The Blues In DePaul Blue Demon Basketball

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.



Leave a comment
  • I'm not from DePaul (maybe you and Laurence Holmes know each other), but it certainly seems like DePaul had no business joining the Big East. After all, it is East (or at least was) and was better known for its power teams, including Syracuse and Georgetown.

    As far as DePaul having formerly been "Chicago's School," apparently no university in Illinois can recruit effectively in Chicago.

    The other question you imply is whether DePaul (especially, or any other college) is an academic institution, or a pro basketball program with unpaid athletes. This issue was raised when someone asked Oliver Purnell on The Score whether he would take "one and dones" and he hemmed and hawed about that. He also mentioned that a recruiting point was that all Big East teams are on television, but didn't mention that in Chicago that was on 26.2.

    I would argue that DePaul should go into a league with Loyola, or if it is really an academic institution, the league that has the U of C and Brandeis.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for the comment, Laurence Holmes was a year ahead of me, I don't know him personally but I am a fan (gotta love "Hater Wednesday"), and I follow his work.

    I agree 100% DePaul had no business joining the Big East and I thought they would make a good Horizon League team or even the MAC or go with the smaller former CUSA teams that joined the Atlantic 10.

    The days of DePaul ruling the airwaves are over too. Back in the day there were on Channel 9 and great point that they are on obscure channels that many of us don't get. I watched one game online and several games didn't even have radio coverage.

    And I'm not against them truly putting academics first and leaving division one as you suggested because a lot of nights its painfully obvious they can not compete on several levels of big time basketball.

    Thanks for reading & responding.

  • I'm with you Charles, that long before there was MJ and the Bulls, or D-Rose and the gang, there was DePaul basketball. Back then, the Rosemount Horizon would be packed for a Blue Demon game, while Chicago Stadium couldn't give seats away. So, I agree with you on the most part, but not with some of your reasons. First, Joey Meyer's departure was not overdue, it wasn’t even warranted. The athletic department did not support him. Updates the program needed at that time were not made therefore; he could not compete in recruiting with some of the other schools. Also, you may recall, many of the Chicago high school coaches had black-balled him for whatever reason. Either way, he was a fantastic X and O’s coach, and not a bad recruiter as is evident from his winning days as both head coach and assistant at DePaul, not to mention his winning ways since he has been gone. Kennedy was a disaster. Sure he could recruit, but could not coach. Could you imagine what Meyer or even Letaio would have done with the team Kennedy had recruited? There have been plenty of other schools, Valpo, George Mason, and many others that have been successful without the “pro-program” status. Coaching and players are the keys to success. Players is what the school has lacked in recent years. Purnell seems to be a good coach, and decent recruiter. Keep in mind he had two quality players leave the program before the season started. For DePaul, what it is going to take is one player they get under the radar. One that wasn’t expected to do much (because that is the only way DePaul will get him), and to over achieve. Then, after one or two winning seasons and trips to the NCAA’s, the recruits will come. Look at the woman’s team. They have gotten better through the years. Winning consistently equals good recruits. Why would a high quality player attend a school that he doesn’t think can win or give him exposure? With winning comes the exposure, then more recruits.

  • In reply to Coop:

    Thanks for reading & responding. I'll admit that Bill Bradshaw and the AD dept in the mid 90's didn't have Joey's back, I was on campus every day then doing my undergraduate and it was dysfunctional at old Alumni in 96 & 97. But the thing is that last team went 3-23 and the team was terrible and there was some off the court stuff and Joey just didn't have the respect of the players. I knew some of them and it was bad. Not lack of instutional control but close. Now I see that Joey has made a nice life for himself since especially coaching in the NBA Developmental league and he knows basketball, he was the 1987 Chevrolet National Coach of the year. But at DePaul he had to go, his fafher had fallen out with people and they needed a new start. Granted Kennedy was a disaster but at that point you had to start somewhere.
    And yes this years squad lost several good players to transfers and injury but still we are looking for a little more and yes this team has to climb up from the very bottom. Thanks again.

  • I'm a DePaul alum myself. As an undergrad, I attended every home game at Alumni Hall in the early sixites Those were the days of Howie Carl and M.C. Thompson. DePaul has a storied tradition. The team this year is way better than last year, even though the record is only slightly improved. It was very competitive and in most games. Coach Purnell is on the arc of success. It's just a matter of time.

  • Hi Charles! I was a boy of 9 years old back when i started going to DePaul games, while my brother was attending the university. It was 1977 and the team had the likes of Corzine, Ponsetto, Norwood, Ramsey, Sweet William Dice, and I believe Garland and Watkins at that time as well. I am proud to say I was part of those amazing years, as a fan. The final four, Ray Meyer, Aguirre, Cummings, Clyde the glide (my all time favorite). I remember the blue demon room, Ganella bread advertisements, red rush announcing games! Ha! We used to go to a place called the Single File for a burger or Lou Malnatis for pizza on game nights. And oh, the SNOW! fighting our way down from the suburbs to squeeze into Alumni Hall (and later the Horizon). Those are memories I will cherish forever. I long for a resurgence to those great days. Cheers to you!

  • DePaul would get better recruits if they had a stadium either down town or somewhere on the north side. Currently the site of the former New City YMCA's devolper's project is in default and could be purchased for a 30,000 seat arena. The site is starts only 1 full block south of Lincoln Park. I agree that the Horizon League or Missouri Valley might be a better more competitive league for DePaul. DePaul must recruit all the talent in Chicago if they want to compete in the Big East. Cabrini-Green and the site of the Little Sisters of the Poor are also good spots for an arena in Chicago. A. Finkl & Sons Steel will be leaving in the coming years for the South Side and that site is only 8.5 full city blocks form the SW corner of campus.

  • In reply to Boyee:

    I agree the arena situation is part of the problem. When I was on campus in the 90's is when the arena in Carbrini idea was first floated and at that time DePaul used to play at least one game at the United Center a year. The Allstate Arena (formally known as Rosemont Horizon), is far from campus and is better for minor league hockey and monster truck rallys.
    And yes they HAVE to recruit in town, getting both the Chicago Public League blue chip recruits and the Catholic League kids as well. Staying home must be presented as an option to this kids so they all don't go out of state. Thanks for reading & responding.

  • On the stadium argument...remember when it was the "great" times, with several winning seasons in a row, getting good recruits from all over the nation, they were playing in Rosemont. Never bought into the whole different arean argument. They could be playing in a broke down old gym, but if they were winning, they'd still get recurits. Winning solves a lot of those recruiting problems.

  • In reply to Coop:

    So true, winning solves a lot of problems. Though DePaul needs every advantage they can get. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Charles,

    Thank you for writing this Op-Ed. Like you, I am a DPU Alum ('03) and never was able to witness a winning DePaul basketball team during my 4 years as an undergrad. ... To me, the reasons for the program's failures are clear and it starts with the leadership. The program deterioriated under the watch of atheletic director Jean Lenti-Ponsento. She allowed it to go from Chicago's college basketball team to the farse of the Big East. How the hell can lowly schools like USF and Setan Hall be ahead of DePaul now? Even NIU is better than us. It was her decision to hire a 2nd-rate coach in Jerry Wainwright (a good guy nonetheless), in which she fired a few years later. She fired him midseason b/c she wanted to make it look like she's doing her job. The second reason for the program's failures is the fact the school has no money. Winning in the Big East is just about how wealthy a school is as it is about players/recruiting/coaching. Look at how much other Big East programs have invested in their programs and it dwarfs what DePaul is putting in. The $2+ million they are paying Oliver Purnell is a stretch, and I question if the program can even afford to pay such an outrageous salary for a good but not great coach (I guess we know where our tuition dollars are going towards). Ms. Ponsento, now, is trying to restore the program in which she detrimented under her watch. She is dellusionary over its storied, need I say, "prestigious", background as Chicago's team during the ages of Jim Miken and Mark Aquirre. The program should get demoted back to conferance USA and start from the ground up again. As much as Pontento wants it to happen, she needs to accept the brutal facts of reality. We cannot compete with the likes of Notre Dame, Georgetown, and UConn. I think simply restoring a winning culture in a "lesser conferance" is more important than having your name next to big, powerful bball programs, which in this case, is at the very bottom of the list. The insight I have, however, is that the real ambition in rebuilding this program is not to restore a great tradition, but because a winning basketball program has the potential to be a great money maker and image enhancer for the program and school. President Holdschneider and the Board authorized a $2million+ salary to the head coach for this very reason, but I think in the end it poses a great risk for the school and its students if after Purnell's contact is over, the program is still losing. In short, we need a new athletic director. I am convinced Ponsento is the root of the problem.

Leave a comment

  • ChicagoNow is full of win

    Welcome to ChicagoNow.

    Meet our bloggers,
    post comments, or
    pitch your blog idea.

  • Advertisement:
  • Meet The Blogger

    Charles W. Johnson

    I'm a lifelong writer (since I was 8 years old), and have been doing this blog in some form or fashion since 2004. I'm a DePaul University alum, class of 1999 and prior to that Brother Rice class of 1994. . And I appreciate you taking to the time to read what I have to say, feel free to email

  • Monthly Archives

  • Recent posts

  • Tags

  • Latest on ChicagoNow

  • Advertisement: