Déjà vu at DePaul?

By Joe Henricksen

I am not going to pretend to know Oliver Purnell. I don’t. I do know he has had success coaching at a high level. I do know from most everyone that knows him that they speak very highly of his character and ethics. And now I know, just from being around Chicago and involved in the recruiting of the city and suburbs, that Purnell may not quite understand the nuances of all that goes into recruiting Chicago.

As I stated in a previous blog, I felt the hiring of Purnell was a solid one, especially considering where DePaul was at as a program. He wouldn’t have had the success he’s had without doing things right. But I also stated it was imperative he put together the right staff, the perfect staff, to help get things turned around sooner rather than later.

I suppose with a seven-year contract at what is reported to be $15 million, he has all the time in the world to figure it all out. I guess with that type of security he has the opportunity to take his time in rebuilding DePaul basketball and learning the difference between the Red-West and Red-South. And really, if it doesn’t work out, so be it. He has $15 million in the bank as he heads off into retirement.

Under any of the current circumstances the fix of Blue Demon basketball was not going to be overnight. But by bringing in two assistants from Clemson, you can’t help but think the transformation is going to take quite a bit longer. This is not to say Purnell won’t have success at DePaul, but it’s as if he wanted to make it a bigger challenge than it already is by not bringing in someone with Chicago ties. Whether anyone likes it or not or whether you think it’s right or wrong, Chicago basketball is what it is when it comes to recruiting. It’s a different game that is sometimes like walking on eggshells.

Billy Garrett, who was on Wainwright’s staff, will stay on with Purnell. And yes, he has made some connections to Chicago by coaching at the high school level for a brief time and recruiting Chicago at various college coaching stops, including Siena, Seton Hall, one year at Iowa and Texas A&M Corpus-Christi. But again–and as I was told by a number of AAU and high school coaches in the last week–Garrett is “fine but he’s not a Chicago guy” and is a “former football player from Indianapolis.”

“I respect the right that he [Oliver Purnell] has in picking his own staff,” says Orr coach Lou Adams, who has stars Mycheal Henry and C.J. Jones in his program. “I know he kept Billy Garrett but most of the coaches in the city had a relationship with Tracy [Webster]. I know it can be tough to keep the guy that was the [interim] coach like Tracy. It’s going to be a tough job ahead of him, but I think we have to give him a chance.”

This has nothing to do with not offering a job to a Chicago Public League coach. This is about not having one single “Chicago guy” on the staff in a basketball program that plays in a power conference and is in Chicago, one of the better recruiting hotbeds in the country. That’s like living on the best farmland in the country and not buying any farm equipment to do anything with it.

The first hire Steve Lavin made after being hired at St. John’s? Bringing in assistant coach Tony Chiles, who has all kinds of recruiting ties and connections to New York City. In addition to playing both his high school and college basketball in New York City, Chiles has college coaching experience in the city.

“This wouldn’t happen in any other state with any major basketball program,” says Simeon coach Robert Smith of a DePaul program that has basically ignored Chicago in assembling a coaching staff with true Chicago ties. “It’s a shame.”

Again, that’s the thing. In a key metropolitan recruiting area like Chicago it just makes too much sense to have a true Chicago guy or two on the staff.

Von Steuben Vince Carter, who has a close relationship with Garrett, says he hopes Purnell succeeds but does believe it’s going to be difficult.

“Chicago people would have liked some Chicago flavor,” says Carter, who believes every college program in the Chicago area would be wise to have at least one person from Chicago on its staff. “I think it will be tough but not impossible. It just may take longer than it could have. Purnell and DePaul just decided to take a different road.”

But didn’t we just go through this at DePaul? You know, the good guy who can coach but doesn’t have a staff with a pulse on Chicago recruiting? Nearly everyone agrees one of the fatal mistakes former coach Jerry Wainwright made when he took over DePaul was not having Chicago recruiting connections on his staff from the get-go. When it came to DePaul’s failures, it remained the one constant gripe, concern and excuse. Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto allowed Wainwright to stay on at DePaul after a winless Big East season, correct that fatal flaw (albeit too late) with the hiring of a completely new staff, which included hiring Thornton graduate and Chicago-connected Tracy Webster.

But now here DePaul is again, bringing in a head coach from Clemson with few established relationships in Chicago. Then it’s followed up by bringing two assistants from Clemson, who virtually no one in the Chicago area even knows.

This can’t be understated: It’s very tricky recruiting the Chicago area, particularly the city. It really does revolve around relationships, which sometimes takes a year or several years to develop and understand. I don’t envy the weight now on Garrett’s shoulders as the lone coach on staff who has any clue how Chicago recruiting works. And I don’t envy the newcomers who may very well be eaten up and spit out for a year or two while learning the dynamics of recruiting players in Illinois.

“It’s nothing personal towards Billy,” says Smith. “It’s the situation he’s now been put in. I’m not going to act like I like what is going on there. For me personally, I won’t deal with them. At the end of the day the decision comes down to the parents and their kid. They have the final say. But DePaul will have to do it on their own without any help from me.”

Head coaches want assistants who they can trust, are familiar and comfortable with. That is understandable. And that is what Purnell will have. Maybe this staff will be able to lure talent from outside the state. I think they’re going to have to–at least for the time being.

Mike Irvin of the loaded Mac Irvin Fire AAU program still can’t figure it out and believes DePaul lost out on an opportunity to hit it big quick.

“This definitely doesn’t make sense,” says Irvin of bringing in the Clemson assistants. “This program needs immediate results. Look at the 2011 class. It’s a loaded class with players that can play in the Big East and help DePaul. But they now have so much ground to make up and there just isn’t enough time.”

A well-connected father of a prominent high school player in the Chicago area told the Hoops Report, “If they would have kept Tracy [Webster] he would have gotten some players there.”

DePaul was a tough enough sell to area recruits due to recent failures on the floor, lack of media attention, dreadful off-campus Allstate Arena and other factors surrounding the program. Now, to top it off, the salesmen are out-of-town strangers who will have to work extra hard just to build relationships and get into the gyms they need to be in.

It’s impossible to place a timetable on how long it will take for this DePaul staff to navigate the city and suburbs. All I know is that the window on the remaining stars in the Class of 2011, just as Mike Irvin indicated, is closing. The Class of 2012 is very limited in terms of difference-making prospects and 2013 players still have three more seasons of high school ball left.

As previously stated in a blog, the first move on the very first day would have been to immediately make Tracy Webster feel wanted, needed and excited about the opportunity to stay on at DePaul. Who knows if Webster would have, in the end, taken Purnell up on the job if it would have been offered to him. But at least make it difficult for Webster to turn down. That did not happen. He is trusted and respected by high school and AAU coaches in the city and suburbs. He’s the one that has long-lasting relationships with not only these coaches but the kids as well.

And there were other terrific candidates out there, some of who I know were interviewed and some who, unbelievably, weren’t even contacted.

“There are so many coaches out there as assistants that we as coaches in the city respect and know, feel comfortable with and, in return, we give them everything they need,” Smith points out. “There are guys out there we have nothing bad to say about and DePaul didn’t even give them a chance.”

Lance Irvin, an assistant coach at Southern Illinois, along with young, energetic Armon Gates at Kent State were looked into by Purnell in the interview process but nothing came of it. Maybe Purnell could have gone and tried to blow away Nevada assistant Dennis Gates with an offer. Didn’t happen. There were a number of coaches who insisted Illinois State assistant coach Paris Parham would have been an ideal fit. The well-connected and highly respected Parham, who has endless ties to the city, wasn’t even contacted by Purnell. Up-and-coming Todd Townsend, in his first year at Northern Illinois, wasn’t either.

This is not a program death wish upon Purnell and DePaul. If the Blue Demons move into the top half of the Big East in the next few years the alumni, boosters and fans could care less if the players are from Marshall, Morgan Park, Aurora, Wisconsin, New York or Alaska. The Hoops Report and many other just believe DePaul could have hit a home run earlier rather than later — at least put them in position to have a chance to. As Carter noted, “Purnell and DePaul simply decided to take a different road.” Here’s hoping Purnell’s precarious road is a success.

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