Can Clemson take it to the next level?
After Oliver Purnell's surprise departure to DePaul, Tigers turn to Brad Brownell
Hours after Gordon Hayward's desperation half-court shot barely missed and Duke had snuffed out Butler's chance at an historic national title, there was a late-night news alert that garnered plenty of surprise looks around the Final Four media room.
Oliver Purnell had bolted Clemson for Big East bottom-feeder DePaul.
"I was pretty surprised when I saw that," said Brad Brownell, who had just finished his fourth season at Wright State, winning 20 or more games in all four seasons. "I don't think anybody in the basketball business knew that Oliver was looking to leave."
He was right. No one at Clemson even considered the possibility.
Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips knew Purnell had interviewed, but had no idea he would actually take the job. The Tigers had advanced to the NCAA tournament three straight seasons. They'd lost in the first round in each of the three, but Phillips said there was no pressure on Purnell to leave.
"I was totally surprised," Phillips said. "When he took over, we were really down and he made us a factor in the ACC. Prior to Oliver coming, people took us lightly. But when you played Clemson after Oliver had done what he did, you had to play well to beat us."
Sure, there were those who understandably groaned about Clemson's traditional fast starts turning into quick exits. But that was a minority among the faithful. For the most part, the Clemson fan base embraced the up-tempo, pressing style, turning Littlejohn Coliseum into a blinding orange inferno lately.
So after the surprise departure, Phillips was faced with a dilemma. Within a day he called Brownell, having gotten word through a number of sources that he was a quality coach and a low-maintenance employee who would work hard to maintain the Clemson program.
So that was the plan -- at least until a curveball was tossed into the process.
"When I heard Oliver took the DePaul job, I immediately thought about the Clemson job as a great fit for me," said Brownell, who had worked under Jerry Wainwright at UNC Wilmington before taking over for him and leading the Seahawks to two NCAA tournaments. (How ironic that Wainwright's firing at DePaul ultimately opened up the Clemson job for his former assistant.)
"I thought they would maybe give it to [Purnell assistant] Ron Bradley, but then I got a call and thought I had a chance," Brownell said. "Then came Rick Stansbury and that was out of left field."
Clemson is in the middle of the SEC footprint and Mississippi State has been a consistent presence in the league. Phillips had to inquire.
"Anytime you're talking with a sitting head coach, there are a lot of discussions and sometimes you get to the point where you reach a deal and sometimes it's best to go your separate ways and not take it any further," Phillips said. "We were very serious in talking with Rick. But at the end of the day, it was best that we just moved in different directions."
So Phillips could then turn his attention to the lesser-known Brownell.
Brownell played at DePauw. He wasn't a household name as a player, or as a coach. But the rep on him was clear: He can coach regardless of the level. He took both UNC Wilmington and Wright State to the NCAA tournament.
"His teams always play hard. They cut as hard as any team on the offensive end and they can really, really defend you on every possession," said Butler's Brad Stevens, who had to contend with Brownell the past four seasons in the Horizon League. "They don't take plays off. He's a basketball guy and the impression is he's a really good coach, a really good guy and does things the right way. He's not a huge self-promoter, which is why his teams do well. His concern is to put good teams on the floor."
Phillips saw that. He said he compared Brownell to current Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney.
"I have an affinity for individuals who aren't born with a silver spoon in their mouth," Phillips said. "Look at Dabo; here was a guy who came from a difficult background, walked on at Alabama, no one gave him anything. He earned a scholarship with Coach Gene Stallings and then he thought enough of him to put him on staff. Brad is a great fit for us. Like Dabo, no one gave him anything.
"Look at Brad, he wasn't a great player. But you don't have to be a great player to be a great coach. The guy can coach. He understands the game. His teams are fundamentally sound. His teams are hard-nosed."
Phillips said Clemson fans are happy with the progress made in recent years, but also hungry for the Tigers to take it to the next level. The program hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1997.
"What I like about Brad is that he's very stable," Phillips said. "He's got a young family. He doesn't want to move them around. He can come in and build up on what Oliver started. It will be his program. Oliver did a great job, but Oliver isn't here anymore."
Phillips reiterated that Purnell could have stayed at Clemson for as long as he desired and had the unwavering support from the president of the university on down. But Purnell made a "decision for his family" and now the program has turned to Brownell.
"He's a wonderful fit -- the kind of guy that everyone will rally around," Phillips said.
They'll have to next season, because there will be a transition.
The biggest chore for Brownell is replacing strong man Trevor Booker inside, who worked himself into being a first-round pick in last month's NBA draft.
Brownell didn't lose anybody to transfer and inherits Booker's brother Devin, Milton Jennings, Bryan Narcisse and Jerai Grant up front and guards Andre Young, Demontez Stitt and Tanner Smith. The club has plenty of scoring pop, but will lack the power inside.
He's a wonderful fit -- the kind of guy that everyone will rally around.” -- Clemson AD Terry Don Phillips
Brownell acknowledged how well Purnell did overall and dismissed the perception that there was pressure to advance further in the NCAAs. He has seen the enthusiasm for the program by going to baseball games with thousands in the stands. And he is well aware of the passion for football at Death Valley.
"That's one of the reasons I wanted this job," Brownell said.
Don't get bogged down in whether a Horizon League coach can make it in the ACC. That doesn't matter. Bruce Pearl is doing quite fine at Tennessee from Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Bo Ryan made the transition from UWM to Wisconsin. Stevens is on everyone's wish list out of Butler.
But like those coaches, Brownell isn't going to change too much. He said he won't press 40 minutes like Purnell. The personnel may allow him to extend his defense, but the personality of the program will mirror his teams at Wilmington and Wright State. They will play man. They may press a bit, but they will be fundamentally sound.
Brownell is a son of a basketball coach. He isn't afraid to sell his program or himself at a higher level.
"It doesn't matter if you're at a mid-major or high-major, you still have to get good players to win," Brownell said. "No one pays attention to recruiting at the mid-major level, so they don't know if you can recruit."
Winning in the NCAA tournament, and of course winning at North Carolina, would win Brownell even more of a loyal Clemson following. The Tigers beat North Carolina in Littlejohn last season to snap a 10-game home losing streak to the Tar Heels. But Clemson has lost a whopping 53 straight in Chapel Hill.
"I'm not ready to lay claim to that streak," Phillips said. "Somewhere along the way, Carolina had to have the flu or something. It will be a challenge. But it will be fun when we do beat them up there. We'll hang a banner."
The longtime AD seems confident his hire will do that and much more during his term with the Tigers.
"I think he'll stay here for a while," Phillips said. "And enjoy great success."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.