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Former Radford University coach Oliver Purnell has a reputation for turning around moribund programs, but his latest stop, DePaul, has been a challenge.
DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell watches his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Austin Peay.
DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell yells his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Notre Dame in Rosemont, Ill., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
DePaul's Durrell McDonald and DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell watch play in the final minutes of an NCAA college basketball game against Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. Connecticut won 99-78. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell watches his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Rutgers Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, in Rosemont, Ill. DePaul won 75-69. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
DePaul coach Oliver Purnell gives out directions to his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Connecticut in Rosemont, Ill., on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013. Connecticut won 81-69. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
DePaul coach Oliver Purnell watches his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Notre Dame on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
WASHINGTON — Nearly three years into his Chicago life, Oliver Purnell says he still marvels that he, in fact, has a life in Chicago.
Purnell and his wife Vicky most keenly realize they’re not in Clemson, S.C., anymore when they leave their Lincoln Park brownstone for any number of proximate pleasures: a new restaurant, a concert, even a DePaul University fundraiser at nearby Wrigley Field.
“I really liked the people” at Clemson, said Purnell, 59, in his 25th year as a head college basketball coach and chasing the ghost of DePaul’s faded glory. “But it’s, you know, it’s rural.”
Purnell, Radford University’s men’s basketball coach from 1988-91, might be smitten with the City of Big Shoulders. But it remains to be seen whether he can return the love by re-energizing the town’s marquee college hoops program.
When Georgetown cuffed Purnell’s Blue Demons 90-66 last week at the Verizon Center, it marked their 12th defeat in 14 games. A weekend loss to Connecticut extended that dismal run and dropped DePaul to 11-16 entering tonight’s Big East game against Louisville.
DePaul, which won 12 times a year ago, is just 2-12 in the Big East and has but six league wins in Purnell’s three seasons.
“You just expect to get better every year,” said Purnell, who before DePaul built his reputation as a fixer at Radford, ODU, Dayton and Clemson. “Clearly, we’d like to be a little further in than we are right now.”
Also clearly, DePaul is deeply invested in Purnell’s ability to make it nationally relevant again.
The private school’s financial offer — seven years at a reported $1.8 million per, believed to be fourth-highest in the conference — obviously got his attention, Purnell said. But so did the program’s moribund condition, which is to say, Purnell likes losers. Or, more accurately, the challenge of turning them into winners.
In that regard, the Blue Demons and Purnell seem a perfect fit.
Once-powerful DePaul finished in the Associated Press Top 10 each year from 1978 to 1982 under the late Ray Meyer, who coached DePaul from 1942 to ’84. The Blue Demons made the Final Four in ’79 and produced the NBA’s top draft pick in ’81, Mark Aguirre.
However, uneven results followed for Meyer’s successors that include his son Joey, Pat Kennedy and Dave Leitao, who moved from DePaul to the University of Virginia in 2005. Leitao coached DePaul’s most recent NCAA tournament team in 2004.
DePaul tanked, however, under Purnell’s immediate predecessor, former Richmond coach Jerry Wainwright. The Blue Demons were 1-35 in the Big East in Wainwright’s last two years — he was fired during the 2009-10 season — at which point athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto opened the vault of the country’s largest Catholic university for Purnell.
“We thought it was a worthwhile investment,” Ponsetto said Tuesday in a phone interview.
She said she knew Purnell from the early ’90s when DePaul, where Ponsetto was an athletics administrator, and Dayton were members of the now-defunct Great Midwest Conference. Ponsetto “targeted” Purnell for the DePaul job, she said, because of the methodical “formula” he uses to rebuild programs. And she gave him seven years because of the unique challenges at DePaul, which didn’t want any of the players Purnell inherited to be “run off” in the name of a quicker fix.
“In the Big East, half the teams are usually in the Top 25, and that doesn’t happen in a lot of conferences,” Ponsetto said. “So I think it’s harder in our league to win when you’re trying to rebuild a program.”
Ponsetto said infrastructure items such as budgets, staffing and the squad’s academic diligence have all improved, and that she expects continued competitiveness from the Blue Demons in Purnell’s fourth season.
“Oliver is a process guy,” she said, a fact Purnell echoed after the Georgetown beatdown.
“You realize this is the fifth time I’ve done this,” said Purnell, asked how his patience was holding up. “I’ve got a little bit of an advantage in terms of patience, for the fact that I’ve seen it before. I love the challenge. And each place I’ve been I felt potentially was better than the other, in terms of where you could go with it.”
That Purnell went from Clemson to DePaul at all seemed a surprise. He had built Clemson into a regular 20-game winner and had taken the Tigers to three straight NCAA tournaments. In Purnell’s last four seasons, in fact, only Duke’s Mike Kryzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams posted a better winning percentage among ACC coaches.
But Purnell said the lure of an urban lifestyle — the Purnells have two grown daughters, one of whom is an attorney in Chicago — DePaul’s financial commitment to compensation and resources, and the chance to rekindle an influential program led him back to the Midwest.
Starting at Radford in 1988, Purnell has turned programs into conference contenders and champions. ODU, Dayton and Clemson went to six NCAA tournaments under him. They lost all six first-round games, however, and that’s the biggest smudge on Purnell’s 424-338 career record.
But during Purnell’s tenures, Radford improved from a low of seven victories to 22, ODU from 15 to 21, Dayton from seven wins his first season to 25 in his ninth and final season, and Clemson from 10 victories to a school-record 25 three years later.
DePaul went 7-24 and 12-19 under Purnell, and this season has just four more chances, plus at least one Big East tournament game, to creep past 12 wins. It’s been a harsh slide; the Blue Demons, the vast majority of whom are Purnell’s recruits, won nine of their first 12 non-conference games — the highlight a 78-61 victory at 20-8 Arizona State.
They have beaten only Providence and Rutgers in the Big East although, as perhaps slight consolation, lost twice in overtime to No. 25 Notre Dame earlier this month.
“Oliver is the ultimate glass-is-half-full guy,” said Ron Bradley, Purnell’s longtime assistant coach and another former Radford head coach. “He’s been through this several times, and he’s always turned it around. It’s probably a little slower than the other two stops. We’re figuring out what it’s going to take to get it done here, and we’ll get there.”
Naturally, it starts with better players, specifically ones better able to play the full-court, pressing style Purnell favors. DePaul, third in the Big East in steals, still attempts a brisk tempo, but as in Purnell’s first two years, it remains among Division I’s worst in field-goal percentage defense (45.3).
In the Georgetown game, the 11th-ranked Hoyas, in fact, shot 63.5 percent from the field, prompting Purnell to occasionally punch the air on the sideline. Displeased with his team’s effort, Purnell inserted a whole new lineup, walk-ons included, during a second-half timeout, and he used “frustrating” often in his post-game news conference to describe the night.
“We’ve got to get better players, get a little more athletic on both ends of the floor,” Purnell said. “We’re not big or strong enough. But we’re developing guys, everybody’s back but one [senior], and we’re bringing in four others.”
One recruit, guard Billy Garrett, is the son of one of Purnell’s assistants and, according to Purnell, is the best high school player in Chicago behind Duke-bound Jabari Parker. That’s promising, considering Purnell said his priority is keeping more of Chicago’s rich talent pool at home. Two of Purnell’s top seven players in terms of minutes played, sophomore forward Jamee Crockett and sophomore guard Charles McKinney, are from the Chicago area.
Yet, Purnell can’t help wonder how much better DePaul could be right now if a young guard from Florida hadn’t transferred before last season. Shane Larkin, an all-ACC candidate for No. 5 Miami, signed with DePaul and even began practicing with the Blue Demons for a European summer exhibition tour.
But Purnell said he was blindsided when Larkin, the son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, told him before the trip that he needed to leave for a school closer to his Orlando home because of a medical condition about which Purnell said he was unaware.
“How much better is Miami with him?” Purnell said. “So, sometimes things set you back a little bit.”
Still, with four years left on his deal, Purnell sees hope on numerous fronts. He said there is movement toward a new arena near campus that would extricate DePaul from the isolated and suburban Allstate Arena. He eagerly awaits DePaul’s new league formed from the Big East’s non-football schools — it starts in 2014 — because of the focus it will return to basketball. And DePaul’s financial commitment to getting good again is obvious, Purnell said.
“They’re hungry for it and hence, I think that’s why they recruited me,” Purnell said.
DePaul, and Chicago, ultimately will be satisfied, Bradley said.
“Oliver is great at building relationships,” Bradley said. “It just takes time. Everyone in Chicago knows that we’ve gotten on the board with a lot of kids that in the past several years DePaul hasn’t been involved with. We just need somebody to open the door for us — and then start winning.”
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