Breaking down DePaul’s top coaching targets

There is an obvious target right in DePaul’s backyard: Loyola’s Porter Moser.

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Loyola coach Porter Moser watches from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Drake.

Loyola coach Porter Moser watches from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Drake.

AP Photos

DePaul hasn’t finished a regular season ranked since 1992.

The program hasn’t been to a NCAA Tournament since 2004 and has just two tournament appearances in 29 years.

And recently? The Blue Demons have had just one winning season in the last 14 years and a horrific 57-224 record in the Big East since joining the conference in 2005.

Go ahead and throw in a little NCAA probation in there with some pure irrelevancy and apathy along the way.

Something has to change.

With the firing of Dave Leitao as coach, it’s another opportunity for a reboot of a program that was a perennial winner and regular NCAA Tournament team from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s. But it’s now been nearly three decades since those glory days of DePaul basketball.

It’s not a real good look when the highlights of a program came decades ago. Plus, the view of DePaul basketball, particularly the potential of it after so many dismal years, is truly all over the place depending on who you talk with in the college game.

With a new president in place –– A. Gabriel Esteban was hired in 2017 –– and DeWayne Peevy hired from Kentucky as the new athletic director last September, DePaul will have a fresh start from top to bottom as it tries to recharge its signature sport.

The word –– and again, this is more the word than absolute fact –– is that DePaul is willing to pay and invest top dollar into its new head coach if it’s needed, that the money is there to try and make a splash. For the past several years Leitao had one of the the smallest compensation packages of any high-major head coach in the country.

But remember, DePaul signed Oliver Purnell to a seven-year contract worth an annual average of $2.2 million in 2010, which a decade ago was some very good money in the coaching market.

How much DePaul is willing to spend — or has to spend –– will depend on the target. But it appears they are willing to swing for the fences and have the financial resources to do so.

But there is an obvious target right in its back yard: Loyola’s Porter Moser.

Moser’s name was hot when he led Loyola to the Final Four in 2018. He flirted with St. John’s and UNLV and had opportunities to leave the program he built, But he was pulled back to a Loyola job where he was responsible for building the program from the ground up at a place he truly is passionate about in the city he loves.

But that spring of 2018, just as Moser hit the pinnacle, was one of the quietest coaching carousels we’ve seen in years. To his credit he’s kept Loyola relevant since and has put together another NCAA Tournament team this season, one that is ranked No. 18 in the country. Yes, that’s right. Loyola is ranked 18th in the final poll leading up to NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday.

Thus, Moser’s name is going to come up for many high-major vacancies.

All Moser has done in the last four seasons at Loyola is reach two NCAA Tournaments, including the magical Final Four run. There was also a trip to the NIT, no small feat for a Missouri Valley Conference school.

He’s compiled a record of 97-35 in those four years while going an eye-opening 56-16 in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Ramblers have won three of the last four Missouri Valley Conference regular season titles and a pair of conference tournaments.

That is what you call an established program and winning at a really high level.

But the Moser-DePaul fit goes beyond the recent and obvious successful numbers and accomplishments. There are the clear connections between the two jobs: both are private Catholic universities in Chicago with a need to know and understand the city and the Chicago area.

Born, raised and having worked here for so many years, Moser is familiar with the city and suburbs. Heck, Moser was a kid in the suburbs watching DePaul basketball during the Blue Demons’ heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

His personality would be different than either of what Purnell or Leitao brought to the table. You’re replacing laid back with life and energy. Fans, boosters and the media would know Moser much more on a personal level than any coach DePaul has had in the last several years. He’s full of personality and could sell a dilapidated basketball program with his real, down-to-earth excitement in his voice.

While college basketball fans don’t have this as a priority, college administrators sure don’t mind: Moser’s players graduate from college.

Moser is a tenacious recruiter. He communicates well and connects with the “basketball people,” a necessary trait for any top-notch recruiter. He’s built a network of relationships that he’s utilized locally in recruiting, forging relationships over the decades that will pay dividends now for DePaul.

Moser impresses in the living room and in the office with families and recruits on visits. His homework is done before he offers, because he invests so much of his own time.

There is definitely a hands-on approach to recruiting that Moser thrives on. He’s become so in-tune with what he’s looking for in the process of evaluating and recruiting players. You look at the Loyola teams he’s put together, and it’s easy to see he hasn’t wavered in trying to win with culture, recruiting winners with character and who fit the system and style he wants to play.

Oh, many coaches say those exact words repeatedly –– from the introductory press conference when they’re hired to the signing day press conferences announcing a recruiting class to the preseason media sessions at the start of each year. But many don’t follow it up or back it up.

But more than that is the fact that what the massive rebuild DePaul needs –– and coincidentally what Moser did when taking over the Loyola program a decade ago –– is exactly what should entice the DePaul administration the most in regard to Moser. This major rehab project in Lincoln Park will be no small chore, but Moser inherited one just like it a few miles north in Rogers Park a decade earlier.

When talking with coaches who had been in contact and even interviewed when the DePaul job has been open in the past, it was stated that the old DePaul administration failed to realize or understand what a massive rebuilding job the program needed. The overhaul was daunting in the eyes of coaching candidates but not understood by DePaul administration –– not with what it would take or how long.

Moser is familiar with a monumental rebuild. Loyola was at the bottom of the Horizon League when Moser took over in 2011. He promptly went 1-17 in his first season on the job. There was a subtle improvement in Moser’s second season and there was talent in place to begin the climb of competing in the Horizon League in year three.

However, Loyola made the move up to the Missouri Valley Conference in 2013-14, thus the rebuild was met with another significant hurdle.

It was one step forward, two steps back, but the grind continued. A new culture was established –– there is that magical word again –– money was invested in the program, and players not only bought in but believed what Moser had laid out for them. That happens when there are tangible results. And the end result as this 2020-21 season winds down is that this has been one of the best four-year runs a mid-major program could ever hope for.

But the coaching carousel in college basketball is a wild one and nothing is guaranteed. There is more than one candidate that can fix the DePaul mess, some better fits than others. A Moser hire, however, seems so clear and obvious.

But the search is fast and fluid, often changing by the hour. And with that here are several other potential names to consider at DePaul.

Kenny Payne, New York Knicks

There are too many ties to ignore this candidate, and the chatter within the industry has been that this just might be Payne’s job to turn down.

DePaul athletic director DeWayne Peevy came from Kentucky, where he was John Calipari’s right-hand man as the associate athletic director and as the basketball program’s team administrator. Payne spent 10 years at Kentucky with Calipari and Peevy before taking an assistant coaching job with the New York Knicks last year. Those ties are strong and real: Payne, Calipari and Peevy.

There was legitimate interest from Payne in the DePaul job as far back as 11 years ago as a Kentucky assistant, where he joined Calipari’s staff following five years at Oregon.

After spending 10 years at Kentucky, including six years as Calipari’s associate head coach, Payne took the job with the Knicks and coach Tom Thibodeau last August.

Payne is extremely connected to his former Kentucky players, a key factor in why the Knicks brought the veteran coach on board with so many former Wildcats as NBA stars. That may not mean much for DePaul. However, it does show the impact he has in recruiting players and the relationships he builds with them. He’s revered by many NBA players. Imagine maybe the Anthony Davis Camp at DePaul to amplify the program’s reputation?

Working under Thibodeau for a year has only enhanced his basketball acumen. And Calipari has so much respect for Payne that he has said publicly he would recommend Payne to be his successor at Kentucky if he were to ever leave.

According to a New York Daily News story, Payne’s salary with the Knicks is over $1.5 million, so if DePaul is serious the money should be no issue.

There will be a lot of instant noise surrounding Payne and DePaul. While the Calipari coaching tree has been lengthy, the success rate hasn’t been very high.

Dennis Gates, Cleveland State

DePaul would be a step up for Gates in every level and in every way, including pay. But he has already been mentioned as a candidate for other open jobs in high-major conferences, including Penn State.

Gates has lengthy ties to Chicago and would be coming home. He’s a Chicago native who won a state championship at Young in 1998 with former DePaul great Quentin Richardson. While there isn’t a whole lot on the head coaching résumé, he’s done a terrific job in two short seasons at Cleveland State.

This comes after spending eight successful years and playing an instrumental role under coach Leonard Hamilton at Florida State. Gates was a part of four NCAA Tournament teams at FSU, including an Elite Eight team in 2018 and a Sweet Sixteen team in 2019.

Cleveland State coach Dennis Gates celebrates with his team.

Cleveland State coach Dennis Gates celebrates with his team.

AP Photos

He’s in just his second season as head coach at Cleveland State. But the one-year turnaround is impressive. Gates is already a two-time Horizon League Coach of the Year. His teams pressure you, play extremely hard and play for him, which is a credit to Gates immediately being able to implement his style and buy-in.

Gates took over a struggling program with virtually no players and went 11-21 a year ago. This past season was a complete reversal as Gates led the Vikings to a 19-7 mark and a regular season Horizon League championship and conference tournament title. Now Cleveland State is headed to the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in program history.

Cleveland State is considered a very tough job. The fact Gates has done what he’s done in a short period of time is even more stunning.

But is DePaul in position at this particular time to hire an up-and-coming coach who has won a total of two Division I games outside of Horizon League play in his two-year career?

Jon Scheyer, Duke

If DePaul wants to go with someone who probably views the DePaul job as more of a dream job than many others, the associate head coach to Mike Krzyzewski is the guy.

There is significant name recognition locally. Scheyer, the Illinois prep basketball legend who led Glenbrook North to a state championship in 2005, knows Chicago and is familiar with the city and program. He has been involved with many recruitments of Chicago area high school stars in recent years.

The ultra-competitive Scheyer just completed his seventh season as an assistant at Duke and was promoted to associate head coach in 2018. He’s been a part of endless tournament runs and won a national championship as a player and as an assistant coach.

He’s been a monster in recruiting over the years in high-stakes, five-star recruitments. Last year he was the lead recruiter for all four of the program’s five-star prospects, including Young’s DJ Steward.

When talking with Scheyer there is a clear vision he has for when he does ultimately become a head coach. Krzyzewski has lamented before how Scheyer is “ready to be a head coach at the highest level” and that he is “another head coach within our program.”

Having Coach K, who has very strong ties in Chicago and is of the biggest basketball figures in the sport, in your corner can go a long way as well.

As the only assistant coach on this list, will a Kentucky guy hire a Duke guy?

Cuonzo Martin, Missouri

This would only be a target if DePaul was prepared to spend. And by spend we are talking in the $3 million-plus per year range as Martin currently makes roughly $3 million a year.

Martin has been a mover. He spent just three years each at Missouri State, Tennessee and California before spending the past four years at Mizzou. He has strong midwest ties and would be an solid hire at this point for DePaul. Martin would give Blue Demons basketball a presence, a highly respected man who is very well liked in coaching circles.

He built up Missouri State in his first job and has taken three different programs –– Tennessee, California and Missouri –– to the NCAA Tournament. He’s on the verge of taking Missouri to a second NCAA Tournament this season.

Martin brings an ideal mixture for DePaul as a proven, established head coach with an extended recruiting reach.

Frank Martin, South Carolina

This would be the big figure and big personality in the big city that DePaul could benefit from in its head coach. But has he won enough lately to excite DePaul fans and boosters?

If college basketball rumors and talk is to be believed, Martin turned down the DePaul job prior to Oliver Purnell taking it in 2011 when Martin was a hot coach at Kansas State.

Also, if rumors are to be believed, Martin wouldn’t mind getting out of South Carolina and South Carolina wouldn’t mind if Martin and his hefty $3 million-plus salary were to leave. A separation of the two may happen regardless as his job status appears to be tenuous.

The 54-year-old Martin has had an impressive climb in his career –– from high school basketball assistant coach to high school head coach to college assistant to college head coach.

While Martin guided Kansas State to three NCAA Tournament appearances and took South Carolina to one, he hasn’t led the Gamecocks to a tournament appearance since the Final Four run in 2017. Plus, he’s only had two 20-win seasons in his nine years in the SEC and is just 57-57 over the past four seasons.

Bobby Hurley, Arizona State

There have been rumors in the college basketball world that Hurley was one candidate DePaul had early interest in. But Hurley has been linked to other jobs in recent years as well, so maybe that goes with the territory here.

And again, this would need to be another financial investment for DePaul as Hurley is pretty well compensated at Arizona State.

Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley speaks with an official during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oregon.

Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley speaks with an official during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oregon.

AP Photos

Hurley’s Sun Devils have struggled this past season. But he’s recruited well to Tempe and has taken two ASU teams to the NCAA Tournament –– and may have secured a third bid if not for Covid last season. He also led Buffalo to the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15.

Hurley interviewed the last time DePaul had an opening.

Although Hurley signed an extension in 2019 through 2024, maybe he would want to stay ahead of the game in the cut-throat world of college basketball coaching hires and fires.

The DePaul job also gets Hurley a little closer to his East Coast ties as head coach of a Big East program. His brother, Danny Hurley, is the head coach at Connecticut.

Travis Ford, Saint Louis

Probably a long-shot and a different type of look for DePaul.

The 51-year-old Ford makes the list as a coach who has had some success, currently has his team on the verge of a NCAA Tournament bid and is likely attainable based on salary and the idea of making the jump from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East.

There is a total of 400-plus wins and 21 years of Division I head coaching experience with stops at Eastern Kentucky, UMass, Oklahoma State and Saint Louis.

The Billikens were rolling this season before COVID-19 created massive disruptions for this program. Nonetheless, SLU is 14-6 and on the NCAA Tournament bubble. That would make eight different teams Ford has guided to the NCAA Tournament in the last 17 years if the Billikens make the field this year.

Craig Smith, Utah State

From a regional standpoint, this one is outside the box. At first glance it might be odd to place a coach who has been at remote places like South Dakota and Utah State in the mix for an urban job like DePaul in the Big East. There just aren’t any real natural connections.

However, this is a fast-rising star in college coaching who started at the bottom –– his first head coaching job was at NAIA Mayville State in 2004 –– and has worked his way up. He’s proven himself at a pretty high level and is full of top-level energy, something this program needs an infusion of and fast.

Plus, Smith is accustomed to rebuilding jobs.

Smith won at a very tough job at South Dakota, winning 48 games in his last two years there, before getting the Utah State job in 2018. Utah State was a middle-of-the-road program for years before Smith won big in his three years there –– 28-7 in 2018-19, 26-8 in 2019-20 and currently 18-7 this shortened coronavirus pandemic season as a NCAA bubble team.

Niko Medved, Colorado State

See Craig Smith and repeat.

It’s a little off the beaten path for DePaul, but Medved has actually recruited the state of Illinois pretty hard over the years at various coaching stops. He’s landed Illinois prospects at each of his head coaching stops.

The 47-year-old Medved was just named the Mountain West Coach of the Year after guiding the Rams to a 17-4 record. In just three years he’s taken the program from the bottom half of the league to a NCAA bubble team.

Medved has been all about taking difficult jobs and building them.

While at Furman, he took over a team that was 7-24. By year four he took that downtrodden program and won 23 games –– the first 20-win season there in 26 years. He was then brought in to build Drake, which had back-to-back 7-24 seasons before his arrival. Medved won 17 games and tied for third in the Missouri Valley Conference in just one year before heading to Colorado State.

Joe Henricksen is a Sun-Times freelancer. He’s published the City/Suburban Hoops Report for 25 years. Nearly 200 colleges subscribe to the recruiting service.

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