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July 6, 2010

Purnell eyes another rebuilding job at DePaul

If Oliver Purnell can turn DePaul's program around, he'll make school history once again.

And if Purnell is a history-maker, DePaul will be pleased with the result.

As an assistant at Old Dominion, Purnell was courtside for one of the biggest upsets in DePaul history. The Blue Demons' 49-game home-court winning streak ended Jan. 10, 1981, when ODU shocked DePaul 63-62. Led by Mark Aguirre, that DePaul team lost only one other regular-season game before an early exit from the NCAA tournament.

DePaul defeated Purnell and ODU in each of the next two seasons. Those DePaul teams featured a Hall of Fame coach (Ray Meyer), a two-time All-American and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick (Aguirre) and a second All-American and a No. 2 pick (Terry Cummings).

"That group of teams were as good as anyone in the country," Purnell said. "They were terrific to watch -- the following, attendance, media coverage, television coverage. DePaul basketball was quite impressive."

A decade later, Purnell saw the uglier side of DePaul.

As the coach of Dayton, he lost his first matchup vs. DePaul 103-68 in 1995. But Purnell's next three Flyers teams pounded DePaul teams that finished 3-23, 7-23 and 18-13.

As of late, DePaul has been closer to the teams that Purnell coached while at Dayton than the ones he faced at ODU.

Back in 1981, DePaul was in the midst of a stretch that saw the Blue Demons make the NCAA field 14 times from 1976-92. The Blue Demons have made it just twice since and have had six winning records in the past 15 seasons.

DePaul officials think Purnell is the right man to turn the program around. He has done just that at each stop of his head-coaching career -- Radford, Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson. He took his final three Clemson teams to the NCAA tournament, though Purnell is winless in six trips to the Big Dance.

When DePaul first reached out to Purnell at Clemson, where he had led the Tigers to four consecutive 20-win seasons, he wasn't interested in this rebuilding job.

"When I was first contacted, I kind of pooh-poohed it," Purnell said. "DePaul did a great job of recruiting [me]. The more I looked at it, the more I realized what an outstanding opportunity it was when you look at tradition, the city of Chicago, the fact that it's a tremendous basketball school."

Blue Demon blues
Ray Meyer and his son Joey combined to coach at DePaul for 55 years and win 955 games. Since Joey Meyer departed in 1997, the program has fallen on hard times.
SeasonsCoachRecordNCAA bids
1942-84Ray Meyer724-35413
1984-97Joey Meyer231-1587
1997-2002Pat Kennedy67-851
2002-05Dave Leitao58-341
2005-10Jerry Wainwright60-950
Clemson officials were caught by surprise. The Tigers hadn't reached Duke-North Carolina levels, but they were competitive in the ACC and had become a consistent NCAA team.

Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips said he was "in a little bit of shock" when Purnell left for the last-place team in the Big East. Some Clemson folks were upset that Purnell didn't inform his team about the move. Instead, the players learned through text messages or other means.

"I didn't really see any signs of him wanting to leave," Clemson guard Demontez Stitt said in April.

That a coach would leave a successful ACC program for a Big East bottom-feeder made the move that much more puzzling.

DePaul produced Hall of Famer George Mikan in the 1940s, a Final Four team in 1979 and six teams that reached at least the Sweet 16 between 1976-97. DePaul once enjoyed national TV coverage on Chicago-based WGN during the years when ESPN was in its infancy.

But since Joey Meyer left after the 1997 season, DePaul has made only two NCAA tournament appearances under three coaches. Since 1997, Pat Kennedy, Dave Leitao and Jerry Wainwright have gone a combined 185-214 (.464).

The move from Conference USA to the Big East in time for the 2005-06 academic year has been more disastrous. The Blue Devils have won fewer than a quarter of their games in the league, including a combined 1-35 record in Wainwright's final two seasons.

Before the move to the Big East, DePaul already had been struggling. The Blue Demons continue to have stiff academic requirements, and recruiting reform cut into DePaul's advantage of recruiting its own backyard in Chicago. Beyond that, an NCAA investigation in the '90s put the program on probation for illegal benefits from a booster during the mid-'80s. The Blue Demons also had a run of bad luck with point guards who signed and ended up going to another school, declared for the draft, flunked out of school, failed to get into school after signing, transferred or were kicked out of the program.

In a pro sports town, interest has fallen off sharply. The program now struggles to fill seats at Allstate Arena, a stadium 13 miles from campus near O'Hare International Airport.

"Playing in Chicago is not like anyplace else," said DePaul guard Jeremiah Kelly, who grew up in Chicago. "If you don't win, they don't like you."

Before DePaul has a chance to reverse its fortunes on the court, it is at least going to try to reintroduce itself to Chicago. Since taking over, Purnell has spent time shaking hands with student groups, going to meet-and-greets with local alumni and community groups and reaching out to former players to urge them to get involved with the program.

Players are getting reacquainted, too. Most remained in Chicago during the summer, a departure from previous seasons. With 11 players on campus, the team has been able to organize pick-up games twice a week and work out in the weight room together.

"We're spending more time with each other, getting to know each other, on and off the court," Kelly said. "[Last season] you had to work on your game individually; now everybody's together and people are expected to lift at a certain time."

Now that the evaluation period in recruiting has begun, Purnell has hit the road trying to sway top Chicago talent to return to DePaul. Eight members of the 2011 Rivals150 are from Chicago, though only one -- De La Salle forward Mike Shaw, ranked 68th -- is considering the Blue Demons.

Purnell will sell playing in Chicago, playing in the Big East and the tradition of DePaul. Most of all, Purnell plans to appeal to recruits' pride.

"Do you want to be the person or group that's responsible for turning this around in a great city like Chicago?" Purnell said. "You're drawing a picture and you're selling a dream and asking them to buy in. There's always that first great group of guys that takes that leap of faith that starts you moving. ... I sell that all the time, that it's gratifying to be the person responsible."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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