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Sports Saturday

Tony Stubblefield is on the clock. Will he make DePaul basketball matter again?

The Blue Demons are 6-0 heading into Saturday’s showdown against Loyola at Wintrust Arena. Here’s how their new coach got here — and why this might work.

Stubblefield during an upset win against Rutgers.
AP Photos

First-year DePaul men’s basketball coach Tony Stubblefield will turn 52 on March 28, a day after the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament is settled. Let’s go out on a limb and predict the Blue Demons won’t be preparing for the Final Four. DePaul hasn’t been in the tournament since 2004, after all, and has finished at the very bottom of the Big East in 10 of the last 12 seasons.

But Stubblefield sat in his office at the Sullivan Athletic Center office on Nov. 16 and ticked off all the reasons the future is bright. A fine university. A great recruiting base. Lincoln Park. Big East competition and exposure.

We’ve heard all that before, though, haven’t we? As if any of it amounted to squat for predecessors Dave Leitao, Oliver Purnell and Jerry Wainwright at an erstwhile hoops powerhouse that can’t even be labeled a laughingstock because that would mean people were at least paying attention.

Why should we believe it this time?

“I get the question,” Stubblefield said. “We’re going to work tirelessly to make this happen. Roll up our sleeves. I knew what I was getting into when I took the job and knew it was going to be a major challenge.”

The team had just ended a practice at center court, hands in the middle. “One, two, three — find a way!” the players yelled. It’s the new rallying cry for the Blue Demons, and they brought it to life two nights later against Rutgers — a tournament team last season, with nearly all its key pieces back — in a thrilling 73-70 victory at Wintrust Arena.

DePaul was without two of its rotation players against the Scarlet Knights. Its best player, Javon Freeman-Liberty, went all 40 minutes, with Brandon Johnson, Philmon Gebrewhit and David Jones taking only brief rests. But find a way, right? The Blue Demons, who were about as good in the clutch under Leitao as the old Washington Generals, scored on seven straight possessions down the stretch.

Now DePaul is 6-0 — look it up, it’s true — heading into a Saturday showdown against Loyola at Wintrust that’s being billed as the “Red Line Rivalry.” All aboard? If only. While the Ramblers are five years into a stellar run of success, the Blue Demons are buried deep on the pay-no-mind list. It’s on Stubblefield to make them matter again.

STUBBLEFIELD WAS 16 the first time someone used the word “coach” to describe him. Don Gruenwald, his high school coach in Clinton, Iowa, sensed it in the way the point guard played. Their conversations about the game planted the seeds as Gruenwald drove Stubblefield to camps all over the state.

At the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Stubblefield more than held his own on the court. But it was his first time not being the best player on a team. Thoughts of playing professionally faded as he spent college summers working — coaching kids for $200 a week — at camps at Iowa State, South Dakota, Creighton and the big Nebraska in Lincoln. On campus, he found he thoroughly enjoyed hosting high school players and their families on recruiting visits.

He was still a handful of credits shy of graduating when he ran out of eligibility, so he asked Omaha coach Bob Hanson if he could be a student assistant. Hanson replied, “What took you so long?”

Six schools — and nearly three decades — later, Stubblefield is at last behind the wheel of his own program. What took so long? He had opportunities, even a couple of offers, while at Oregon from 2010 to 2021, but he was Dana Altman’s ace recruiter and defensive architect and was compensated very well for it. In 2020, he was promoted to associate head coach.

“He had such a great job here that there were a lot of jobs I told him not to consider,” Altman said. “I felt if we kept winning, he eventually would get this type of opportunity at a school where he really had a chance to build something and there was a great commitment, like DePaul has.”

Stubblefield was DeWayne Peevy’s first big swing as DePaul’s athletic director. Hired last year from Kentucky, where he oversaw men’s basketball as deputy AD, Peevy hit the ground running and is paying more than lip service to the notion of a hoops renaissance in Lincoln Park. Boom or bust, the two are in the winning business together. So far, each has been roundly impressed with the other.

Know this: Peevy spoke with 37 applicants for the DePaul job. Seven had second interviews. Only one of them got an offer.

LANDING THE DEPAUL JOB was kind of an upset. For one thing, Peevy and Stubblefield had never previously met. But there were all kinds of coincidences. For example, Danny Young, the coach at the University of Montevallo — Peevy’s alma mater — was on the staff at Omaha as Stubblefield embarked on his own coaching career. Kenny Payne, a Kentucky assistant who became John Calipari’s right-hand man and associate coach, had a six-year run at Oregon that ended the same offseason Stubblefield arrived there. Oregon athletic director Rod Mullens, senior women’s administrator Lisa Peterson and equipment manager Pooh Wasson had all worked with Peevy at Kentucky.

Oregon v Washington
Stubblefield with Altman at Oregon.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Suffice it to say, after Peevy received positive word about Stubblefield from Mullens and former longtime college coach George Raveling during the initial search process, there were other contacts he could go to for background. But Peevy had given the search firm DHR Global a list of 20 potential candidates, five of whom were associate head coaches. There would be a lot to sift through.

Stubblefield’s first interview with Peevy was on Zoom and lasted about half an hour. It was long enough to put him on the AD’s short list.

“I really liked Tony,” Peevy said. “I could see why he was a good recruiter. I could see why so many people I asked about him swore by him and felt they really knew him. This was a relationship guy, for sure.”

Peevy wanted to meet with Stubblefield in person, but Oregon was in the NCAA Tournament bubble in Indianapolis. Peevy became increasingly concerned about candidates — particularly those whose seasons were over — being snapped up by other schools, but Glen Sugiyama at DHR encouraged him to hold off until the second weekend of the tournament passed before pulling the trigger on anyone. So Peevy did what any good AD would do: He rooted against the Ducks.

“I didn’t know how long this was going to go,” he said, laughing.

It ended on a Sweet 16 Sunday, with the Ducks losing to USC in a game that began at 9:45 p.m. Eastern time. Stubblefield sent Peevy a late-night text about possibly driving up to Chicago the next morning, but Oregon’s flight was bright and early and the logistics couldn’t come together. By the time Stubblefield deplaned in Eugene at 2:20 p.m. Pacific time, though, he had a message: Turn around. He was back on a plane at 3:50 and didn’t land at O’Hare until after midnight.

“I was tired,” he said, “but, hey, it was well worth being tired.”

He was nervous, too. He wanted the job. And Tuesday morning with Peevy, he just about nailed it. The second interview was all about X’s and O’s, breaking down Big East foes and laying out in-game strategy. According to Peevy, Stubblefield was second-best at this out of the seven who made it to Round 2. He’d already had the best Round 1 of anyone.

“It really resonated that he wasn’t just a relationship person, wasn’t just a recruiter, wasn’t just a good guy,” Peevy said. “I walked away from that knowing he really knows about basketball.”

Peevy didn’t extend an offer that day, but he knew he’d found his man and would hold no other interviews.

ANY GOOD COACH takes something from every job experience. The coaches Stubblefield worked for included Lou Henson at New Mexico State, Mick Cronin at Cincinnati and Altman. That’s a formidable trio.

What sticks with Stubblefield about Henson is the late 779-game winner’s kindness.

“Lou was such a great person,” he said. “The way he treated people, from the cafeteria cooks to the janitors to the president of the university, was exactly the same. I learned so much on and off the court from Lou.”

Cronin, now a big shot at UCLA, inherited one scholarship player when he took over at Cincinnati.

“He showed me how to get a program back on track,” Stubblefield said. “That’s recruiting, defending, how hard you’ve got to play, how hard you’ve got to prepare.”

From Altman, he learned the importance of staying on an even keel and grooming a team to play its best ball in February and March.

“Never too high, never too low,” Stubblefield said. “You win a couple big games, we’re not getting too high because we’ve got the next one. You lose a couple, it’s OK because we’ve got the next one.”

Add all of that to Stubblefield’s gift for connecting, and DePaul might really have something here.

“If he’s talking to you,” radio play-by-play announcer Zach Zaidman said, “you feel like you’re the most important person in the world at that moment.”

Chris Duarte is off to an outstanding start as a rookie with the NBA’s Pacers. The Oregon alum doesn’t believe it would have happened without Stubblefield, who successfully recruited the nation’s junior-college player of the year and then, over two years in Eugene, never stopped trying to make him better.

“Even when I played good, it was, ‘Come on, Chris, you got more in your tank, my man. You gotta go harder,’ ” Duarte said. “He was always pushing me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.

“He was always being real with me. He used to get on my ass, too, in practice, during games. He was always straight-up with me about the things I was doing wrong and the things I was doing good — and cursing me out if he had to. Believe me, sometimes he had to.”

But it wasn’t just a matter of words. As Duarte headed into his senior year, determined to work harder than ever, Stubblefield told him he’d meet him every morning at 8 and train him 1-on-1. So that’s what they did.

“We still talk almost every two days, you know,” Duarte said. “He’s watching my games. He says, ‘Keep doing your thing. Make sure you play hard and listen.’ He’s always giving me the best advice.”

Freeman-Liberty had to be re-recruited by Stubblefield, who handled it seamlessly.
AP Photos

All Freeman-Liberty is doing this season is leading the Blue Demons in points, rebounds, assists, steals and minutes played. They’d be lost without the former Valparaiso transfer. In order to stay put, he had to be re-recruited. Stubblefield handled it beautifully.

“It just felt like he was always there for me,” Freeman-Liberty said. “I felt like we had that connection.”

AS HE WATCHED REPLAYS of the late stages of DePaul’s upset of Rutgers, Altman was both pleased and impressed. There were elements he recognized from Oregon’s current bag of tricks — such as the first-cutter fade that got Jones wide open for a three-point dagger — and other things the Ducks had tinkered with over the years.

“Heck,” Altman said, “they were running some stuff that we tried to do offensively better than we ever thought about running it.”

The best part for anyone watching the Blue Demons that night was that they appeared to know what they were doing. That hasn’t always been the case.

“I feel like [Stubblefield] brought a good change of coaching,” Freeman-Liberty said. “And I say that because last year’s team, we were missing a lot of discipline, a lot of, like, focus, in close games, finishing the close games. … In a lot of situations, we didn’t know who would have the ball, what we were supposed to do. But I just feel like this is different with Coach Stubbs. … Everybody knows their role with him. Every day at practice, he makes sure everybody is in the right spots and doing what they’re supposed to do. If they’re not, it’s a tough time for them.”

Find a way? Sometimes a foot in the rear end is the way. Other times it’s a hug. It can also be the perfect X’s and O’s or an inspiring display of energy. Stubblefield’s energy is a thing everyone who knows him talks about. Have you heard of another coach who’s in the weight room 45 minutes before a game? DePaul’s players see that and, frankly, kind of love it.

“He’s a little older, but he’s young,” Altman said. “He’s got 20 years left.”

Stubblefield imagines DePaul five years down the road as the type of program that’s expected to go to the Big Dance and win some games. We’ve heard that kind of talk before, though, haven’t we? But maybe this time is different. Maybe this guy is different.

All aboard? Maybe, just maybe, soon enough.