A 'Wow' factor DePaul didn't want

Updated: April 6, 2010, 3:36 PM ET
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago area's top high school and AAU basketball coaches have nothing against Oliver Purnell, who took over as DePaul's men's head basketball coach on Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeOliver Purnell
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesOliver Purnell is going to need to establish relationships with Chicago-area coaches to succeed at DePaul.

They just don't know him.

And that's the problem some of them have with DePaul hiring Purnell away from Clemson.

"I've been CEO of the Fire for the past five years," said Mike Irvin, whose AAU team possesses a good portion of the area's top talent. "I've been at my father's side for the last 15 years assisting him with the team. 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.

"The mistake that [DePaul athletic director] Jean Lenti Ponsetto keeps making is she gets coaches who can't recruit Chicago. Maybe they want to recruit the South. Maybe they don't believe the Chicago players are good enough. Basically, my point is I guess they don't need Chicago. I don't understand how you don't need Chicago when you're in the middle of Chicago."

Most of the coaches contacted Tuesday were shocked by the hire. Purnell wasn't someone whom most of them had dealt with or expected to be a DePaul candidate.

Their main concerns were over Purnell as a recruiter. He doesn't have any local ties and hasn't had many area players on his teams throughout his 22-year career.

An inability to recruit Chicago was the biggest knock on the DePaul program under its past two coaches, Dave Leitao and Jerry Wainwright. Both had some success at DePaul, but it was with out-of-state players like Wilson Chandler, Sammy Meija and Quemont Greer.

With the hiring of Purnell, Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter doesn't believe that will change.

"Nothing against him, but wow," said Slaughter, who had three Division I signees on this year's team. "Wow. Not am I only surprised, but I'm extremely disappointed. That's disappointing.

"I've watched Clemson, and they've been successful, but it's not about X's and O's to work this area. What you're talking about is creating relationships."

Rising Stars AAU coach Mike Weinstein had nearly the same reaction.

"Wow is all I can say," Weinstein said. "He has won. He has been successful. He's supposed to be a good guy. I don't know him.

[+] EnlargeJean Lenti Ponsetto
Amy Sussman/Getty ImagesDePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto is taking some criticism for not hiring someone with strong Chicago ties.

"I think it makes it harder for a guy like this to walk into the job without any Midwest ties. It'll put him behind the eight ball really quick."

Illinois Warriors AAU coach Larry Butler also used "wow" in his reaction, but it was for the opposite reason. He was the local coach who has had a previous relationship with Purnell.

"Wow, that's great," said Butler, who was returning from Indianapolis after celebrating Duke's championship with his former player, Jon Scheyer. "Oliver Purnell has credibility. He knows how to rebuild a program. He's done that at every program he's been at. He's going to do it at DePaul.

"He's always been able to recruit quality student-athletes. DePaul is now moving in the right direction where it needs to be. Kudos to Jeanie [Lenti Ponsetto].

"That doesn't bother me that he doesn't have Chicago ties," Butler continued. "We don't necessarily need a Chicago guy. We need a guy who will come in and give Chicago guys love by recruiting their guys and help turn DePaul's program around."

Simeon coach Robert Smith, who recently won his third state championship, recognized Purnell's name before DePaul hired him, but he just wasn't sure there were many Chicago-area high school players who would as well.

"I've never spoken with him," Smith said. "I watch college basketball. That's how I know who he is. The kids don't know him. The kids from Illinois don't know him. I don't know if people know much about Clemson. I don't know if they're on TV that much.

"I don't understand why they don't get someone from the Midwest here that the kids and coaches can relate to."

Slaughter and Smith also expressed concerns about DePaul going after another older coach. Jerry Wainwright was 63 when he was fired in January. Purnell will be 57 in May.

"I just thought we would have gone with a younger coach, move some energy in the city," Smith said. "I would have thought they would get someone the kids would connect with better."

A number of the coaches thought interim head coach Tracy Webster was the logical choice.

"I wish they kept Tracy around," MeanStreets AAU coach Tai Streets said. "That's just me. I thought they were going in the right direction when they got Tracy. I thought that was their best move. I thought they were going to get someone with Chicago ties. I thought that was their main point was to get a Chicago guy."

There has been no announcement about Purnell's assistants, but Smith was adamant that Webster should be one of them.

"My relationship with DePaul would pretty be over if he isn't kept," Smith said. "He's a really good friend of mine.

"This season he put his heart and soul to try to make it a better program, period. He could only play with the cards he was dealt. For what he had, he did a great job. They didn't get blown out of many games. The guys were playing harder and he had a connection with the kids. He really wants to be at DePaul. He really wants to be at DePaul because he thinks he can do good things."

A majority of the area coaches may not be happy about DePaul's hiring, but they all said they'd be willing to give the new coach a chance. Butler was sure that was all Purnell needed.

"Once these guys meet Oliver Purnell, they'll like him," Butler said. "He's got a quiet effective demeanor about himself. When you see him, he exudes class. I know him very, very well. I consider him a friend."

Irvin was open to meeting Purnell and even provided a plan for what he thought Purnell should do in the coming days.

"What Oliver needs to do is he needs call all the top high school coaches in the area -- Morgan Park, Whitney Young, Simeon and the others," Irvin said. "He needs to get connected with the top three AAU programs -- MeanStreets, the Fire, the Wolves. He needs to get in touch with them ASAP."

St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore agreed. Relationships have played a major role throughout his career in where he's advised his players to go. It's why he sent multiple players to Indiana to play for Bob Knight and why he is a fan of Illinois' Bruce Weber now.

"I think that's important," Pingatore said. "I really do. If [Purnell] goes recruiting the Chicago area and the state of Illinois, he better develop relationships with the high school coaches in the state.

"I don't know a coach from Illinois who has gone out of his way like Bruce Weber has to cultivate relationships. He's the guy who would stop by and see how things were going whether we've got a guy he's recruiting. That's the stuff you need to do. The key is the relationships."

Just last week, Weber sat beside Purnell at a coaches' meeting. Now they might be recruiting the same players.

"Whoever came in, Jerry Wainright or whoever, it's competition for us," Weber said. "We'll have to do as good of a job. He brings in another personality. He's done a lot of national recruiting. He's a quality person."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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