Among the fraternity of college basketball coaches, reputations stick. A guy who can’t win in the postseason is a guy who can’t win in the postseason. A guy who can’t recruit is a guy who can’t recruit. A guy who develops NBA talent is a guy who develops NBA talent.
And for DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell, who comes into down-on-their-luck basketball programs and turns them into something special, his reputation is as a turnaround artist, the Mitt Romney of college basketball.
Ignore the political Romney. Focus instead on the Mitt Romney of Bain Capital, who swooped into failing corporations and made them profitable, or the Romney of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, who swooped into a failing, scandal-ridden Olympics and turned it from a possible embarrassment to a huge success.
That’s Oliver Purnell. His first head coaching job was at Radford, which went from seven wins in Purnell’s second year to 22 wins his third year, the biggest turnaround in college hoops that year. He moved to Old Dominion, a successful program that had fallen on bad times but made the postseason in each of his three years. He went to Dayton, a basketball-proud program that had won only 17 games in its previous four seasons combined. In Purnell’s final year, Dayton finished the season 16th in the AP Poll.
Then to Clemson, a school that hadn’t made a NCAA tournament appearance in a decade before Purnell took it to three in a row. Then he moved to DePaul, his fifth rebuilding project — and perhaps his most daunting yet.
It’s not so much that DePaul basketball is in a worse spot now than any of the other schools where Purnell turned things around. In Purnell’s fourth year, the Blue Demons are entering a new Big East Conference where an identity has yet to take shape. There are only 10 teams in the league, few enough that a team can shoot to the top quickly. DePaul no longer has basketball behemoths Louisville or Syracuse or perennial powers Pitt or Notre Dame as opponents. The new Big East fits DePaul’s personality, with schools that don’t have football but focus on basketball. This year a mix of senior leadership and young talent — former Big East Rookie of the Year Cleveland Melvin and last season’s top scorer Brandon Young are joined by highly rated Chicago recruits Billy Garrett Jr. and Tommy Hamilton — could make DePaul a surprise team after a last-place Big East finish last season.
And expectations aren’t nearly what they would have been a generation ago at DePaul. After all, the program has made only two NCAA tournaments since 1992. Success is measured in increments these days in Lincoln Park. Monday’s game against Wichita State, a Final Four team last season, ought to give DePaul something to measure itself against.
Instead, it’s the weight of DePaul’s history — a history that had DePaul as one of the nation’s premier programs only three decades ago — that will shadow Purnell until he is able to bring this program back to respectability.
“I kind of happened into the reputation — it wasn’t something I set out to do — but I liked it,” Purnell told me the other day in his Lincoln Park office. “I find it gratifying. I enjoy the feeling when you’re done. But it’s always tougher than you think it’ll be, because you never know all of the issues before you get in.”
In many ways, DePaul being one of the nation’s top programs in the 1970s and early 1980s was an accident of history as well.
Legendary coach Ray Meyer was nearing the end of his 42-year run when his program went on the run of a lifetime. Meyer hadn’t made a tournament in more than a decade when DePaul went to the Sweet Sixteen in 1976. In 1978, the Blue Demons lost only three games all year and made the Elite Eight. The next season, DePaul made the Final Four before losing by two points to Larry Bird’s Indiana State team. The next three seasons DePaul lost only six games total and spent plenty of weeks at No. 1 in the national polls.
It was a time when DePaul was a mainstay on Chicago-based WGN. In an era before college basketball games filled cable television airwaves, that meant something. DePaul’s reputation preceded itself to recruits because of the school’s unique television exposure.
“It was just a unique time,” said Joey Meyer, Ray Meyer’s son and assistant coach and the man who succeeded him as coach in 1984. “I don’t know if we were ever going to replicate that. We came out of nowhere… It was a special time, a special period. I don’t think we appreciated how big we were.”
How big? Consider this: Joey Meyer had a daily diary in the Chicago Tribune — when he was an assistant. Ray Meyer couldn’t go anywhere in Chicago without getting mobbed by fans. The head coach spent so much time returning letters to fans that he’d get cramps in his forearm, then use a heating pad to heal.
But times have changed. Joey Meyer remembers his first contract as a graduate assistant at DePaul paid him $3,500, and that first recruiting budget was $7,000. It’s a big-money game now with the escalation of the facilities war. DePaul’s once-unique exposure on WGN isn’t so unique any more.
More to the point, DePaul has lost its Chicago identity over the past generation. It’s an identity Purnell is trying to get back. DePaul will begin play at a new $170 million arena that’s inside the city of Chicago, near McCormick Place, in 2016. (It currently plays at Allstate Arena, a three-decade-plus-old building near O’Hare.) The school has made a point to mine the fertile Chicagoland recruiting base, where it had lost ground in recent decades. Eight players on the current team are Chicago-area products. DePaul was in the final four teams for five-star Chicago recruit Cliff Alexander, who signed with Kansas this month. As the largest Catholic university in the country, it has a natural recruiting advantage among players looking to play at Catholic schools.
“Very few programs are perennially in the top 10 or 20 in country,” said Dave Corzine, who starred for DePaul in the mid-1970s before spending more than a decade in the NBA. “You can name them on one hand. We had that going for a while, then it falls off. Momentum works in both ways. A program’s winning, and it’s easy to get into anyone’s house and talk about DePaul. When it’s not winning, it snowballs in the other direction.”
The problem for coaches in today’s college basketball landscape is that there’s no longer any patience among administrators or fan bases. Ray Meyer was able to weather an entire decade without making the NCAA tournament before leading DePaul basketball to its greatest era ever. Purnell won’t have that luxury. Some have suggested he’s even on the hot seat this year, his fourth.
“When I took over, my dad gave me two pieces of advice,” Joey Meyer said. “First was: Eat after games, so you don’t get an ulcer… And second was to have better talent than your opponent. You gotta have players. You gotta recruit.”
It sounds simple. It isn’t. When a school gets a reputation as a place where good basketball is stuck in the past, that reputation sticks, too. But the two brightest spots of this year’s freshman class, Garrett and Hamilton, show big progress for Purnell and DePaul. The funny thing about today’s college basketball landscape? If Alexander had chosen DePaul as his one-year stopover before heading to the NBA, we’d all be talking about the resurgence of this once-great program.
“You gotta change the perception of the program internally and externally, because the perception becomes the reality sometimes,” Purnell told me. “This is a cultural change. You gotta change that perception with high school and AAU coaches, the media and ultimately with prospects. But you gotta change the perception within the team, too. When a program’s down, you expect to not be successful.”
Reputations stick. Both the good ones, like Purnell’s reputation as a basketball turnaround artist. And the bad ones.
The good part here? Chicago might have the best high school basketball players in the country. Yes, Purnell will lose out to Kansas on Chicago players like Alexander, or to Duke on Chicago players like Jabari Parker, but there’s plenty more Chicago talent to go around. All Purnell needs is one big splash. Shane Larkin, who was drafted in the first round of the NBA draft after his sophomore year at Miami, had signed with DePaul before a medical condition caused him to change his mind and go back to his native Florida. Purnell has been that close to landing that one big-time talent to swing the fortunes of his program.
“I’m an optimistic person, and I developed that through sports,” Purnell told me. “From winning the state title when I was in high school to winning the D-2 national championship in college, those two events really crystallized to me that you can accomplish anything. It’s just not in my makeup to stay down.”
Don’t miss a minute of the action all season long on FOX. Check out the full schedule.
If Purnell has his way, it won’t be in DePaul’s makeup to stay down long, either.