DePaul's Garrett dreams of Final Four
Most kids can't wait to play in the students-versus-teachers basketball game in junior high school. It's their one chance to embarrass their teachers without repercussion.
Billy Garrett could easily have done that. Garrett, a former wide receiver at Illinois State, had the athletic ability as a youngster to give his teachers a lesson or two on the court.
Instead, Garrett opted to pull out a clipboard and coach his fellow seventh-graders from the sideline. It was where Garrett felt he could best serve.
It's no different than the way he feels today as a DePaul assistant coach.
The son of a legendary Indiana high school basketball coach, Garrett has never imagined doing anything with his life other than coaching. And while he would have continued somewhere else if newly hired Blue Demons coach Oliver Purnell had decided to go in a different direction with his staff, Garrett is grateful he was retained and still gets to do what he loves in the city he loves.
"Was it a relief? Yeah, I was happy," said Garrett, who originally was hired before last season by former DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright. "You know what? I kept working like I had a job. That's what I did. I just worked.
"Oliver Purnell is a real smart man, real intelligent. There wasn't going to be one thing I could do to prove myself. He was going to go through it due diligently. He was going to ask people about me and judge me."
Purnell did just that.
He asked around about Garrett. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi coach Perry Clark, a friend of Purnell's, had Garrett on his staff for two seasons and raved about him.
Purnell also looked into Garrett's background. He learned that Garrett, an Indianapolis native, coached at Providence St. Mel High School in Chicago and turned it into one of the area's most successful programs. Garrett went 130-50 and won four regional titles in six seasons.
Garrett's ties to Chicago were also appealing to Purnell. While Garrett might have moved out of Chicago when he took his first college assistant job with Siena in 2000, he never stopped recruiting from the city. O'Hare Airport and the Dan Ryan Expressway have been regular locations for him whether he's been an assistant at Siena, Seton Hall, Iowa, New Mexico or Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
"Everybody I talked to in Chicago either raved about him or talked about him," Purnell said. "It was unsolicited, and people would talk about Billy. It was obvious to me that he's very much a part of Chicago. That was very important. I wanted a Chicago influence."
Finally, it was Garrett's work ethic that convinced Purnell he was the right man for his staff.
"When I got to the office, he was there," Purnell said. "When I left the office, he was there. He was constantly on the phone and running me around. We were together 12-14 hours for the first couple of days, and he sort of grew on me.
"Experience and know-how is important, and you couple that with energy and work ethic and someone who is a really good person, then you have someone. I think that's what we have in Billy Garrett."
Garrett's love for basketball and coaching began with his father, Bill Garrett. After winning Indiana's Mr. Basketball award at Shelbyville High School in 1947, Bill Garrett was recruited by Indiana University and became the Big Ten's first African-American player. He earned All-American honors there, was drafted by the Boston Celtics and eventually played for the Harlem Globetrotters. After his playing career, he coached at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis for 10 years and led it to a state championship in 1959. Shelbyville High School's gym has been named in his honor.
Bill Garrett died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 45. Billy Garrett was 9 years old at the time.
"I have always wanted to be a college coach, probably because my dad was a coach," said Garrett, whose own son, Billy Garrett Jr., started as a freshman at Morgan Park High School this past season. "Trying to be like my dad inspired me to be a coach. I remember him teaching me how to play. So many people would tell me stories about him."
Garrett's own coaching career began moving forward when he moved to Chicago while working for a youth Christian organization in 1991. During his spare time, he began helping out at Near North High School as an assistant basketball coach. He later became a coach at Hales Franciscan and then was hired to take over Providence St. Mel's program.
Providence St. Mel's success and its talented players led to Garrett being introduced to Mac Irvin, who ran the Mac Irvin Fire, one of the country's top AAU programs. Irvin took Garrett under his wing and gave him a position with the Fire.
"Mac was just good to me," Garrett said. "I've had a few people in my life who have been like surrogate fathers. God put people in my life. He gave me advice. I learned a lot."
Irvin is proud to see where Garrett has progressed as a coach.
"He's at an excellent point in his career," Irvin said. "I think he's moving at a good pace. He's learning more and more. He's always been involved in things in Chicago. He's always been a nice guy, but a tough guy, too. He knows how to deal with people, talk to kids and relate to them. That's the key. I'm proud of him. That's all I can say. I'm very proud of him and what he's accomplished."
Garrett's reputation as a college coach has been built on his ability to recruit. It's why he was initially hired at DePaul. Wainwright cleaned out his staff at the end of the 2008-09 season and brought on Tracy Webster and Garrett, two well-known Chicago-area recruiters.
Garrett has recruited his share of Chicago players over the years. He brought Kelly Whitney from Marshall High School, Carl Marshall from Crane High School, Justin Cerasoli from West Aurora High School and others to Seton Hall. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is still stacked with Chicago players, thanks to him.
"Chicago has been good to me," Garrett said. "Wherever I've gone, it's been good to me. Chicago kids are tough. But once you get them on your side, they'll run through a brick wall for you. They're tough, talented and they're not afraid.
"To me, it all goes back to relationships. Recruiting is relationships. High school coaches here, more than anywhere else, are surrogate fathers to their players. When you take an interest in a kid as a coach and you send him away to school, when you put your head down on the pillow at night, you want to know he's OK."
The area's top coaches and players haven't looked at DePaul in that light for some time. DePaul's last breakthrough into the city and suburbs came late in the 1990s and early in the 2000s when Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons, Lance Williams, Paul McPherson, Steven Hunter and Imari Sawyer all decided to play for the Blue Demons.
With DePaul's past two coaches, Dave Leitao and Wainwright, Chicago-area high school and AAU coaches felt their relationship with the Blue Demons became fractured. When Purnell was announced to replace Wainwright, area coaches didn't feel any better about the situation. They reacted negatively, as Purnell, who was an unknown to most of them, wasn't perceived as the one who could repair those relationships.
Part of Garrett's job in the past few months has been getting Purnell's foot in the door with the area's top coaches and helping create new bonds.
"I don't think they were questioning what he's done as a basketball coach," Garrett said. "I think they didn't know him. All these guys, when they meet Oliver, they'll like him. It's just a matter of knowing him. I may be the guy who initially facilitates that because I have a relationship with these guys already. But in time, they'll have a relationship with all of DePaul's coaches, not just me.
"We've just got to wrap our hands around the city and reach out from there to the suburbs and the state. I think it's going to come down initially just to the relationships that are built and the trusts that are built."
Hyde Park High School coach Donnie Kirksey, a former DePaul assistant under Pat Kennedy, is confident that Garrett can achieve that.
"Billy Garrett is a guy who is young enough, personal enough and is going to work hard enough to get it done," Kirksey said. "He's the bridge to patch up DePaul and get it back to being better. He's a good guy."
Garrett has already begun producing on the recruiting trail. He was one of the main reasons high-flying Crete-Monee junior forward Jamie Crockett and senior forward Cleveland Melvin, who was previously committed to Connecticut, recently decided on DePaul.
"I just liked that he was outgoing," Crockett said. "He was easy to talk to. He was big in my decision to come to DePaul. He made me feel really more comfortable."
Garrett understands those recruits have to be just the start. For DePaul to return to glory, it needs to begin stockpiling such players, and Garrett is up for the challenge.
"I'm trying to go to the Final Four," Garrett said. "That's what I'm trying to do. I want to play in the Final Four. I think we can do that."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.