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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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.

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