job in 1996.
Seven years later, when he returned to Penn State as the head coach at his alma mater, there weren’t many ETSU fans that wanted to see him go.
DeChellis will be back in town this weekend for induction into the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame. The six-member Class of 2013 will be honored in ceremonies Sunday night at the Millennium Center.
“It’s very humbling. I was shocked and surprised, to be quite honest, when Dave Mullins told me,” DeChellis said this week from Annapolis, Md., where he’s now the head coach at the Naval Academy. “I look forward to seeing everybody there this weekend.”
DeChellis came on the scene at ETSU after the resignation of Alan LeForce, a popular coach who had been with the program for 11 years and four NCAA tournament appearances. It was a difficult transition.
Many in the community had mounted a long, vocal campaign for George Pitts, the ultra-successful high school coach at Science Hill, to be given the job. He had been ruled out for a lack of college experience.
Other candidates in the search were also familiar commodities — former ETSU assistants Dave Hanners and Buzz Peterson — but then-athletic director Keener Fry decided to go with the unknown assistant from Penn State.
“The opportunity Dr. (Roy) Nicks and Keener Fry gave me, I’ll never forget it,” said DeChellis. “I was a no-name guy, and other guys had been connected to East Tennessee State. I was really taken aback when they called me and offered me the job. I was humbled and very, very grateful professionally.”
Inheriting a team coming off a 20-loss season, DeChellis launched into rebuilding mode with assistant coaches Dave Siepert, Hillary Scott and Jerry Pelphrey, the one connection to the glory days as a former player. Their first team went 7-20, matching the record of the previous season. Then came an 11-16 season before things started to turn.
“When we got there, we weren’t very healthy as a program for one reason or another,” said DeChellis. “We had academic casualties we had to absorb, and the talent level was not where we needed it to be. We started at ground zero and built from there. We improved every year, and the last three years we were relevant in the conference every year. We were one of the teams people talked about.”
Indeed, the Bucs finished with three straight division titles in the Southern Conference. The run ended with a championship and their first NCAA tournament appearance in 11 years.
The Bucs lost to Wake Forest, coached by the late Skip Prosser, one of DeChellis’s best friends, 76-73, in the first round in Tampa, Fla. But they had made it back.
“It was a process, just trying to recruit a better caliber of player every year,” said DeChellis. “We had some good, solid classes — guys like Adrian Meeks and Meco Childress that solidified us. Then we were able to recruit guys like Zakee Wadood, Jerald Fields and Tim Smith that put us over the top.
“We went from 14, 15 wins to the next level, and then we brought in kids like Ben Rhoda and Brad Nuckles. And everybody graduated; I’m very proud of that. We never had any issues with kids.”
When DeChellis arrived, there reportedly was a point where only one player was academically eligible. The coach’s wives would routinely make sandwiches for the team to take on the road to save money. Tennessee charitably sent leftover sneakers up from Knoxville.
“The first four years when I was with him, there were a lot of challenges to overcome,” said Pelphrey, “but it’s not something we focused on on a daily basis. As coaches, we could have sat around and felt sorry for ourselves, worrying about a lack of budgets or lack of shoes. Ed said, ‘Here’s the cards we’ve been dealt. Let’s play them the best we can.’
“He went in with a plan, and every year there was improvement -- on the floor, in the classroom and in the community. A lot of times, new guys come in and don’t have a plan. They just get the best players they can and try to win. That’s not Ed at all.”
Eventually the wins started to come for the Bucs, but success never changed the approach.
Wadood and Fields were junior forwards on the NCAA tournament team – its and heart and soul. Wadood says the DeChellis philosophy rubbed off on everybody.
“He did everything the right way, didn’t cut any corners,” said Wadood, now a Wal-Mart executive back home in Arkansas. “He always believed in himself and his system, the players he brought through the program. He knew one day he’d get it where it needed to be.”
Smith, a precocious freshman point guard, was the driving force that last season. The little left-hander would go on to score 2,300 points in his career, a school record, and also finished as the No. 2 assist man behind Mister Jennings.
Coaching Smith was at times like trying to harness the wind.
“You couldn’t coach him too much; that would have been a mistake,” said DeChellis. “Timmy could really score the ball, a score-first point guard, but other kids liked playing with him because he could create and make their lives easier. As a coach, you could pull him back somewhat, but his best attribute was being different. He’d take some bad shots, but you had to live with it because he made a lot of them.
“He could turn around a game quicker than anybody I’ve ever coached. He had a big heart and just wanted to win.”
DeChellis’s overall record at ETSU was a less-than-spectacular 105-93, but he had restored the program’s stature in the conference. And he didn’t leave the cupboard bare when Penn State lured him away.
The Bucs, in fact, went back to the NCAAs in Murry Bartow’s first year as coach with many of those same stars leading the way.
“That whole team, I thought, was a reflection of Ed’s personality,” said Scott Wagers, who joined DeChellis’s staff in 2000 and stayed on with Bartow. “He was a tireless worker, and it was a blue-collar squad, staff and all. Ed would come in the office in the morning, heat up his Maxwell House coffee, roll up his sleeves and go to work.”
DeChellis ended up coaching seven seasons at Penn State, with mixed results. The Nittany Lions struggled in the Big Ten but won an NIT championship and earned an at-large bid to the NCAAs in 2011, DeChellis’s last season there.
A month later, with two years left on his contract, he accepted an offer to coach at Navy. It is proving to be the most challenging rebuilding task yet, but DeChellis loves the place and thinks he can build a respectable program there.
“We went from three wins to eight wins, and we’re gonna win more games next year,” he said. “We have no seniors on the team and just had a very good recruiting class.”
As good as life is on Chesapeake Bay, DeChellis says it’s always a pleasure to come back to East Tennessee. Two of his daughters, Casey and Erin, are still living in the area, and the whole family considers it a comfort zone.
The days when DeChellis was just learning how to be a head coach never seem that far away.
“For my family, Kim and our three girls, is was a time to grow and really mature and develop,” he said. “My girls still consider Johnson City to be their home. Those were their formative years, and they really loved living there. It was a great situation for our family, and a great opportunity for me as a coach. We always look back on it very fondly.”