DePaul's men's basketball team on the rebound | Feature | Chicago Reader

DePaul's men's basketball team on the rebound 

The once-successful Blue Demons helped transform DePaul from the little school under the el to the largest Catholic university in the country. Can DePaul now help the team recover some of its fading glory?

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Blue Demons point guard Brandon Young, left, is known for playing fearlessly. Center Donnavan Kirk, who was out for a large chunk of last season, is an elite shot blocker.

Blue Demons point guard Brandon Young, left, is known for playing fearlessly. Center Donnavan Kirk, who was out for a large chunk of last season, is an elite shot blocker.

Steve Woltmann/DePaul

Dave Corzine is legitimately excited about the future of the DePaul University men's basketball program. This is a new development.

Sitting along press row at a game in late December, the affable former Blue Demons star and 12-year NBA mainstay, with a giant tan blazer draped over his 6'11" frame, observes a team with potential—10-5 through January 6. The Demons' director of community outreach since 2008, he also knows his bosses in the athletic department are keen on reshaping the team in a way that recaptures some of its past glory. "I think all the stars are lining up right now for us to really establish ourselves," he says.

Chicagoans have a right to be skeptical of Corzine's sanguine prediction. After all, it's been decades since the city's only major-conference college hoops team was nationally relevant. The Blue Demons haven't registered a winning season in five years, and they've won just a single NCAA tournament contest since 1991. The team plays its home games at Rosemont's Allstate Arena, an antiseptic gym that overlooks I-90 and not much else. The building—more than 15 miles from the school's Lincoln Park campus—officially seats 18,500 people, though far fewer stream in when DePaul suits up. Those that do are primarily dads and children, most of whom seem more interested in the T-shirt toss than the pick-and-roll. Public-address announcements echo off the wooden ceiling and settle in the vacant upper deck. Beer vendors circulate aimlessly through empty blue rows in search of customers. The energy that makes college basketball so captivating is mostly absent.

Still, advanced stats suggest this year's squad has more experience and defensive mettle than any in recent years—certainly since Oliver Purnell took over three seasons ago as coach. And if history is a reliable guide, DePaul is due for its long-anticipated resurgence.

Once in a generation, DePaul fields a men's basketball team capable of beating any rival in the country. The program first made a name for itself nationally in the early 1940s with the arrival of the M and M Boys, player George Mikan and coach Ray Meyer. Both grew up humbly—Mikan in Joliet, the son of a tavern owner, and Meyer on Chicago's west side, the youngest of ten children born to a candy wholesaler. Both came to DePaul in 1942 with modest expectations. Meyer, who was a star player at Notre Dame and later joined its staff as an assistant coach, signed only a one-year contract at DePaul because, as he wrote in his 1987 autobiography, Coach, "I didn't know if I'd like the job or profession." Mikan, who didn't even play basketball during his freshman year, was a gangly prelaw student in horn-rimmed glasses; the 6'10" would-be center possessed almost no natural aptitude for basketball.

During their first few months together, the pair worked tirelessly in the gym. Mikan—who traveled 70 miles round-trip from Joliet by bus every day—would take 300 shots with each hand. He skipped rope, played catch with medicine balls, and ran with the track team. To improve his hand-eye coordination, Meyer made him practice what came to be known as the Mikan Drill. While standing underneath the rim, Mikan pushed off his left foot and shot with his right hand, caught the ball as it fell through the net, then pushed off his right foot and shot with his left, over and over and over again. After workouts, the 28-year-old coach would sweep the gym floor himself and Mikan would return to Joliet to study and work a shift behind his family's bar. "I was the slave driver," Meyer later wrote, impolitely, "and he was a willing slave."

The preparation paid off. During Mikan's three seasons in the Blue and Red, DePaul won 62 games and dropped just 12. Under Meyer, the team never lost at the DePaul Auditorium, a tiny former theater on Belden and Sheffield—nicknamed the Old Barn—where the Demons played a majority of their home games. Mikan earned first-team All-American honors three straight seasons and was named National Player of the Year in 1944 and 1945, tallying over 23 points per game both years. DePaul reached the Final Four in 1943 and, two years later, steamrolled three opponents to claim the prestigious National Invitational Tournament title at Madison Square Garden. Mikan scored 120 in that tournament, including a 53-point outburst in the semifinal against Rhode Island State. No man so tall had ever played so skillfully; the Associated Press would eventually name him the greatest basketball player in the first half of the 20th century. Riding Mikan's long coattails, Meyer quickly built a reputation as one of the best young coaches in America.

Winning games, however, would prove more difficult for Meyer without a dominant physical specimen occupying the paint. Part of the challenge was simply convincing skilled players to attend DePaul. The school, opened by the Vincentian Fathers in 1898, catered to commuters interested in law and accounting, most of whom lived in the city's working- and middle-class neighborhoods and attended classes at night. Its endowment was measly; the administration scraped by mostly on tuition, fees, and whatever the priests could raise on the side. There wasn't even a school cafeteria on campus, so Meyer couldn't offer scholarships with room and board. "A lot of those guys [from the 1950s and '60s] were just playing in the gym," says Corzine, "and Coach Ray pulled them onto the team." Basketball was an afterthought.

The depth of talent in the Chicago area, combined with Meyer's work ethic, ensured that the Blue Demons remained moderately competitive most seasons. Every so often, they even trotted out a team with serious title aspirations. Meyer's 1963-'64 squad, for instance, won 12 straight games to start the season before star guard Emmette Bryant—a fantastic dribbler from the west side—broke his leg against Indiana, derailing hopes of a second NIT championship. But as the college game changed dramatically, with desegregation, an influx of television money, and the advent of national recruiting, it took DePaul's old-school coach time to adjust. "There was no such thing as getting by on coaching," he wrote in Coach. "Any team that didn't have talent would lose."

A few months after the 1971 season concluded, DePaul’s vice president for student affairs prepared a report for the board of trustees recommending they strongly consider either dropping to Division II or abolishing the team entirely. Instead, they gave Meyer additional cash to hire two full-time assistant coaches and a three-year window to provide a reasonable return on their new investment. It turned out to be one of the most profitable decisions the school ever made.

The Blue Demons counted themselves among the talentless more years than they'd have liked. Between 1946 and 1976, DePaul appeared in only 11 postseason tournaments, winning just six total games. Enthusiasm waned; crowds at Alumni Hall—a snug, 5,308-seat, on-campus arena—were sparse enough that a New York Times reporter once spotted a man changing his son's diapers during a game. ("No one nearby was offended," the Times wrote, "because no one was nearby.") The program hit its nadir in 1971, a year in which Meyer's squad finished a lowly 8-17. A few months after the season concluded, the school's vice president for student affairs prepared a report for the board of trustees recommending they strongly consider either dropping to Division II or abolishing the team entirely. Instead, they gave Meyer additional cash to hire two full-time assistant coaches (his first two ever) and a three-year window to provide a reasonable return on their new investment. It turned out to be one of the most profitable decisions the school ever made.

Meyer immediately hired his son Joey, the team's point guard the year before, to serve as his top assistant and chief recruiter. Joey barnstormed the city, selling to local hoopers his school's homey atmosphere and commitment to playing top-notch opponents. "At the time, if you wanted a kid, there were no rules saying you couldn't move in next door to him," Corzine says. "So that's basically what Joey did."

Inking Corzine—the program's tallest player since Mikan—was Joey's first recruiting coup. A "college center with counterculture proclivities," as Sports Illustrated delicately described him, the Arlington Heights native barely knew DePaul existed until his high school teammate Andy Pancratz enrolled two years before he did. "I couldn't understand," he says now, "why somebody wanted to come to some little school in the middle of the city nobody had ever heard of." But the Meyers leaned on him hard, promising playing time and a training regimen identical to what Mikan used. Corzine signed in 1974.

The next year, the school brought in Gene Sullivan to serve as athletic director. Sullivan, who didn't always see eye-to-eye with Coach Ray, signed a substantial contract to broadcast games on television and the radio, gussied up Alumni Hall, and beefed up DePaul's already-challenging schedule. It was just what DePaul needed to revitalize its national image—and regain momentum. From 1975 to 1978, the school won 77 games and reached the NCAA regionals twice. In his senior year, Corzine scored 21 points, corralled 11 rebounds per game, and led the Blue Demons to a 27-3 record, their best finish since World War II.

That momentum was crucial for Joey Meyer as he pitched his program to Mark Aguirre, a pudgy 6'6" phenom from Chicago's Westinghouse High. Aguirre enrolled in 1978 and proceeded to dominate the college game for three full seasons. In his freshman campaign, the west-sider averaged 24 points and spearheaded a team that won 26 times and earned a Final Four berth, upending rival Marquette and powerhouse UCLA in the NCAA tournament before losing a two-point heartbreaker to Larry Bird and Indiana State. With the help of fellow Chicago recruit Terry Cummings, DePaul rattled off 25 straight wins to start the 1980 season, climbing to the top spot in the AP rankings for the first time in school history. (Aguirre, who averaged 27 points and seven rebounds, was named the National Player of the Year.) It's a position they would hold for much of 1981 too, finishing the regular season with 27 wins and only one loss. Even though Coach Meyer's teams endured two consecutive early upsets in postseason play, Chicago had caught Demon fever. By March 1981, 14,000 fans had purchased season tickets at the spacious Rosemont Horizon, the program's new home. The building was packed to capacity constantly, and fans were rewarded for their ardor; between 1977 and 1984, Coach Meyer's 42nd and final season on the bench, DePaul boasted the country's best winning percentage (.857).

Success on the hardwood, meanwhile, led directly to the school's ambitious expansion, one it's still undergoing today. In 1983, Dean Richard Meister put together a proposal to strengthen DePaul's liberal arts program, listing "name recognition because of basketball" as a chief selling point. Over the next five years, the administration raised $50 million from newly proud alumni and used the money to construct dorms as well as a new library, admissions office, and recreation center. Applications poured in. With 25,000 students, DePaul is now the largest Catholic university in the United States. Were it not for Mikan, Aguirre, and the Meyers, it'd still be a little school under the el.

Oliver Purnell stalks the sidelines of the Allstate Arena dreaming of another DePaul resurgence. It's that prospect that drew the veteran head coach—now in his 25th season as a Division I front man—to Chicago almost three years ago. Purnell is a fixer; the 59-year-old Maryland native, whose bald head and deep-set eyes lend him a natural hangdog look, has taken four different schools seen as traditional doormats and transformed them into winning ball clubs. "I'm drawn to the challenge of building something where there are tremendous resources," he says, "and when people are committed and have a burning desire to win."

"I'm drawn to the challenge of building something where there are tremendous resources and when people are committed and have a burning desire to win." —Blue Demons coach Oliver Purnell

Restoring the Blue Demons to their former glory, Purnell admits, is a particularly tall task. "When you take over a program that's down, generally speaking, it's a fractured program," he says. "You've got kids exhibiting behavior that's not winning behavior. Things were not in good shape [when I arrived], clearly."

That's putting it lightly. DePaul's modern struggles started in 1994 after a multiyear university investigation proved Joey Meyer—who inherited the head job from his dad—had not properly monitored the activities of bank executive Jeffrey Tassani, a booster who for four years provided players and their families with meals, lodging, and other illicit benefits. Meyer was banned from off-campus recruiting for a year, among other sanctions, and the next several Blue Demons teams scuffled, including a dismal 3-23 season in 1997 in which they closed the year on a 13-game losing streak. Meyer was ingloriously canned.

Fans received a brief respite from misery when the school signed, in 1998, a vaunted recruiting class consisting of three Chicago Public League products, including future NBA players Quentin Richardson and Bobby Simmons. The excitement was short-lived; the athletic youngsters qualified for the NCAA tournament in their second season on campus but lost in the first round before Richardson bolted for the pros, leaving then-coach Pat Kennedy without a bona fide star. It's been grisly ever since. After joining the competitive Big East Conference in 2005-'06, a move the athletic department hoped would broaden the school's recruiting base, DePaul has notched only one winning season. In the last four years, they've claimed victory in just five total regular-season conference tilts, losing a depressing 24 straight between January 2010 and February 2011. "There are going to be a lot of prayers going up there for wins," joked Reverend John Minogue, DePaul's former president, when the school announced its decision to enter the Catholic-heavy Big East a decade ago. God, evidently, hasn't answered any from Chicago.

The problems are myriad, and they feed off each other. DePaul's athletic department spends considerably less on basketball than its major-conference counterparts. The inconvenient location and overwhelming size of the Allstate Arena provide a limited home-court advantage. DePaul coaches have failed to persuade blue-ribbon recruits from the city and its suburbs to don the Blue and Red, from Terry Cummings's son T.J. (UCLA) and St. Joseph's star Evan Turner (Ohio State) to top NBA draftees Anthony Davis (Kentucky) and Derrick Rose (Memphis). Most fans, in turn, have lost interest in the program.

Strengthening DePaul's connection to Chicago was one of Purnell's early priorities; he reached out repeatedly to local high schools and AAU coaches while helping craft a marketing campaign that promotes DePaul as "Chicago's college basketball team." On the court, he implemented an up-tempo system in which his players launch into a full-court press after scoring and run the floor as soon as they come down with a defensive rebound or create a turnover. (Through early January, when this story went to press, DePaul has played faster than all but six DI teams.) It's frantic and exciting as hell to watch.

Purnell's team this season isn't perfect, but it's the best he's had since he got to DePaul. The keystones are Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young, two juniors from Baltimore. Melvin is a sturdy yet springy 6'8" forward with square features, a wispy mustache, and a nose for the ball. He was a second-team All-Big East member last year, averaging 17.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, and can embarrass smaller defenders in the post. Young, a broad-shouldered lefty point guard, plays fearlessly and can find open teammates in transition, dishing out assists on 30 percent of DePaul's field goals while he's on the floor. Through the first two months of the season, both were shooting the ball more efficiently than they did as sophomores, a promising sign for two players who use a high percentage of their team's possessions. "I feel more comfortable now than I did the past two years," says Melvin. "My teammates are finding me more, too."

As a group, the Blue Demons have worked to improve their half-court defense and defensive rebounding, two areas that killed them during Big East play a year ago. (Conference opponents made a robust 53.7 percent of their two-point shots against DePaul in 2011-'12.) The return of center Donnavan Kirk, an elite shot blocker who missed a large chunk of last season with a back injury, has helped fortify a thin front line. The team isn't a title contender yet; dropping winnable games at home to Gardner-Webb and Loyola-Chicago proved that. But through December, Purnell's squad is forcing more turnovers and snagging more rebounds than at any time since the new regime took over. And they're finally playing as a team, as evidenced by a seven-game win streak between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Says Young: "We learned how to play with each other. We're out there on the court talking to each other, and just playing the game the right way."

Because their conference schedule is so demanding, the Blue Demons will need a few lucky bounces to break the school's NCAA tournament drought. But it's undoubtedly a team goal. "I just want one," says Melvin. Purnell will settle for a modest improvement over last season's 12-19 mark. "Right now, what we're trying to do is to get up into the middle of the Big East," he says. "A middle-of-the-road team in the Big East has a chance to win the national championship."

Moving forward, the coaching staff needs to reconstruct its Public League-to-DePaul pipeline. They've already received a commitment for next year from four-star recruit Billy Garrett Jr., a big point guard out of Morgan Park High School. (Billy Garrett Sr. is a member of Purnell's staff.) Signing any one of four touted high school juniors to whom they've extended scholarship offers—Whitney Young's Paul White and Jahlil Okafor, Morgan Park's Josh Cunningham, or Curie's Cliff Alexander—would signal that the Demons' local image is changing.

Where they'll play and whom they'll play against are the other major questions hanging over the program. This past May, the university's board of trustees made explicit its desire to move home games back into Chicago. The board has already received overtures from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the agency that owns McCormick Place, to build a gym on the near-south side that would host the Blue Demons full-time. In late November, Crain's reported that the owners of the United Center—hoping to stave off competition for concert and convention business—have offered DePaul ten years of free rent, along with other perks, to play at the Bulls' home floor on West Madison Street. DePaul's current contract at the Allstate Arena runs through 2015.

The Big East's seven Catholic schools, meanwhile, are making plans this month to leave the conference entirely and start their own league, likely after the 2014 season. The conference's existing expansion plans, designed to maximize revenue from football, didn't appeal to DePaul and its basketball-focused peers, who would be forced to travel farther to play worse opponents. Purnell is "tremendously excited" about the stadium and conference realignment discussions. "They speak," he says, "to an exciting new era in DePaul basketball."

The loyal fans who organize DePaul's student section agree. Thomas Gutheil, a sophomore marketing major, says the die-hards are making T-shirts, papering the campus with flyers, and organizing barbecues in an effort to convince more students to ride up north for games. "If we even have one winning season," adds senior Dustin Ruttenberg, "that would be enough to generate some buzz."

Finding the next Mikan or Aguirre would help, too.

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