With the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament coming up, college basketball will be at the sports forefront for the next month. Except here in Illinois, specifically Chicago. Sure Northwestern has a remote chance of making their first ever NCAA postseason appearance and that would be special but there is no clear cut, legit college basketball team really in the state. And no more disappointing is that then at my alma mater DePaul University.
Growing up, the Blue Demons of DePaul were Chicago basketball, that final four run in 1979, almost yearly NCAA postseason appearances in the 80’s and then an occasional NCAA post season run here or there into the early 90’s and beginning of this century. But more recently it’s been mediocre basketball (and sometimes worse), for the old basketball school in Lincoln Park.
Not only am I an alum but I was a season ticket holder, in fact I had season tickets the last time they made the NCAA tournament in 2004, it was special (seeing the students rush the floor the night the team won the Conference USA regular season title), feeling like the school was back where it belongs, representing Chicago and making the (now late) legendary coach Ray Meyer proud, while keeping the legacy going of being THE basketball school in the city.
But I’d also be the first to admit the game has changed since the glory days of DePaul basketball back in the day and the school has not changed with it. And maybe it shouldn’t or even can’t.
You now have the best recruits only staying for a year or two and treating the college experience as nothing more than a training ground for the NBA rather than an actual time to enhance skills, be part of a winning tradition and yes get an education.
Now I will admit even 30 years ago Mark Aquirre left DePaul early for the NBA. But now it’s so more prevalent and the recruiting game for college top recruits is brutal and often involves illegal actions, sometimes resulting in NCAA sanctions, loss of wins and even championships.
And yes DePaul had Rod Strickland on the team in the late 80’s and he also left early and there are stories about his actions on campus that are less than honorable.
And of course in 1997 DePaul hired coach Pat Kennedy (to replace Joey Meyer whose departure was long overdue), who was known as a recruiter more than a coach and he brought in a stellar class of recruits and that team made one NCAA post season appearance in 2000 but then the players left within the next year to join the NBA. Once those guys were gone and Coach Kennedy couldn’t pull another recruiting coup, the team floundered and he was let go.
Then Dave Letaio was hired from the great program at UConn to coach the Blue Demons and he had short time success (his team made the NCAA tournament in 2004), actually with players recruited by Coach Kennedy, but then his stock was high as a coach and he was lured away by the long money at the University of Virginia.
Near the end of Coach Letaio’s regime DePaul joined the hyper competitive Big East conference and quickly sank to the bottom, going several seasons without even winning a conference game.
I guess the question to ask is how badly does DePaul want to win?
Is it willing to go back down the road of high profile recruits and having a top notch coach who might only see DePaul as a stepping stone to bigger opportunities, brighter lights and larger paychecks?
Currently DePaul has a good coach in Oliver Purnell, he is known as a cleanup guy and can turn a program around (has done so previously at University of Dayton & Clemson University), and there are good players on the team. But they lost nine straight games at one point this year (during conference play), and showed a lot of flaws, including some bad coaching. Patience is not a virtue in big time college athletics and at DePaul we are taught that we have honor and pride in our school and we do things the right way.
With that said, I was on campus in the mid 90’s when the team made only an NIT post season appearance in 1995 and still the team was not a group of choir boys. But I tell people big time college basketball is like hot dogs, you don’t want to see how they make them but simply enjoy the finished product.
Maybe it’s a fantasy to think of the days of yore and wish for a clean, top notch program. Heck it might not have even existed then.
You look at a team like Syracuse University (which beat DePaul pretty good back on New Year’s Day), and amidst sexual abuse allegations and the dismissal of a long time assistant coach, they still keep a top 5 ranking and are considered one of the best teams in the country.
Would DePaul want to be a win at all costs team? Could we alumni cheer for a team that was solely about getting wins and leaving the Vincentian virtues outside of the basketball arena?
I guess I could be called naïve, I mean you look at the last successful college team in this state at The University of Illinois in Champaign. They have good players yet a coach (Bruce Weber), who looks burned out and will probably lose his job sometime in the near future. They even had that top notch recruit last year but he left the program (after some internal struggles and thinking he would make the NBA), and this team has been really inconsistent this season.
They have a rabid fan base (Orange Crush), and have had a taste being an elite basketball program, but their NCAA championship appearance was in 2005 and like DePaul, the recruited players were from a previous coaching administration (Bill Self who took the money and went to the legendary program at Kansas University), so there was a limited window of opportunity for this team. And they made the most of it at that time but could not translate into any long term success.
Now granted there are big Catholic schools like Marquette University & University of Notre Dame that have annual success (maybe not the elite programs in the country but they are competitive in the Big East conference), and seem to be in the NCAA tournament every year and have quality players yet it doesn’t appear they have signed a deal with the devil to get to where they are.
Granted Notre Dame has been fortunate to have the same coach (Mike Brey), since 2000. And though Marquette lost their coach (Tom Crean), in 2008 to the hallowed tradition laden program at Indiana University, they still have a very respectable team.
It’s frustrating that a similar school like DePaul can’t mimic what these schools are doing. Maybe we aren’t that far away from having a special year with some good players but for now DePaul is looking up from the depths of the Big East and seeing the excitement of the NCAA basketball tournament and once again the men’s team is not in it (the women’s team will be there), just doesn’t taste very good.