Be patient with DePaul
Some like it, some don't, but you can't judge hiring of Purnell for few years
CHICAGO -- DePaul sophomore center Krys Faber hesitated and took a few moments to choose his words carefully with each question directed to him following Tuesday's press conference to announce Oliver Purnell as the Blue Demons' new coach.
Faber had just learned early in the day of Purnell's hiring, and he still knew little of his coach by the afternoon.
What Purnell and DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said during the coach's introductory press conference all seemed great to Faber, but he also realized that such showings are designed to make new coaches and their athletic directors all seem great. As an added touch, DePaul had even brought along DIBS, the school's mascot, who stood off to the side and shook his head in agreement of everything said.
Faber sounded exactly like you would expect of a player who just endured his second consecutive trying Big East season, and now was being introduced to his third head coach in two seasons.
"[His] past records are impressive & just I guess & wondering if he can do the same for this program," Faber said. "All that's good, but we'll see."
That's the key -- waiting to see.
Lenti Ponsetto, DePaul President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider and the school's board of trustees would like everyone to believe right now that Purnell was a brilliant hire. On the other hand, there are area high school and AAU coaches and other skeptics who have already spoken out against Purnell and want everyone to believe right now that it was the wrong hire.
One side will eventually be able to say, "I told you so," but for now, both should say little. DePaul is a rebuilding job, and it requires time. It's about building blocks -- bringing in the right assistants, developing the right relationships, going after the right players -- and in time there will either be gradual improvements or continued failure.
Unless you bring in a John Calipari or a Rick Pitino, programs simply aren't built overnight. The biggest names in high school basketball likely aren't coming to DePaul because Oliver Purnell was hired. He attracted talent to his previous teams, but they haven't been studs such as Derrick Rose or John Wall.
The big hope is getting one big name next season, a few more the next season and so on. With that, it's realistic to expect DePaul to finish a game or two better next season in the Big East, then move up three or four spots the following season and to be in that elite top half and contending for an NCAA Tournament bid three or four seasons from now.
"It just depends on how you evaluate success," Purnell said. "I think if you're last and after the first year, I don't know, you're 10th or whatever & I can't count that many on my hands. It depends on how you evaluate that. I think you evaluate that in a lot different ways."
The one great asset Purnell has in his favor is that he has rebuilt before, and he's done it in a variety of geographic regions and levels, including the ACC.
It began with Old Dominion in 1991. In his second head coaching position, he took over a program that had gone 14-18 the season before he arrived. He went 15-15 in his first season and then won 20-plus games the next two seasons.
In 1994, Purnell moved on to Dayton. The Flyers won 10 total games the previous two seasons. While most saw it as an undesirable position, Purnell saw great potential. By his second season, the Flyers had a winning record. By his fourth, they were in the NIT. Finally by his sixth, they reached the NCAA Tournament.
In 2003, he started on a similar path at Clemson. Purnell replaced Larry Shyatt after the Tigers had gone 70-84 during Shyatt's five seasons there. In Purnell's first season, Clemson struggled and finished 10-18. From there, it was all success. His next three teams went to the NIT, and the next three received at-large NCAA Tournament bids.
He sees the same opportunity at DePaul.
"I cannot tell how you how excited I am and how passionate I am about starting this process," Purnell said. "It gets my juices flowing. It goes back to the last four or five days of talking to Jeanie about mostly that I love to do this. You only want to do it in a place that you feel has every opportunity to succeed. You look at the city of Chicago. You look at the tradition. You look at the recruiting base, but not only locally here, that's a huge deal, but DePaul can also recruit outside the city.
"I just enjoy this process. It kind of reminds me a little bit of the Dayton experience where Dayton was a program that obviously was a great program but had won four and six games previous to us coming there. But there was a desire, a tremendous desire to get back to that haven. You can sense that excitement with Jeanie. She wants to be there again, but more importantly, she believes it can be done, and she's willing to make that commitment to make it happen."
Lenti Ponsetto pointed heavily to Purnell's previous rebuilding successes on Tuesday.
"I think when you look at what he's done at other places, and then you think about if you put that kind of dynamic personality in Chicago," Lenti Ponsetto said. "I think he's destined for success."
Purnell touched upon some of the specifics he felt were necessary to rebuilding a program. Some of them were obvious like hiring quality assistants and establishing relationships with the local coaches, but there were others that were more outside the box.
I cannot tell how you how excited I am and how passionate I am about starting this process. It gets my juices flowing. It goes back to the last four or five days of talking to Jeanie about mostly that I love to do this. You only want to do it in a place that you feel has every opportunity to succeed.” -- Oliver Purnell
"You have to be really careful in building a program in how you schedule," Purnell said. "Because you want to build confidence with your team. As I was looking at the press guide last night and looking at the scores of the games, one thing that jumped out at me was some of those early-season games that you almost got over the hump, and you didn't. I want to say Vanderbilt, Tennessee affected the next game, and then you got to look at those [school session] breaks.
"Scheduling can be an art form particularly as you're building a program. I'll never forget the year [Syracuse coach Jim] Boeheim won the championship with Carmelo Anthony. I thought he scheduled brilliantly that year. They didn't leave the Carrier Dome, and they played easy games early, and they had three or four freshmen on that team. Those guys didn't realize when they got in the Big East that it was any different. They were so confident when they won early."
A vibe of confidence wasn't exactly what one of Purnell's new players, Faber, was giving off on Tuesday following the press conference. The uncertainty that Faber felt about DePaul's future was in his every pause. But at the same time, Faber wasn't pessimistic. He was just still weighing the situation.
"I haven't really developed much thought on this," Faber said. "I'm just finding out today who he is, where he's from, his past records. I'm trying to gauge how he feels."
Everyone should follow that lead. Feel out Purnell. See who he hires as his staff. Watch who he recruits. Evaluate how he coaches.
Then in time, you can make your decision to love him or hate him.
That's just not for today.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.