- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- The peals of laughter on the other end of the phone told me everything I needed to know about local reaction to DePaul's recent foray into relevancy.
I asked Nick Irvin, the coach of Morgan Park High School and young lion of the influential Irvin coaching family, what he thought of DePaul's hire of Oliver Purnell as its new coach, and he started laughing.
"Very surprising," he said.
Now, Irvin is a jovial guy. He laughs a lot; it's part of his patois. Or maybe my voice just cracks him up. He wasn't laughing at Purnell, just chuckling at the incredulousness of DePaul seemingly mangling another coaching search.
Oliver Purnell might be a big name in South Carolina, but in Chicago he's got less name recognition than Oliver Peoples.
A three-month slog -- which started when DePaul axed well-liked but ultimately overmatched Jerry Wainwright in January and which featured more unrealistic rumors than Big East wins -- produced a coach with no local ties, a coach who definitely can rebuild teams but is still trying to win his first NCAA tournament game. A coach who is almost completely anonymous in Chicago and its highly competitive, completely incestuous basketball environment.
And don't blame outdated, charmless Allstate Arena for DePaul becoming a lower-tier program that has to overpay to get a legit coach. That's not why DePaul has fallen into disrepair.
Sure, everyone knows Allstate is a hole best suited to minor league hockey and Miley Cyrus concerts. And we'd all love to see the school get a new gym in the city, but if DePaul had good teams, people would brave the highway to watch them. They have before. As one assistant high school coach said to me this winter, "We drive the kids to Champaign; they don't care."
Purnell agreed, noting that the most important amenity in any arena "is butts in the seats, making it fun to play there. Kids care about TV and people coming to watch, to cheer them on."
And that's the real reason DePaul has become irrelevant -- it hasn't been able to land local talent. If DePaul had legit Big East talent, Allstate would draw legit Big East crowds. It's that simple. Purnell doesn't need to recruit upwardly mobile young professionals. He needs players. It doesn't matter whether he has a national name, either; that was always a conversation driven by people who don't understand the city. You're better off being famous in Englewood than in New York.
And judging by the early returns from local coaches, Purnell better get to work introducing himself. High school and AAU coaches, when contacted Tuesday morning by ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers, were shocked at his hire. Everyone was, and it wasn't from a lack of imagination.
The courtship began just "four or five days" ago, Purnell and athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said at a news conference.
Four or five days ago? I just took longer than that to buy a new pair of $65 tennis shoes. DePaul, like most schools, employed a consulting firm to help with the coaching search, and this hire has impersonal fingerprints all over it. I understand DePaul had to wait until the good coaches were done in the NCAA tournament, but why make this move now?
Purnell already had a job. While Lenti Ponsetto wouldn't say how many coaches DePaul interviewed, she did say Purnell was the only one who was offered the job.
Amazing how that works.
All I know is Purnell must be one heck of an interview. He left a pretty good situation at Clemson, where he had gone to three straight NCAA tournaments, to take a seven-year, $15 million deal that seems to have the same chance of being fulfilled as the average NFL contract.
Purnell joked several times about his wife and daughters being happy about Chicago's shopping scene, so I guess the money was important.
"As I thought about DePaul, it became apparent to me the challenge is something I have a passion for," he said in the news conference. "I have an opportunity to restore a once-great program where it belongs. DePaul belongs in the elite of college basketball; it belongs in the elite of the Big East. DePaul belongs as Chicago's college basketball team."
I'm not saying this isn't a good hire, because in reality, it makes sense. All the low-level insiders and rumor mongers who were floating ridiculous names like Jamie Dixon and Ben Howland were immediately rebuffed. If Brad Stevens leaves Butler, his next job should be at Duke or Kansas, not the lower echelon of the Big East. Brian Gregory, the local boy who just won an NIT title at Dayton, has a better gig there.
All of the realistic, local names had a problem of some sort. Craig Robinson, who signed an extension at Oregon State, is still getting his feet wet in major college ball. Chris Lowery, an early favorite, had a terrible season at Southern Illinois and hasn't made the NCAAs in three years. Isiah Thomas? Give me a break. Reggie Theus, who interviewed last week, is destined to be a vagabond, just like in his playing days.
No, Purnell, who left Dayton for Clemson in 2003, makes sense. He's got experience in rebuilding programs, and his teams tend to win. And winning is more important than winning popularity contests. Purnell's Tigers never wowed anyone with their offensive brilliance, but they played fast and they played good defense, both signs of good coaching.
"I prefer an up-tempo style," he said. "We were known as one of the best pressure teams in the country."
Sounds perfect for Chicago, the city of 6-foot point guards and skywalking wings.
"I like watching Clemson's style of play," Irvin said. "I just don't know him."
Purnell, who turns 57 next month, is a well-respected coach, and I think after he gets settled in Chicago, the local coaches will respect him and, hopefully for DePaul's sake, steer some talent his way.
But right now, he's an unknown commodity in a city where it's not always easy to make inroads. Chicago is a big little city, and the well-connected high school and AAU coaches aren't exactly lining up to praise a guy they've never met.
"This guy came out of nowhere," Irvin said. "When you're trying to get the city back like [Lenti Ponsetto] said she was, I don't know if that's a good hire."
Irvin's brother Mike, the CEO of the Mac Irvin Fire AAU team, said he has never met Purnell, either.
"I've been at my father's side for the last 15 years assisting him with the team," he told Powers. "I've never seen him. I've never seen a Clemson coach. That's bad, because in Chicago it's about the relationships, the ties. Chicago's a different animal, a different city."
"I've never spoken with him," Simeon coach Robert Smith told Powers. "I watch college basketball. That's how I know who he is. The kids don't know him."
Getting to know Chicago isn't just about getting a list of players who can play, like Pete Bell in "Blue Chips." Purnell has to "get into" Chicago, and he has to do it quick, thanks to Wainwright and to some degree Dave Leitao, two East Coast coaches with out-of-state contacts and no sway in the Public League. DePaul's sway in the city pales in comparison to that of Illinois. Northwestern is making up ground in the suburbs and has a Public League grad, Juice Thompson, running the point.
Purnell might be a great coach, but he needs players. And right now, the cupboard is pretty close to bare. One win in two Big East seasons? Jerry Krause could recruit against that.
That doesn't mean these local coaches won't like Purnell, who seems personable, charming and, most importantly, capable.
"Once these guys meet Oliver Purnell, they'll like him," Illinois Warriors coach Larry Butler told Powers.
But you have to wonder whether DePaul's administration has any sense of where the program is, and the reality on the street in the city and suburbs. Or maybe, it's the reverse. Maybe the administrators realized this job isn't so desirable after all. Purnell is not a bad alternative, but he's coming in at a very important time.
The Class of 2011 is loaded with talent, and it's getting late to sign those players. By this summer, when they're traveling around the country plying their trade, most of them will have some idea of where they want to go.
Some have given verbal commitments, like Morgan Park's Wayne Blackshear (Louisville) and Mount Carmel's Tracy Abrams (Illinois), but those are teenage promises that aren't worth the time I spent writing this sentence.
There are several big names still uncommitted, like Mike Shaw, Sam Thompson, Chasson Randle, Mychael Henry and Macari Brooks, waiting to be romanced. Remember those names. If you don't hear about any of them playing at DePaul, you know the program is still in trouble.
Just as important, there is never a shortage of players who are overlooked, for one reason or another, and wind up becoming legitimate Division I players. Purnell has to not only show the love to the stars, but he has to find the hidden jewels as well.
"As far as Chicago recruiting is concerned, those kids and I think the people who influence them are interested in hearing now, 'What's DePaul about now? Are you going to earnestly recruit those kids? Where do they fit in?'" Purnell told Powers during a one-on-one interview. "I think most kids are interested in national television exposure. They're interested in style of play. They're interested in playing time. We certainly should have plenty of that moving forward."
Purnell said he's still putting together a "power" staff." If he's smart, he'll look at the assistants who joined DePaul before last season. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an agreement in place already. Tracy Webster and Billy Garrett have a good reputation in the city.
"You've got to keep Billy Garrett or Tracy Webster," said Nick Irvin, who coaches Billy Garrett Jr. at Morgan Park. Garrett just finished his freshman year on the varsity of a young and talented team led by Blackshear.
Purnell, who really seems to have the personality to succeed in Chicago, just like he's done at every stop, gets that he's going to have to sell this program. And he seems excited about it.
"I think we have a great opportunity now to re-establish DePaul as Chicago's team and get our share of Chicago guys," he said.
I asked Irvin, who played at Fresno State for Jerry Tarkanian back in the day, what advice he would give Purnell.
"I'd tell Oliver what you have to do is attack the city," he said. "He can't be not coming out, not showing his face. You have to talk to people. That's the advice I give him. He's got to embrace the city. This is where it's at, as far as basketball. The East Coast is good, down south is good. What he has to do is get into Chicago."
It's easier said than done. Driving to Allstate Arena is a grueling endeavor during rush hour, but getting into Chicago, as Irvin said, is the toughest ride around. My advice? Buckle up and don't get swallowed by the potholes.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.