Roundabout Journey Leads Home

Jon Crispin is back in the Jordan Center just over a decade after his first game as a Nittany Lion. This time he'll be calling the action rather than participating in it.

A decade later, Jon Crispin's basketball life has come full circle.

On Nov. 22, 1999, the shooting guard from Pitman, N.J., played his first college game, starting for Penn State and logging six points, two assists and two steals in a win over Lehigh at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Wednesday -- exactly 10 years and three days after his first official appearance at the BJC -- Crispin will be back in the facility tipping off a new career. He will provide color commentary on the Big Ten Network's national telecast of the Nittany Lions' game with Sacred Heart.

Though he has experience in front of the camera, this will be the first time he's worked as a color analyst. The 28-year-old will be teaming with veteran play-by-play man Paul Alexander.

“This is coming back home,” Crispin said while driving to Happy Valley Tuesday. “To come back home and to get this thing going is pretty special.”

Never lacking for confidence, it took Crispin less than a minute to launch his first shot as a Nittany Lion -- a missed 3-pointer against Lehigh way back when. His life has been full of interesting twists and turns since.

He spent two years at Penn State, playing alongside older brother Joe and helping to lead the Nittany Lions to an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in 2001. Only a sophomore at the time, he realized Jerry Dunn's program would be in rough shape the next year with Joe, Titus Ivory and Gyasi Cline-Heard graduating.

So he transferred to UCLA. And, as he recalls, he did not handle leaving as well as he should have.

“I didn't realize this until I left,” he said, “but that place is very special. People have a lot of pride and school spirit. And when I left, I don't think I was very sensitive about that. It was more about me, me, me, me. I don't think I appreciated what Penn State did for me and I wasn't very gracious.”

He admits now his time at UCLA was a comeuppance. Crispin said his best year with the Bruins was the one in which he redshirted under NCAA transfer rules. He was back in action in 2002-03, but by then that program was in trouble. Coach Steve Lavin was clearly on his way out. Crispin, meanwhile, was dealing with a bad foot that prevented him from logging consistent minutes.

He was also introduced to a different brand of media, men and women who treated UCLA like a pro team. Upset with the heat Lavin was taking, Crispin “got up on my soapbox” and took the program to task. He said it was difficult for Lavin to work in the immense shadow of the great John Wooden, who still attended every game. He blasted the team's outdated facilities.

“We have two showers that work,” he recalled saying, “and we're not gonna fix them because those are the same showers Bill Walton used.”

The media took it and ran with it. At the next game, fans booed him. “They treated me like I was Ron Artest,” he said.

Crispin wound up apologizing to the athletic director. When he sheepishly walked into Lavin's office to do the same, the coach laughed and thanked him for drawing the focus away from him for a few days.

Lavin was out following that season, moving on to a career in television. He was replaced by former Pitt coach Ben Howland. Howland told Crispin directly that, as a senior, he was not really in the team's plans, that younger players would get more opportunities.

“Looking back, it was probably the best thing that could have happened for a young, arrogant kid who thought the world of himself as a basketball player,” Crispin said. “Being humbled by reality and being humbled by the game had a lot to do with where I am now.”

When his college career wrapped up, Crispin spent a few months playing pro ball in Ireland but didn't like that. He went back to Los Angeles and played in the ABA, but soon realized he no longer had the fire for the game.

He had a history degree from UCLA because most of his credits from Penn State did not transfer, and that was the one degree he could complete in his three years on scholarship with the Bruins. He was more interested in physical training and doing things where his personality could shine.

So he began to work as a trainer with kids in the area. In the meantime, some talent scouts in Los Angeles took got a look at him, and he was cast in commercials for Nike and Target. He also did some print ads. He jokes now that he was called any time someone was “looking for a white guy who could play basketball.”

His greatest exposure came when he was cast in a Coke commercial that ran nationally during the 2007 NCAA Tournament. It harkened back to his Sweet 16 appearance with Penn State and his relationship with his grandfather.

To this day, people believe he is living in Hollywood, making a living as an actor. He does live in Los Angeles. And he won't pass up a chance to do a commercial. But it ends there.

“No way I'm an actor,” he reported. “I suck as an actor. No offense to Hollywood and actors, but I can't stand that.”

The work did help pay the bills. But Crispin came to realize he wanted to do a different kind of television work. He got feedback from people he knew in the business -- including Lavin and ESPN's Doug Gottlieb -- and they encouraged him to pursue a career as a color analyst. When he met with movers and shakers in the industry, though, they suggested he start in radio, prove himself there and then work his way up to television.

In November of 2008, he started doing spots on radio shows in Los Angeles, which led to work on Fox Sports Talk Radio.

“The first couple of broadcasts, the guys were like, 'Wow, you were comfortable,' ” he said. “I was like, 'Of course I'm comfortable. I'm not worried about being comfortable. I'm worried about being good.' ”

Earlier this year, the Big Ten Network was looking for new talent. Since the BTN is also owned by Fox, the folks in Los Angeles put in a good word for Crispin. The BTN decided to give him a trial run as a color commentator for a few Penn State games. But first he had to make sure there were no hard feelings with anyone back at his old school.

So over the summer, Crispin flew back East and then drove to Happy Valley to meet with athletic director Tim Curley and basketball coach Ed DeChellis, who replaced Dunn in 2003.

Curley was the AD at the time Crispin left and had been on the receiving end of numerous complaints from the young athlete. When they met in the summer, Crispin admitted that in retrospect, he didn't realize what Penn State meant to him.

Curley stopped him mid-sentence and said, “I do know what it means to you. This place is special.” Then Curley said he was behind Crispin working the games at Penn State.

“Just to have him say he was all for it and it will be great for us and great for you and we want to see you succeed, it felt really good,” Crispin said. “It was very motivating to me.

“Coach DeChellis was very warm, too,” he added. “It made me feel like I was still part of the program and not somebody who left. It is nice to be able to come back to that.”

And this won't be his only trip back. He will also call a Dec. 8 game against UMBC in which he will be paired with star play-by-play man Gus Johnson. And then he'll call PSU's Big Ten home opener against Wisconsin Jan. 8.

After that, the Big Ten Network will decide whether it wants more of Jon Crispin. If he feels any pressure, he's not letting on. He says he is every bit as confident now as he was while preparing for his first game as a player a decade ago.

“It's funny, but I still have a little bit of an ego left, even after all of the things that humbled me in life,” he said. “I know this is a tryout for me. But part of me is saying, 'Hey man, this is a tryout for you guys.' It sounds cocky, but I have that in my head. I'm comfortable. I know the game. I'm not too emotional. I don't say too much.”

At the same time, he credits mentors like Lavin and Gottlieb for helping him to prepare for this challenge.

If there is any nervousness, it is over how he'll be received by Penn State fans. But if anyone in the Nittany Nation has any reservations about Crispin's dedication to the school, they only need look back to the 2009 Rose Bowl for proof that a big part of him still bleeds blue and white.

He attended the game decked out in Penn State clothing, which would not have been all that unusual but for the fact that he was sitting in the middle of a USC section. And there was also the matter of his girlfriend, one Jennifer Matthews, who just happens to be the sister of recently graduated Trojan linebacker Clay Matthews III and the daughter of former Trojan linebacker Clay Matthews Jr.

“I think the only reason I survived is because I was sitting next to her dad,” Crispin said with a laugh.

He'll be in the middle of thousands of Penn State fans Wednesday night. And, in his heart, he'll be home.

“I had a great experience there and I loved everybody I got a chance to know,” he said. “I'm honored to be able to come back. I know it sounds corny, but I still get goose bumps driving up Route 322 and seeing Beaver Stadium and the Jordan Center on my way in.”

NOTE: This is also a homecoming for Alexander, a Penn State graduate who worked TV and radio in the State College and Altoona markets for nearly two decades before heading to a much bigger market (Pittsburgh) in 1998. He currently is an anchor and reporter at FSN Pittsburgh.

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