By Joe Henricksen
The hiring of former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell at DePaul has received mixed reviews. In reality, with where DePaul basketball is right now in both stature and success, Purnell is a pretty solid hire. I mean who did people really expect DePaul to hire under the circumstances?
What DePaul gets is a reputable coach who has had some success coaching in one of the top three conferences year in, year out. Purnell has won a lot of games over the last few years at a school that is not exactly oozing with a basketball reputation. The Clemson program was pretty down under coach Larry Shyatt when Purnell arrived. In the three years prior to Purnell's arrival, Clemson was 40-49 overall and a dismal 11-37 in ACC play. In Purnell's last four years at Clemson the Tigers averaged over 23 wins a season, went 35-29 in the ACC and made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. That's a turnaround.
In an article written by Scott Powers of ESPNChicago.com, the majority of the AAU coaches and high school coaches in the Chicago area were quoted as being pretty shocked with the Purnell hiring. Some were even a bit dismayed. Those that I've spoken with since the announcement was made were also surprised and had little excitement. They are surprised at the fact DePaul hired someone with really no connection to Chicago and who has few relationships in the city and suburbs. Some were very critical.
I don't know Oliver Purnell. When watching him on the sideline at Clemson I always confused him with that dude from Officer and a Gentleman, Sergeant Foley, played by Louis Gossett, Jr. (Come on, the resemblance is there). I don't know Oliver Purnell any better than I know Oliver Stone, Oliver North or Oliver Platt. Seems like few do here in Chicago, which is certainly a cause for concern for some. That can be overcome, though DePaul really doesn't have the time for meet-and-greets and Tea Time with the Coach.
It will take some work, but it will pass -- the questioning, the negativity, the potential but short-lived blackballing. All of that can be remedied with some hard work and old fashioned charisma, which I have no idea if Purnell has. But anytime anyone has anything to say about Purnell it's usually positive and noted he's a classy guy. I still remember the pessimism thrown around when Bruce Weber hired Jerrance Howard as an assistant. City coaches and the Chicago AAU folks wanted a "Chicago guy" on the Illinois staff. Howard, though, worked his tail off to establish relationships and everything has worked out just fine.
This much is certain: DePaul must have a Chicago feel on its staff. It's an absolute must. And it didn't get that with Purnell. But not all is lost. Whether that means retaining some of the past staff or finding new, genuine fits, it's absolutely imperative Purnell finds assistant coaches (preferably two) who are already respected, trusted and established in the Chicago area. Recruiting Chicago really is about relationships. It's about knowing and understanding how to recruit Chicago.
My first order of business would be to retain Tracy Webster. It's not the norm to have a former interim head coach stick around. However, this is a no-brainer. Webster, in a short time on the job, has done a terrific job of laying new recruiting groundwork for DePaul basketball. With Webster playing an instrumental role, DePaul has been able to get more young prospects on campus in the last year. Plus, players and coaches are at least talking a little more DePaul basketball as a result of Webster's relationships throughout the city, suburbs, high schools and AAU scene.
Webster is the guy who not only has long-lasting relationships with high school and AAU coaches, but since being back in the city and at DePaul has really connected and built relationships with current high school players. These kids know and like Webster, and they already in their short time in high school connect the likable Webster to DePaul basketball.
And now DePaul has something new and fresh to sell. They have to try and capitalize on the new look and feel of the program -- or at least the selling of the new look and feel. These opportunities only come around so often, typically after a huge year on the court that draws media attention and rekindles the fanbase when things are rolling or --as is the case with DePaul -- with a coaching change at the top when things are dwindling.
Locally, DePaul, no matter how hard the new assistants worked the past nine months, was up against the wall. Bringing in the new assistants was needed, but unfortunately as long as the man in charge was still around and suffering through another dreadful season, the scenery really never changed. Jerry Wainwright's job security, dismal records in the Big East, lack of TV and media exposure and the overall negative vibe were too much to overcome. Yes, teens are gullible and impressionable, but come on. You couldn't blame them for not really buying in, even with some high-energy pumped into the program with three new assistants.
But now DePaul has its shot. It will still be difficult getting over the drawbacks, ranging from the points previously made and the dreadful Allstate Arena issue, but it's at least possible again. There is a spark, a new hope, like Opening Day in baseball where everything is green and full of promise. OK, maybe I'm getting too analytical of the significance of one Oliver Purnell, but you get the point.
Purnell and his new staff will need to see if it can get back in the thick of things for De La Salle's Mike Shaw, who has established a couple of favorites ahead of the pack. DePaul will surely pounce on up-and-coming Mycheal Henry of Orr, East Aurora's Ryan Boatright and others. Getting one may be tough, but a new head coach can at least try and sell the idea of a group coming in together and being the group that gets immediate playing time and restores a tradition while playing in its backyard.
DePaul basketball is far from being back. And no matter your view of the job search conducted by Jean Lenti Ponsetto or how high your expectations were for the new hire, DePaul basketball is better today than its been since the Blue Demons won 20 games and an NIT game in 2004-2005.
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