BY DAN McGRATH
For the Sun-Times
What 1985 is to Bears fans, 1979 is to DePaul followers, or what’s left of them.
That Super Bowl season and the haughtily imperious manner in which the Bears rolled through it deluded their fans into believing world dominance was the natural order. They spent the next several years convinced the Beloveds were only a player or two away from a return to glory, and nothing Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron or Lovie Smith did (or didn’t do) could disabuse them of the notion.
It took the multifaceted goofiness of Marc Trestman, aided and abetted by equally nutty Phil Emery, to impose a reality check. The 2014 Bears were a train wreck. Thus a new regime is in place at Halas Hall, following the most extensive organizational shakeup since 1974, when George and Muggs Halas ceded control of all things football to Jim Finks and asked that he make something of this mess their iconic franchise had become.
DePaul fans, or what’s left of them, have similarly misguided memories of 1979. Outside of the vaunted Bird-Magic matchup in the NCAA tournament title game, the Blue Demons’ run to the Final Four was the story of that season, the quaint little school under the el tracks finally getting a taste of the big time and rewarding coach Ray Meyer — America’s Grandfather — for a lifetime of noble service. Better yet, the star player was a local kid, dynamic freshman Mark Aguirre.
The Demons’ feel-good story ended with a two-point loss to Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in a national semifinal. They would remain an NCAA tournament fixture through the 1980s under Ray and Joey Meyer, and they were a success-starved city’s No. 1 winter-sports attraction until Michael Jordan arrived on the scene and changed everything.
But 36 years after the gritty Demons captivated the nation, that lone Final Four appearance remains the high-water mark for DePaul basketball.
There have been just four NCAA tournament appearances since the heady ’80s ended, none since 2004. The Demons have been through four coaches since dumping Joey Meyer in 1997; only one of them managed a winning record. The move to the Big East Conference, intended as an upgrade, has been an unmitigated disaster: one winning season in 10 years of membership and an overall record of 36-140, for a .204 winning percentage.
The conference lost some heft with the departure of UConn, Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh for more fertile football country, but newcomers Xavier, Butler and Creighton shot right by DePaul and into the NCAA tournament. The Demons, meanwhile, console themselves with knowing this season’s 6-12 Big East record matched their best since 2008 and represented progress.
Not enough to save Oliver Purnell’s job, but no one is calling that a bad thing.
Still, there’s a perception out there that DePaul is a “sleeping giant,” that the “right guy” will burst through the door with the next Aguirre in tow and round up enough local talent to restore the Demons to their rightful place in the top echelon of college hoops.
What nonsense. DePaul’s men’s program is an irrelevant mess and has been for a decade.
The best thing the new guy can do is blow it up and start over, and that’s after receiving a commitment from the administration that it will at least try to provide him with what he needs to succeed. DePaul boasts of having an equal-opportunity athletic program, but the sport that matters most shouldn’t have to relinquish gym time to all the others it’s responsible for funding.
And please, no more talk of hiring Aguirre or Rod Strickland — Rod Strickland??? — as a link to the glorious past. Tom Kleinschmidt would be a better choice; he has been coaching since he stopped playing and he remains a presence around Chicago.
Then again, the importance of local talent is overrated. There were five-Chicago-bred players in this season’s rotation and the Demons were as disjointed and dispirited as they’ve ever been, finishing with an eight-game losing streak. No wonder the “crowds” were non-existent. There’s a big gap between the Jabari Parker/Jahlil Okafor/Frank Kaminsky class and everybody else.
The next hire? I’m not much help because I’m not as attuned to college ball as I used to be — none of these AAU artisans can shoot or pass anymore, and too many sideline TV stars coach the life out of what used to be a beautiful game.
Besides, I had Iowa State in the Final Four. What do I know?