Commentary

Oliver Purnell faces ultimate challenge

After bolting Clemson for DePaul, veteran coach has plenty of questions to answer

Originally Published: September 28, 2010
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- If college basketball coaches could all agree on one thing, it might be this: A cool office is non-optional.

Coaches stuff their offices with memorabilia. Paint them the colors of their schools. Cover their walls with photos.

The coach's office is a shrine, a man-cave, a trophy case and a high-powered business environment wrapped neatly in one oversized space. At the risk of generalizing, coaches love their offices.

So what does it say that new DePaul coach Oliver Purnell's office -- complete with bland, uncovered walls, sparse furniture, and a stack of still-packaged frames sitting on the floor -- looks like it must have the day Purnell arrived?

"You'll have to excuse the moving mess," Purnell said. "We're doing all sorts of stuff right now."

[+] EnlargeOliver Purnell
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenOliver Purnell has been a turnaround artist at his four previous head-coaching stops.

Simple enough: It says that he's busy.

Given DePaul's situation, its fans should be happy their new coach isn't tied up in aesthetics. The program's problems are much more than skin-deep. The Blue Demons have languished in the deep and talented Big East since the moment they arrived in 2005. They have failed to convince anyone from Chicago's rich reservoir of local talent to stay in the area. Their facilities are out of date. Attendance at AllState Arena -- which seats 17,500 for basketball and garnered less than 8,500 fans per game in 2009-10 -- has badly flagged.

It doesn't help that the 30-year-old arena is about 18 miles away from DePaul's Chicago campus.

Despite all this, administrators are desperate for a winner, for a restoration of legendary coach Ray Meyer's tradition. They want DePaul to be a basketball power again.

So who has time to worry about an office?

"From the moment [I took this job], we were already on the treadmill," Purnell said. "We didn't wind down this summer. We wound up."

Rebuilding a program that's had one winning season in the past five, and been to two NCAA tournaments in the past 15, requires that sort of energy. Which is why it surprised many when Purnell agreed to take the job.

In seven seasons at Clemson, Purnell had slowly but surely built the Tigers into a perennial NCAA tournament team (albeit not a winning NCAA tournament team). More than that, he helped build a basketball culture. Under Purnell, a football school's 10,000-seat basketball arena -- complete with an unassuming, downright cute name (Littlejohn Coliseum) -- became a sold-out, rollicking ACC venue.

And then, just when it seemed like Clemson was ready to get over the hump -- to do more than just qualify for the NCAA tournament each year -- Purnell left for … DePaul? A dormant bottom-feeder in an overcrowded Big East?

Huh?

"I may be a bit unusual," Purnell said. "I like the challenge of turning around a program, especially one with a great tradition, one that's maybe inexplicably fallen on hard times."

The 57-year-old Purnell, who's also made stops at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton, cited DePaul's "natural resources": the Meyer tradition; its status as a clear-cut "basketball school"; its location in one of "the best sports cities in the country"; and the thousands of local high school basketball players, many of them among the country's most sought-after, who live and play within 20 square miles of DePaul.

Of course, the Catholic private school's financial commitment to Purnell -- in the form of $2 million annual salary over the next seven years, a hefty increase over his Clemson deal -- couldn't have hurt, either. DePaul was looking to make a splash with its post-Jerry Wainwright hire, and to make a splash, you've got to make it rain.

"We immediately felt like we hit a home run," athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said. "Fast forward to today, and we still feel like we hit a home run."

In other words, Purnell has his school's support -- financial and otherwise. The next step is turning that support into wins. At a program with so much to do and, as Purnell says, "nowhere to go but up," where do you start?

We immediately felt like we hit a home run. Fast forward to today, and we still feel like we hit a home run.

-- DePaul AD Jean Lenti Ponsetto

Actually, that part is easy: recruiting.

This summer was a busy one for DePaul's recruiting efforts, even if that effort wasn't always positive. Purnell's attempts to re-recruit Wainwright's players featured a dust-up over recruit Walter Pitchford's National Letter of Intent, which included potential tampering issues and a stubborn refusal by Purnell to simply let Pitchford -- a marginal recruit in any case -- walk.

Purnell eventually relented, ending up with a three-player class for 2010. He managed to convince Wainwright's other two recruits -- guard Brandon Young and small forward Moses Morgan -- to stick around, and in May landed former Connecticut commitment Cleveland Melvin, a power forward who fancies himself a wing player. Purnell is currently in the process of looking for players to fit the uptempo, pressing style he favored at Clemson, and he has high hopes for the 2010 class.

The 2011 haul, meanwhile, remains a work in progress. To be frank, Purnell has not had the success of fellow Big East newcomers Mike Rice (at Rutgers) and Steve Lavin (at St. John's), both of whom have, in mere months, built top-15 classes for the 2011-12 season. DePaul, meanwhile, has only the No. 50-ranked shooting guard, Macari Brooks, to brag about. His lone 2011 counterpart, No. 85-ranked small forward Jamie Crockett, is unlikely to be an impact player.

And what about local talent? For all the advantages of DePaul's location, Purnell's recruiting challenge remains different and unwieldy thanks in large part to that advantageous location. Chicago's recruiting scene is a political morass, sleazy enough to make the city's infamous machine politicians proud. Purnell got his first taste of it in April when two coaches, upset at DePaul's choice of assistant coaches, blasted the program to the Chicago Tribune.

The coach, who has spent almost all of September balancing road recruiting visits with outreach to area high schools, denies the challenge is unique.

"People are people," Purnell said. "Recruiting is about relationships. I tell people, the more you learn about us and our program, the more you're going to like what you see. So it's just a matter of getting people familiar with me, and that takes some time."

[+] EnlargeOliver Purnell
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenPurnell is winless in six NCAA tourney appearances. But DePaul fans would like to simply return to the Big Dance at this point.

Time is something Purnell does have. No one is expecting him to resurrect the Blue Demons overnight. The coach's two previous programs were long-term works in progress. Dayton made one NIT appearance in Purnell's first five seasons. In his last four, the Flyers never won fewer than 20 games (and went to two NCAA tournaments). Purnell didn't have a single 20-win season in his first three Clemson seasons, but he never fell short of that mark in his final four.

It's hard to see the DePaul rebuild taking a speedier trajectory. The Demons lost their two best players (guard Will Walker and oft-injured forward Mac Koshwal) from last season's team, which finished 8-23 overall and 1-17 in the Big East, good for dead last in the league. The program is a hard-to-believe 1-35 in conference play over the past two seasons.

So while Purnell is hoping his returning players, as well as his three recruits, can take to his uptempo style, he realizes the process will take longer than that.

"I think we can be competitive," Purnell said. "But the goal is just to get better every day. Coaches, players, trainers, all of us. We want to get better every single day."

The coach's past two programs required sustained, patient growth. DePaul will have to be patient.

"He's very methodical," Ponsetto said. "He's very technical. He has a process and a formula, and I think you can already see him putting that into place."

Until the recruits come, the immediate improvements will be minor. This summer, DePaul revamped its locker room and weight facilities, and bought state-of-the-art video recording equipment to help players with their training.

Of course, the ultimate facilities upgrade would be a new arena, or at least a partnership with a venue closer to campus. Purnell said he would "prefer" a new home, but that he was confident his teams could -- like so many Big East foes -- have success playing at a remote location. Ponsetto said DePaul was "very satisfied" with its AllState partnership, but that the school would never say never in regards to future arena possibilities.

But no new arena is forthcoming, at least not anytime soon. That leaves it up to Purnell. Can the surprise hire beat the nation's elite for his city's top talent? Can he win the affection of the city's chummy high school power brokers? Can he spark the interest of thousands of disinterested local fans? Can he raise the echoes of a bygone era? Can he win in the Big East?

More than anything, can he make DePaul basketball matter?

"It's a tremendous challenge," he said. "But I think it's a challenge that can be met."

No sweat, right?

Then, once all that's out of the way, Oliver Purnell can finally get around to redecorating his office.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.