Clemson coach Oliver Purnell is headed to DePaul. Purnell, who has led Clemson to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, was in Chicago on Monday. On Tuesday, the move became official.
"I think we’ve got a great opportunity to re-establish DePaul as Chicago’s team and hopefully get our share of Chicago guys," Purnell said.
It’s been awhile since DePaul was Chicago’s basketball team.
An on-campus arena would probably help, but Purnell said that subject never came up during his courtship and insisted the facilities in place are good enough for success, something that has eluded the Blue Demons in recent years.
"DePaul belongs in the elite of college basketball," Purnell said during his introductory news conference. "DePaul belongs in the elite of the Big East. DePaul belongs as Chicago’s college basketball team. The commitment is clearly there, the desire is clearly there to restore this program."
He replaces interim coach Tracy Webster, who took over after Jerry Wainwright was fired in midseason. DePaul did not disclose the terms of the contract, although several outlets reported the deal was for seven years and $15 million.
"His veteran experience is really important for what we’re trying to accomplish because not only are we looking to resonate with young kids, the guys that we’ll be recruiting, but we’ve also got to go in the Big East," athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said. "There are 18 games against some of the top coaches in the country."
The 56-year-old Purnell was 138-88 in seven seasons at Clemson and is 394-279 in 22 years with stops at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton. He led Clemson to the NCAA tournament the past three years, but the Tigers lost in the first round, making him 0-6 overall in that event.
"It’s tough to get there," Purnell said. "Put me back there again, and we’ll start there and go from there. You’re playing against tough teams in the NCAA. Every game that we’ve been in has been a close one. We just haven’t gotten over the hump."
For DePaul, reaching the postseason would be a major achievement after three straight losing seasons. Although the Blue Demons made 22 NCAA appearances, they haven’t been there since reaching the second round under Dave Leitao in 2004.
DePaul went 8-23 this season and 1-17 in Big East play after failing to win a regular-season conference game the previous year.
Although they lost their final 13 games, the Blue Demons were more competitive after Webster replaced Wainwright in January following several blowout losses. That’s little consolation for the "little school under the El tracks," as the late legendary coach Ray Meyer called it.
Ponsetto made it clear a few weeks ago that DePaul was ready to make a big splash, saying the next coach could be among the highest paid in a conference that Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Bob Huggins and Jim Calhoun call home. She went with Purnell after interviewing former NBA star and Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus. Ponsetto said the only offer was to Purnell and that there was no contact with Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and UCLA’s Ben Howland, whose names surfaced in reports.
She said she "felt bad" for Dixon, whose late sister Maggie served as an assistant on the DePaul women’s team, because "I think it created an unnecessary distraction for him and his program at a time when he didn’t really need it."
If she was interested, Ponsetto said, "I would have contacted Jamie’s athletic director."
The same goes for Howland.
"I never had a conversation with Ben Howland," Ponsetto said, adding she never contacted UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, either.
Purnell’s decision stunned the Tigers, who went 21-11 this season. He signed a two-year extension with Clemson in June and was making more than $1.3 million a year, but his buyout was only $250,000.
In a statement, Clemson athletic director Dr. Terry Don Phillips said Purnell "is one of the most respected coaches in college basketball and one of the most respected people on this campus and we hate to see him leave."
He joins a long line of Tigers coaches who have left what appeared to be a program on the rise for a challenge in a different league. Bill Foster, who led Clemson to the regional finals in 1980, left in 1984 to restart the basketball program at Miami. Cliff Ellis, the Tigers’ winningest coach, left in 1994 to go to Auburn, and Rick Barnes departed for Texas in 1998 after leading Clemson to three straight NCAA tournaments.
Now, Purnell is leaving for a program in a city known for producing top prospects, although he acknowledged he hasn’t recruited much in Chicago. DePaul also has an on-campus practice facility with recently renovated locker rooms and refurnished men’s basketball offices. It has chartered planes for Big East road games, and it also has a strong academic reputation.
Still, no on-campus arena.
DePaul just completed its 30th season at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., an 18,500-seat facility about 15 miles away near O’Hare International Airport. Although Lenti Ponsetto said a few weeks ago that a new arena is "on DePaul’s radar," she pointed out the campus is in a densely populated neighborhood.
As for Purnell, Ponsetto said, "He was at the top of our radar from the time that we started." Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.