After half a dozen injury-riddled years in the program, it only seemed like Danny Earl was 30 when he played his final game at Penn State in 1999. In fact he was only 24, and, despite his physical issues, anxious to embark on a professional basketball career.
Fast-forward six more years, a time that has seen Earl skip around the globe while chasing his hoop dreams only to be derailed by more injuries, and the Medford Lake, N.J., native actually is 30. Having recently retired as a player from the sport he loves, he decided to take the next logical step: becoming a coach. And as fate would have it, a position opened at the place where his whole odyssey began back in 1993 — Penn State.
Earl was named an assistant coach at his alma mater Tuesday, replacing James Johnson, who left the staff for a post at George Mason. Earl was hired by the man who recruited him to PSU in 1993, then-assistant and now head coach Ed DeChellis.
I'm thrilled, Earl said. It is really exciting. I've always wanted to get into coaching. Going through the whole process, everybody told me a lot of it is who you know, who you are and what you've done. But a lot of it is timing, and I can't even describe how much that fits this situation.
Earl had knee and ankle surgeries last summer that prompted him to retire. Though he holds a marketing degree from Penn State, he said basketball is in my blood. I love the game. I just want to be around it.
Fortunately, his years of playing overseas and in stateside minor leagues like the CBA and NBDL allowed him to build up enough of a nest egg that he did not have to rush into just any job.
He had an offer to be an aide for the Division III U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and expected an offer from Richmond before the PSU position opened. He met DeChellis in Harrisburg, Pa., last week, and on Monday the coach called and offered the job.
When he told me, Earl said, I immediately said, yeah, I'm ready. I told him I'd work my tail off, work real hard and get after this thing.
Outworking opponents was a key during Earl's wild ride at Penn State. He was the Nittany Lions' starting point guard in their second year in the Big Ten, 1993-94. It was a heyday for guards in the conference, as the skinny rookie found himself dealing with Michael Finley, Vashon Lenard, Shawn Respert and Jalen Rose, to name a few. Yet Earl averaged 8.4 points and set a PSU freshman record with 113 assists.
The next year he teamed with freshman Pete Lisicky to form what would become one of the most potent backcourts in school history. Lisicky started only two games that season, but made 68 3-pointers. The duo came up big in 1995-96, as the Lions finished second in the Big Ten and earned an NCAA tournament appearance in their first season under Jerry Dunn.
Earl skipped the 1996-97 campaign due to persistent back problems. Five games into the following season, he blew out his knee and missed the rest of the year.
Just seeing the game from a different perspective, when you are not on the floor, you see all of the things that go into it, Earl said of the two lost seasons. And I was always vocal on the court, so I gave my share of advice to the players. That helped me out. It was a plus in a weird way. It also taught me how much I love the game.
He petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility and received it. He started all 27 games in 1998-99, averaging a career-high 13.4 points, but the team struggled to 13-14 as Earl dealt with the lingering effects of the knee injury and never clicked with sophomore guard Joe Crispin.
Earl left Penn State with 1,256 career points, currently 12th all-time at the school. His 574 assists are second all-time and he owns two of the top-10 single-season assist totals. He has 194 career 3-pointers, fifth all-time, and 491 3-point attempts, which is fourth.
But more than that, he believes living through an era when Penn State climbed into the top 10 and fought for a conference title will help him sell the program now.
I remember how it was pitched to me, Earl said. They got me on campus and told me they were making a move in basketball and wanted me to be a part of it. That meant a lot to me. We have everything in place you need. It's just a matter of getting guys, having those guys buy in, and getting better.
We were building in my first three years, he added. Junior year, we were in the NCAA tournament. And when you're winning games I remember when it was 17,000 people in the Jordan Center. It was tough to get a ticket. I'd like to get it back to the path we were on.
Earl played in Germany during his first season out of school, then the CBA before it folded, then Portugal, then the NBDL, then Germany again, then Poland. He also had a couple of runs in the New Jersey Nets' training camp. In short, he's been exposed to just about everything from an X's and O's standpoint, which will be important for a team that will rely heavily on young guards next season.
Recruiting is another matter.
That will definitely be a learning process at first, Earl said. But you always have to learn. I think I can be good at it. I have a fair number of contacts. I might not know an AAU coach in Arizona, and you need that and have to build that. But being from the Philadelphia-South Jersey area is a huge part of this. And I played at Penn State, so people know me from these areas. I played in the Sonny Hill League [in Philadelphia] for 10 years and know all the coaches from down there. I know all the high school coaches in the area and AAU guys.
I know it's going to be a learning process, he added. But I'll be able to get it done.
Penn State has only one scholarship remaining, which eases the immediate recruiting load. Not that it will impact the enthusiasm with which Earl approaches his new job.
I'm really excited, he said. I can't even explain it.