Purnell leaves Clemson for DePaul

Updated: April 7, 2010, 2:13 AM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- DePaul agreed with Clemson men's basketball coach Oliver Purnell late Monday on a seven-year contract that will pay Purnell well beyond the $1.6 million salary he was making with the Tigers.

"DePaul presents a great opportunity,'' Purnell told ESPN.com Tuesday morning.

The stunning hire -- culminated shortly after the Duke-Butler NCAA national championship game -- salvaged a search for a new coach that lasted nearly three months.

In his introductory press conference, Purnell said, "DePaul belongs in the elite of college basketball. DePaul belongs in the elite of the Big East. DePaul belongs as Chicago's college basketball team."

The Chicago Tribune and FoxSports.com Web sites, both citing sources, first broke the story in the early morning hours Tuesday.

"It's a super job,'' Purnell told ESPN.com Tuesday morning. "They are very, very committed to restoring a tradition.''

Purnell wasn't on any reported DePaul prospective hire lists throughout the winter. He said Tuesday he was contacted four or five days ago. DePaul had made overtures all over the country and few seemed to know where the Blue Demons were headed.

DePaul interviewed Minnesota Timberwolves assistant and former New Mexico State and Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus late last week for the job.

[+] EnlargeOliver Purnell
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesOliver Purnell said the challenge of rebuilding DePaul attracted him to his new job.

Jerry Wainwright, who had two years left on his contract, was fired as coach on Jan. 11, with the Blue Demons at 7-8 overall, 0-3 in the Big East.

DePaul finished the season 8-23 overall and dead last in the Big East at 1-17 under interim coach Tracy Webster.

DePaul went winless in the Big East in 2008-09 and finished 9-24 overall that season.

Meanwhile, Purnell took Clemson to the 2010 NCAA tournament with a 21-10 record (the Tigers lost to Missouri in the first round 86-78). Clemson was 9-7 in the ACC.

Purnell reached the NCAA tournament with the Tigers in three straight seasons, losing in the first round in each of those appearances. He was 138-90 in seven seasons at Clemson, but 50-62 in the ACC.

Prior to Clemson, Purnell resurrected Dayton in a nine-year run that ended with a 24-6 record and an NCAA appearance. He made two NCAA tournament appearances at Dayton.

He also coached at Old Dominion for three years (one NCAA appearance) and three seasons at Radford. Purnell has never won an NCAA game.

Purnell said the move was much more about the challenge at DePaul and had nothing negative to say about Clemson.

"I hope they feel we left the program in great shape,'' Purnell said. "I feel that way.''

DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto made it clear a few weeks ago that the school was ready to make a big splash, saying the next coach could be among the highest-paid in a conference that Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Bob Huggins and Jim Calhoun call home.

"[Purnell's] veteran experience is really important for what we're trying to accomplish because not only are we looking to resonate with young kids, the guys that we'll be recruiting, but we've also got to go in the Big East," said Ponsetto. "There are 18 games against some of the top coaches in the country."

Purnell's decision stunned the Tigers, who went 21-11 this season. He had signed a two-year extension with Clemson in June and was making more than $1.3 million a year, but his buyout was only $250,000.

Clemson athletic director Dr. Terry Don Phillips said during a news conference he was shocked by Purnell's decision to leave. He said he learned of the move during a phone call from the coach at about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.

"I'm not sure I know what to say," Phillips said. "I'm in a little bit of shock. ... I'm as surprised as anyone."

Phillips said Purnell left South Carolina without addressing his players, many learning via text message and on Twitter before interim coach Ron Bradley officially notified them at a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting.

"I didn't really see any signs of him wanting to leave," said junior guard Demontez Stitt, who spoke with Purnell at length Friday about the team's next season. "It's going to be tough. ... We want to stay positive."

Purnell joins a long line of Tigers coaches who have left what appeared to be a program on the rise for a challenge in a different league.

Bill Foster, who led Clemson to the Elite Eight in 1980, left in 1984 to restart the basketball program at Miami. Cliff Ellis, the Tigers' winningest coach, left in 1994 to go to Auburn, and Rick Barnes left for Texas in 1998 after leading Clemson to three straight NCAA tournaments.

DePaul has struggled in the 16-team Big East. "On paper, it looks very tough," Purnell said. "But once I evaluated this I saw that this was like a lot of the jobs I've had before Clemson. They were tough jobs as well."

DePaul presents a number of challenges. The Blue Demons are less talented than the rest of the Big East. They have a recently renovated on-campus practice facility but play their games at Allstate Arena, 15 miles away, near O'Hare International Airport.

They also have a relatively apathetic fan base in Chicago, which tends to be a town that follows its professional teams.

Clemson, meanwhile, is consistently one of the best and rowdiest home courts in the ACC.

Clemson loses all-ACC forward Trevor Booker and wing David Potter, both seniors, but was expected to return the rest of the team that reached the NCAA tournament. Most experts figured the Tigers to challenge for an upper-division spot in the ACC next season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE