By David Harry
Take a drive through Central Pennsylvania...
NEW YORK — Dressed almost entirely in blue-and-white gear, Legion of Blue President Nick Malizia and Vice President Andrew Flatley look and feel completely in their element.
For many reasons.
They’re wearing their school colors, and they’re surrounded by fellow members of Legion of Blue, the student section for the men’s basketball team.
If you’ve ever attended a hoops game at the Bryce Jordan Center or watched the Nittany Lions on television and wondered who those kids are who passionately support the hoops program, well, that’s Legion of Blue.
And perhaps the most important reason that Malizia and Flatley are feeling good: It’s game day, and they’re preparing to make the trip to New York City, approximately 236 miles away, for the NIT Final Four.
“We’re going to get really close because we’ve got a bus trip there, a bus trip back, and then we’re planning on another one on Thursday,” Malizia said late morning Tuesday, shortly before leaving for Penn State’s NIT semifinal matchup against Mississippi State.
“It’s a great way to connect with everybody, and you know it’s a team effort. Every single one of these buses are all going there together, and we’re hoping to bring back a couple wins.”
Legion of Blue Treasurer Liz Cooney momentarily hops onto the second of the two student buses. Like Malizia and Flatley, she’s ensuring all the students are checked in and ready to go, and also have their itineraries.
As Malizia said, “It’s really just making sure everyone is having a good time. I represent the student population to marketing, so today is really that in a nutshell: making sure everyone is working well together and not having any problems.”
A few minutes past noon, the caravan of buses departs the Bryce Jordan Center parking lot (Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics staff and the booster club are also traveling), and the students arrive at the heart of Manhattan about five hours later, with Madison Square Garden only a few blocks away.
Upward of 100 students made the trip, and many of them head toward MSG, billed as “The Most Famous Arena in the World.” They snap a few photos, and because they arrived early enough, they’re able to sightsee, visit Times Square, and also get back to the Garden early enough to watch most of the first game.
“The energy there is unbelievable,” Flatley said, speaking of the Garden. “It’s only a few hundred miles from Penn State’s campus, and we have huge alumni support. Even (Penn State-based) New York alumni show up for the game. The passion and energy that all the fans bring, it’s just different than it would be at any other arena around the country.”
Home at the Bryce Jordan Center
Game day starts early for Legion of Blue. The organization will schedule social media posts to publish at midnight, using graphics designed in advance. There’s a concerted effort to work with Athletics, and all the executive board members pointed to this close collaboration as significant.
A few years ago, the student section was rebranded from Nittany Nation to Legion of Blue. Efforts included an exhaustive marketing campaign, with Malizia describing the last three years this way:
The first year, build a foundation and learn how to become a registered student organization. In essence, Malizia summarized, they needed to figure out what the club was going to be about. Once all that was established, they focused on growing the general student body at home games, and this year, they’ve become their own marketing department.
The students rave about working with PJ Mullen, a key player within the basketball team’s marketing department. Maliza said that Legion of Blue can bring their creative ideas and merge them with Mullen’s expert guidance.
“You get to work with some of the best people in the business here, and PJ Mullen’s been unbelievable,” Malizia said. “It’s 100 percent all the time from him, and it gets you going. It’s really shown me how awesome it is to work in sports.”
Additionally, Cooney mentioned the importance of collaborating with former Athletics marketing leader Loren Crispell, who helped lead the student section rebranding.
The vibe is that Athletics treats the students like true colleague, and there’s a genuine give-and-take; resulting in, the students say, Legion of Blue having a genuine investment in the game day atmosphere that they help create at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“We’re all part of one program, and we’re all doing our own jobs, contributing to the effort,” Malizia said. “Coach Chambers has done a great job getting us involved and all the general body members, too. Everyone feels connected, everyone feels part of the team, and it brings out results like this where students are super-excited to go to New York.”
The trip to the NIT Final Four has capped off Head Coach Patrick Chambers’ most successful season at Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ 25 wins are the second-most in program history, and they reached 19 overall wins and nine conference wins in the fastest time in 22 years.
Penn State should be a legitimate contender for a spot in the NCAA Tournament next season, with Legion of Blue planning to create a rambunctious environment at the BJC. They’ll do it working with Athletics, a recurring theme when the students talk about what they’ve accomplished the last few years.
“One thing that Penn State preaches is one team,” Flatley said. “Here at the basketball department, we really are one team, between the fans, alumni, students, coaches, and marketing. We’re all working together to get the program as much exposure as we can and as much positivity as we can, and go out there and have a great time with the team.”
Both Cooney and Malizia changed the trajectories of their studies after accepting leadership positions within Legion of Blue. Malizia was majoring in political science, while Cooney was focused on history and planning on law school after earning her Penn State degree.
Now, they’re pursuing advertising and sports marketing, just like Flatley.
Cooney always possessed a passion for college basketball, and actually grew up a Notre Dame fan, she said laughing, like a typical catholic. Then once she applied to and was accepted at Penn State, that all changed.
She attended a few informational sessions, and after she learned the organization was accepting applications for executive officer positions, she remembers thinking, “What the heck, I’ll apply and see if I get it.” She had an interview and gave a speech at a meeting, and then she was elected.
That was her first semester on campus, so she had immediate buy-in that’s continued to pay off. Cooney, a sophomore, will work with the other executive officers and brainstorm ideas while overseeing the organization’s funds. Once she worked with Crispell and the Athletics’ marketing team, she realized this was something she wanted to pursue full time.
During this time of transition, she received career advice from Malizia and Flatley, and that was it: She changed majors, and she sounds as committed as ever to the organization, saying she plans to continue to have a role with Legion of Blue during the rest of her time as a student.
“It’s awesome, I don’t know anyone else who is able to work as closely with the team and marketing department as we are,” Cooney said. “To have the support from them, it makes what do worth it.”
Flatley showed some similar initiative, volunteering to become an executive officer as a freshman. He was a general body member at first, then treasurer, and now vice president this season. His first year on campus, “Legion of Blue was still a baby,” he said, with the organization just beginning to form.
“We’ve been growing every single year with marketing, and each year we get a little bit bigger and better. Next year, the sky’s the limit,” said Flatley, who will serve as Legion of Blue president next season when he’s a senior.
Foundation built, focused on the future
Malizia said that when people ask him what he wants his legacy to be, he points toward making the student section an inclusive environment where other students can learn the same lessons he has, and also create similar memories.
Being part of Legion of Blue has become so ingrained in Malizia, that when he introduces himself, he’ll share his name, year, major, and also that he works with the student section.
Supporting the hoops program is certainly at the forefront of that allegiance, though there’s also the added benefit of working closely with athletics and carving out the beginning of a career in marketing.
All of this leads to a sense of purpose, and life lessons learned on and off the court.
Is it about basketball?
And so much more else.
“The past three years, I’ve been working to build a foundation because for me, the student section and working with Athletics has been my identity,” Malizia said. “I want other people to have that experience where they can get involved in Athletics and sports marketing, and they can do that with the student section. My goal the last three years is to expand that and make sure other people have those opportunities.”
By David Harry
Take a drive through Central Pennsylvania...
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