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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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."

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