Chasing Ghosts: DePaul's sad journey from name brand to also-ran

ESPN

Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the "Chasing Ghosts" series continues with the DePaul Blue Demons, who were a college basketball heavyweight under the legendary Ray Meyer but have reached the NCAA tournament just twice in the past 26 seasons.

History | Roundtable: What's wrong with DePaul?
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV | Indiana | St. John's | North Carolina | Arkansas | NC State


DePaul Blue Demons

Icon: Ray Meyer

Seasons coached: 1942-1984
Key accomplishments: 724-354 (.672) record, 13 NCAA tournaments, 2 Final Fours (1943, 1979), 1 NIT championship (1945)

"We could outwork those other schools for the local kids. When Joey [Meyer] was recruiting for me, you could go to Mark Aguirre's house every day. Now you can't." -- Ray Meyer, to the Chicago Tribune in 1996.

"The university, the program, the history and tradition deserves a great DePaul team. We got it there, but we couldn't maintain it. That was something that was hard for me to live with." -- Pat Kennedy, upon his 2002 resignation.

"Ultimately I guess I had to do it quicker, but I truly believe the process is more important than the result. I'll always believe that. A lot of houses have collapsed because they had bad foundations.'' -- Jerry Wainwright, to the Chicago Tribune after his 2010 firing.

"I think we are constantly building. I don't know about a rebuild. I don't know what that means." -- DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, to The DePaulia in May.


Ranking the Ray Meyer chasers

6. Tracy Webster (interim, 2010), 1-15 (.063) -- Webster was left to oversee the embers of the Jerry Wainwright era, managing to end the team's 24-game Big East losing streak in spectacular fashion over Buzz Williams and rival Marquette, but not winning again during his brief time in charge. Webster subsequently served as an assistant coach at Nebraska, Tennessee and Cal.

5. Oliver Purnell (2010-15), 54-105 (.340) -- Purnell looked like a solid hire when he was brought in as the permanent replacement to Jerry Wainwright in 2010. He'd guided three programs to the NCAA tournament (Old Dominion, Dayton, Clemson) and was coming off three straight tourney appearances with the Tigers. He'd carved out a commendable level of success with a non-traditional power in an extremely difficult league, which was exactly what was being asked of him at DePaul. But Purnell never figured it out in Lincoln Park. He went 15-75 in Big East play over his five seasons, and never won more than 12 games in a campaign. A lack of momentum on the recruiting front -- particularly in Chicago, where he never secured a commitment of note -- helped define the Purnell era, which ended when he resigned after a 12-20 campaign in 2014-15.

4. Jerry Wainwright (2005-10), 59-80 (.424) -- It's a low bar to clear, but Wainwright still owns the best season of DePaul's Big East era (2005-present). The 2006-07 team led by future pro Wilson Chandler won 20 games under the former Richmond and UNC Wilmington coach, including a 9-7 mark in the Big East (the program's only winning season to date in Big East play), and reached the NIT quarterfinals. Otherwise, there were not a lot of positives here. Wainwright couldn't attract enough talent in a pre-realignment Big East that still included heavyweights like Syracuse, Louisville, UConn, Cincinnati and West Virginia. Days after he broke his leg in a sideline collision with a player, DePaul pulled the plug on the Wainwright era after the program's 22nd consecutive conference loss. Wainwright is currently an assistant coach at Tulsa under Frank Haith.

3. Pat Kennedy (1997-2002), 67-85 (.441), 1 NCAA tournament -- Kennedy arrived at DePaul from Florida State, where he'd made five NCAA tournaments with the likes of Sam Cassell, Charlie Ward and Bob Sura but had fizzled out near the end of his tenure. Kennedy recruited well to start at DePaul, and had the Blue Demons in the NCAA tournament by his third season with top recruits such as Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons and Steven Hunter. But Kennedy's program fell apart thereafter, with the academic suspension of two starters and dwindling attendance coalescing during a 9-19 season in 2001-02 that prompted Kennedy's resignation. Kennedy subsequently coached at Montana, Towson and Division II Pace University, but never again posted a winning season after departing DePaul.

2. Dave Leitao (2002-05, 2015-present), 106-116 (.477), 1 NCAA tournament -- Leitao, a player and longtime assistant under Jim Calhoun, remains the most recent coach to guide DePaul to the NCAA tournament. He did it with the 2003-04 group, engineering a Round of 64 win over Dayton that signaled the Blue Demons program was headed in the right direction. But Leitao would be gone a little more than a year later, hired away by Virginia where his legacy would endure as "the guy who preceded Tony Bennett." Then, 10 years after he'd left Lincoln Park, Leitao was back, rehired to succeed Oliver Purnell after the Blue Demons flirted with the likes of Bobby Hurley and Bryce Drew.

Headed into the fifth season of his second run, Leitao has DePaul trending toward respectability. The program's 7-11 Big East record in 2018-19 was its best in 12 years, and the Blue Demons reached the finals of the College Basketball Invitational in April, falling to South Florida. The team loses its top three scorers, but Leitao has a quartet of four-star recruits on the way, highlighted by a top-50 player in Romeo Weems.

There has been some smoke around DePaul and the FBI probe. The father of former recruit Brian Bowen III testified in federal court in 2018 that he received illicit payments from current Blue Demons assistants Shane Heirman (Bowen's former high school coach) and Tim Anderson (Bowen's former AAU coach). But like most schools connected to the probe, DePaul has not acted remotely concerned by the allegations (Heirman and Anderson remain on staff) or the NCAA's ability/intention to penalize the program via the enforcement process. Unless that view changes, Leitao's primary job will be to continue making progress on the court, and there's reason to expect that he will.

1. Joey Meyer (1984-97), 231-158 (.594), 7 NCAA tournaments -- After playing at DePaul and sitting beside his father for a decade as an assistant, the younger Meyer was elevated to the top role upon Ray's retirement in 1984. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that Joey knew what he was doing -- the Blue Demons made the NCAA tournament in seven of his first eight seasons on the job, and he recruited future NBA players, including Rod Strickland, Kevin Edwards and Stephen Howard -- but DePaul slowly began to take on water in the 1990s and Meyer was finally forced to resign after a 3-23 season in 1996-97.

A public clash with then-AD Bill Bradshaw was a problem for Meyer, as was the fact that DePaul was beaten for a number of Chicago-area players -- most notably Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill -- who would go on to stardom at Illinois. Eligibility issues among DePaul players and recruits, as well as an NCAA investigation that included a year of probation, reduction of scholarships and official visits handed down in 1994, further hamstrung the second Meyer era.

Also of note: After operating as an independent for its entire existence, the Blue Demons joined the Great Midwest -- a forerunner of Conference USA -- in the middle of Meyer's tenure (1991-92). DePaul has yet to thrive within the fabric of a conference, finishing with a winning league record in just 6 of 28 seasons spent across the Great Midwest, C-USA and Big East. Longtime program observers cite the disappearance of DePaul's national TV profile -- Blue Demons games appeared nationally on WGN during cable TV's infancy -- as a factor in the program's decline.


Roundtable: What's wrong with DePaul?

It is really difficult to look at the list above and avoid the term "coaching graveyard." With the exception of Leitao's less-than-memorable tenure at Virginia, no one has ever left DePaul for a better job. There are some good, proven coaches on this list. Why have so many failed?

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: What came first, "coaching graveyard" or a systemic inability to win? We'll never really know and the answer doesn't matter anymore. DePaul's failures are institutional in terms of program management and positioning. Excluding Notre Dame, the Blue Demons were the last major independent. They didn't join a conference until 1991-92, didn't have a controllable place to play until two years ago, and even with that you'd be hard-pressed to call Wintrust Arena student or campus "friendly." It's understandable the school tried to hang onto the Mark Aguirre glory years as long as possible, but college basketball changed forever with the evolution of multi-bid conferences and DePaul missed that train more than once.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: There are certainly successful names on that list, but let's not kid ourselves and pretend they were hiring guys at the peak of the profession.

The last coach they hired that could be deemed an up-and-comer would have been Leitao's first term -- which was DePaul's most successful stretch since Joey Meyer's first eight years. Pat Kennedy hadn't made the NCAA tournament in his last four seasons at Florida State before getting hired. Jerry Wainwright had some success at UNC Wilmington, but then went to the tournament in one of three seasons at Richmond. When Leitao was hired for a second time, he hadn't been a college head coach in six years.

The Blue Demons haven't really gone for someone who is going to win headlines and bring excitement to the program. Winning at DePaul requires generating some buzz; the Blue Demons haven't had that in a long, long time.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: It's like they're playing musical chairs with their coaching hires at DePaul, where no coach after Joey Meyer has held the job longer than five years. That matters. Ray Meyer's longevity brought a level of stability the program has lacked since his retirement. Any coach who followed him, other than his son, was given a tight window to restore hope to a program that hasn't been a player on the national scene in nearly two decades.

The NCAA issues under Joey Meyer and the missed opportunities under Pat Kennedy (see: overtime loss to Kansas in 2000's NCAA tournament) cost DePaul the momentum it needed to maintain a solid pipeline of talent. But this is DePaul, a school with one NCAA tournament appearance and just two first-round draft picks since 2000. John Wooden would have had a hard time building a winner there. DePaul has had a handful of good coaches after Ray Meyer. But the school needed someone who could walk on water and recruit All-Americans. Hasn't happened.


Two criticisms seem to arise in every discussion about DePaul's fall from grace. The first is frustration with longtime AD Jean Lenti Ponsetto, who has now presided over multiple failed coaching hires, and the second is that the program still plays its home games 30-plus minutes from DePaul's main campus in Lincoln Park. How much blame do you put on administration or home venue for the Blue Demons' struggles?

Medcalf: You need a building if you're going to play basketball. And DePaul made some decisions years ago that put the program in a difficult spot. The team filled Alumni Hall in Chicago (5,308-seat arena) in the late 1970s before a move to AllState Arena (17,000-plus capacity) in 1980. Can you imagine a team today moving to a new arena with an additional 12,000 seats? Teams around the country are shrinking their venues. But DePaul's move made sense at the time because Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings had set the city on fire.

If you've ever been to DePaul, you know the school is landlocked, a challenge that forced officials in the early '80s to scrap any expansion ideas with Alumni Hall. The latter would have been the best move, despite DePaul averaging 15,400 fans in its first season at AllState Arena. Two years later, however, the school failed to earn a ranking in the Associated Press poll and the numbers began to fall. The Blue Demons' average attendance when Quentin Richardson and Bobby Simmons were anchoring a tourney team in the 1999-2000 season: 9,733. The bottom line is that the AllState Arena move was both necessary and problematic. They're still paying for that. Nothing like turning on a game and seeing an empty, 17,000-seat arena. That harmed the program's brand. The new arena has a 10,000-seat capacity. Sounds about right. Only took 40 years to get to that point.

Borzello: The fact that Jean Lenti Ponsetto's job status has come up about as much as Dave Leitao's the past few springs says it all. The DePaul fan base has been vocal in its disapproval of Ponsetto's record as athletic director -- as evidenced by a full-page ad in the Chicago Sun-Times being purchased by students and alumni after the 2017-18 season. She has been in charge for 17 years, and oversaw the hires of Leitao (the second time), Purnell and Wainwright. And before last season, the Blue Demons had 11 straight losing seasons. That has to be on more than just the head coach.

Opening a new arena in 2017 was supposed to bring some excitement to the program, and the average attendance did indeed increase from 2017 to 2018. Here's the problem: the average attendance in 2018 was still just more than 6,000 people per game. On the plus side, having a home arena in the city as opposed to the suburbs has helped recruiting, in terms of getting local prospects to come to games. If we're comparing these two aspects of the program, Ponsetto should receive more blame than the arena location.

Lunardi: The best "comp" for DePaul is Marquette (not Notre Dame). They are both urban, basketball-only schools formed by a lifelong legend (Ray Meyer, Al McGuire). But Marquette moved more quickly into the modern era in terms of conference affiliation, facilities, coaching profile and game experience. And even with all that, the ride was bumpy. Where are the Golden Eagles today without Dwyane Wade? Or if situated in a larger city or without a venue that's a short ride (or ambitious walk) from campus? Possibly not too far off the current state of affairs at DePaul. You want to blame all that on a coach or athletic director, go ahead, but it seems like a much bigger set of challenges to me.


We talked about this some with St. John's and New York City. How important is "recruiting Chicago" to the success of the DePaul men's basketball program? Overblown element, or a real thing?

Medcalf: If "recruiting Chicago" means convincing the next Jabari Parker or Jahlil Okafor to sign with DePaul, then folks are dreaming. But I do think Charlie Moore, and others like him, are solid examples of the talent that DePaul should chase. Moore is transferring to DePaul from Kansas. He started at Cal. If Chicago is the team's base, then successfully keeping players like Moore home is critical. But you just need talent. Wherever it is. Tyler Herro is from Milwaukee. The Minneapolis area will boast two starters on Duke's team next season (Tre Jones, Matthew Hurt). There is enough talent within a six-hour drive to build a winning program.

Borzello: Just like St. John's, I think it's overblown to an extent. One difference would be that St. John's plays its games at Madison Square Garden, basketball players in the area grew up watching Big East basketball, so it has some level of cachet in the area. DePaul, not so much. A lot of Midwest kids would prefer to play in the Big Ten rather than the Big East, and Wintrust Arena isn't Madison Square Garden.

That said, DePaul should be able to keep kids home. The talent level in the city isn't what it once was (similar to New York City), but there are still players coming out every class. And the fact it's not producing a dozen top-100 kids every year means not every program is coming to town to poach players away.

DePaul can't simply recruit players from Chicago and Illinois and expect to win, though -- which is why the incoming recruiting class is the perfect template for the Blue Demons. They landed a talented player from Chicago in Markese Jacobs. They landed a top-50 player from the Midwest in Romeo Weems. And they're hitting the transfer market, with former top-100 recruit Carte'Are Gordon and Chicago native Charlie Moore. That's how DePaul needs to win.

Lunardi: One of the coolest elements of college basketball is that it often takes only one guy to change the entire narrative of a program. Dwyane Wade could have been DePaul's Chris Mullin, jumped on The L and belatedly ushered the Blue Demons into the multibid era. It has happened twice recently in my city, where Lionel Simmons (La Salle) and Jameer Nelson (Saint Joseph's) altered the arc of a pair of Catholic basketball schools for a decade or more. For me, the bigger worry wouldn't be DePaul's inability to get their next Mark Aguirre in a city with as much homegrown talent as Chicago, but their ability to keep that guy long enough to make a difference.


DePaul fans did not seem to love the (second) Dave Leitao hire, but he has undeniably made progress, and in a difficult league. If you had to bet, will Leitao prove to be the long-term answer? Is there any good reason DePaul can't figure it out in the Big East? What does real success look like at DePaul in this era of college basketball?

Medcalf: If he can string together a few winning seasons, I think Leitao is the right fit for the program. He wants to be there. He knows the climate and the challenges attached to it. If he can build on last season with next season's solid collection of talent, he'll have something this program has missed for nearly 20 years: momentum. I'm not convinced a Porter Moser comes in and changes the culture of this team. Last season's 19-17 tally is about what you can expect in DePaul's good years, I think. And Leitao has a chance to put together a solid run with similar numbers in the coming years.

But this is DePaul. Nothing seems to last there. With a new arena comes new costs and expectations. When Ponsetto hired Leitao back in 2015, she said, "Our expectation is to win now." One dip next season and I think DePaul will be searching for a new coach and the game of musical chairs will start all over again.

Borzello: I'll be the first to admit that Leitao has (A) lasted longer than expected and (B) exceeded expectations in terms of giving DePaul some momentum. Leitao's 9-45 Big East record his first three seasons was dreadful and gave the Blue Demons no reason for optimism. But they had their first winning season since 2007 last season, buoyed by their run to the College Basketball Invitational finals. And there is certainly talent on the 2019-20 roster, despite the loss of Max Strus.

Now, I still don't think Leitao is the long-term answer. He has made the NCAA tournament in one of his seven seasons at the helm, spanning two different stints. But Leitao -- or Porter Moser or whomever is the head coach in a few years -- can be competitive in the Big East. In general, the gap between an NCAA tournament team and the bottom of the league isn't very big. Last season, eight teams finished with between seven and nine Big East wins. The year before had seven teams with a .500 or better league record. It doesn't take much to make strides and become competitive in the conference. I just think the Blue Demons need to get over the hump and back to the NCAA tournament, then we can figure out what realistic long-term success is for the program. I'm not sure it happens next season, but it's a group that will remain mostly intact in 2020-21.

Lunardi: It may not be about the coach. It may be about finding a star to galvanize the program and make DePaul relevant again. And it's probably easier to get a star than to find the next Rick Pitino (think Providence, 1987). In the meantime, DePaul has been eclipsed by pretty much all its peers from the brief Great Midwest era -- Marquette, Dayton, Saint Louis and Xavier (MCC), not to mention Cincinnati and Memphis. Every one has had multiple successes while DePaul continues to flounder. The Blue Demons desperately need a player or two to change the conversation and make the rest of us watch.

July 9 in Chasing Ghosts: Georgetown