BY NEIL HAYES
For the Sun-Times
DePaul doesn’t have to draw top-tier talent from the Chicago area. If the Blue Demons can lure second- and third-tier players, the long-awaited renaissance will begin.
School administrators can learn from the only academic All-American in program history. Stephen Howard is an ESPN college basketball analyst and New Orleans Pelicans studio analyst. He’s a motivational speaker who is wrapping up his first book and stalking another.
He has insights into the game that could benefit a once-proud program lost on the great lake of irrelevancy.
‘‘Now every kid is focused on playing in the NBA and college is more of a platform to propel yourself to the NBA,” he said. ‘‘If a college is going to get top-tier talent, kids have to think you’re a vehicle for that. Nobody has done that better than [coach John] Calipari and Kentucky. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to be successful.
‘‘In Chicago, there’s enough talented second- and third-tier players. If DePaul can start getting those guys, they would immediately start moving up.”
Howard thinks his alma mater should hire a coach with national exposure and NBA credibility, someone who understands DePaul and young athletes today.
‘‘Tyrone Corbin is interested in the job and I think he would be a great fit,” Howard said. ‘‘He’s a former head coach in the NBA and part of the heyday of DePaul University. With him involved, it would be easy to create a marketing campaign describing where DePaul was when he was there and how he’s going to take them back there. That will create a buzz and a feeling of nostalgia.”
Former DePaul and NBA star Mark Aguirre is also interested in the position, according to sources, but lacks the experience of Corbin, who spent four years in Utah after replacing Jerry Sloan as Jazz coach. Last month, he was fired as head coach of the Kings, although management later acknowledged that they had put him in an impossible situation in Sacramento.
‘‘Especially with where DePaul is right now, to entrust the program to someone who has never been a head coach is a hard sell,” Howard said. ‘‘I don’t see that happening. I would be shocked even if a college assistant coach was hired. They’re going to go with someone with established head-coaching experience.”
Howard remembers playing in the NBA Finals against the Bulls in 1997 and also playing in front of 200 people in Saudi Arabia during a 15-year professional career that included four seasons in the NBA. He also played in Italy, France, Asia and the Middle East and never had more than a one-year contract.
Now he and close friend and former DePaul teammate David Booth, who serves as the New Orleans Pelicans director of player personnel, are watching from ground zero as South Side native Anthony Davis develops into one of the most dominating players in the NBA.
‘‘I would liken it to watching the beginning stages of a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James, a Shaq or a Kobe where you get to see the evolution of a superstar,” Howard said. ‘‘By no means am I comparing him to Jordan but much like Jordan what he is doing has never been done in the NBA. In every game almost, he breaks new ground and does something different and you wonder what he’s going to be able to accomplish. I truly believe if the Pelicans had a better record and were in the fourth slot in the West, it would be difficult to keep him from being MVP.”
Howard lives in his hometown of Dallas and is helping raise two daughters. He has written a success guide for high school and college athletes that he will publish this summer and plans to start work on a history of DePaul.
He hopes the basketball program is in a better place by then.
‘‘You have all that talent from Chicago and the surrounding areas and that’s a basketball hotbed,” he said. ‘‘You start getting a couple players and creating a buzz and it could definitely be a powerhouse.
‘‘Even as competitive as the Big East is, and especially with the new arena, they could be a sleeping giant.
“I don’t think it’s easy job, evidenced by last two coaches who haven’t been successful. That’s why they need someone with ties to university who has more of a vested interest.”
Contact Neil Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org or at neilhayeswriter.com