In terms of history, DePaul can compete with virtually any other program in college basketball. Under coach Ray Meyer, who held the job from 1942 to 1984, DePaul reached two Final Fours, in 1943 and 1979, and won the then prestigious NIT in 1945. Meyer's legacy as coach stretches from the development of Chicago kid (and first legit NBA big man) George Mikan right through Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings.
Nor did the game ever pass him by: Meyer's streak of 21 straight postseason appearances only ended when he retired following a 1983-84 season that included a 27-3 record and a Sweet 16 appearance, on a team that featured future pros Tyrone Corbin and Dallas Comegys.
"When you walk the school, you'll see pictures and timelines that remind you of the success DePaul has had," DePaul guard Billy Garrett, Jr., said. "And it's definitely the reference point—you are reminded every day of what you'd like to be."
It's the lag between past and present that has been the problem at DePaul, where the program has spent the past 30 years chasing that early success without ever quite catching it.
Meyer's son Joey had the first shot at continuing his father's legacy. He made the NCAA tournament with DePaul seven of his first eight seasons, before a team decline concurrent with a move into the short-lived Great Midwest Conference and then Conference USA. DePaul fired Meyer following a disastrous 3-23 season in 1996-97 that was somehow even worse than the record makes it look. Only one of the 305 teams in Division I scored fewer points per game than DePaul, and the team was outscored by an average of 12.5 points per game.
The well-traveled Pat Kennedy took over, made an NCAA tournament, posted two losing seasons, and moved on. Next came Dave Leitao, who got the program on the right track and posted two straight 20-win seasons before being hired away by Virginia in 2005; he took his team to the tournament in 2003-04, and DePaul hasn't been back since. The program's win totals since 07-08—11, 9, 8, 7, 12, 11, 12, and 12 last season, which led to the dismissal of Oliver Purnell—would look a lot better on a NFL team. DePaul was supposed to anchor the Big East in the enormous media market of Chicago. Instead, they've mostly helped by serving as an automatic W for their peers; in the past seven years, DePaul has won just 16 games in conference play.
And yet DePaul is still a good college coaching job, and it seemed likely that the school would hire some young coach fresh off a midmajor conference title—think Bobby Hurley, who jumped from Buffalo to Arizona State this past offseason, or Leitao, who was an assistant at Connecticut when DePaul hired him in 2002—in hopes of starting anew. Instead, DePaul did the last thing that had worked for the program. They hired Dave Leitao. Again.
Leitao is 55. When he left DePaul for Virginia in 2005, he joined a program in Charlottesville that had been an afterthought in the ACC for much of the previous decade. Expectations were high; a new building, John Paul Jones Arena, was to open in 2007. After making the NCAA tournament in his second year, Leitao's Cavaliers slipped to 17-16, then 10-18 in the new building. He was fired. His successor, Tony Bennett, has been the one to reap the benefits of the program's increased funding on its quest to join the ACC elite.
The parallels are not lost on Leitao, who will see DePaul open a new arena, as part of an expanded financial commitment to basketball, in 2017. That would be the third year of his second stint in Chicago.
"The resources are different," Leitao told me at Big East Media Day. He is a calm, low-key presence in a gray suit, and was notably less in-demand than the coaches for more successful Big East programs situated at nearby tables. It is easy to imagine parents entrusting their kids to this man. "The goals of what the school wants out of its basketball program are different. There's excitement, but also a watchful eye."
Put another way: it is unlikely DePaul will tolerate five straight losing seasons from Leitao the way they did from Purnell. "I don't focus in on it," Leitao said. "Expectations are part of any coach's culture. I think the arena represents a thousand times more excitement than expectations… There isn't a day or a year where I say, 'This is where we have to be where we need to be.' On a year-to-year basis, if we can try to move the needle—recruiting, coaching, alumni relations—we have to really roll our sleeves up and then it'll happen. It'll happen in the time it's supposed to happen."
There are real questions about what the ceiling is for DePaul, as well. For all the tradition represented by the Big East name, the conference hasn't maintained its presence among college basketball's elite in its first two years after the break-up that nearly ended it for good. Seven of the old conference's members broke away, and the conference added Creighton, Xavier, and Butler, betting everything on basketball over football. Outside of Villanova, few Big East teams have entered the national title conversation since then, and Villanova's two early NCAA tournament exits haven't helped much.
Then there's the issue so many conversations about college programs in big cities ignore: there aren't a lot of players who want to stay home when college decision time rolls around. Playing home games within shouting distance of players like Jahlil Okafor or Jabari Parker seems like an advantage at first glance, but the reality is more complicated.
"It hurts and it helps," says Garrett, a Chicago kid and a top 100 recruit who stayed home and stuck around when Leitao was hired to replace Purnell. Garrett is expected to be DePaul's best player this year, though the Big East coaches picked the Blue Demons to finish eighth in the ten-team league. "I think being in a big city, it has pros and cons, like a small college town," he continued. "There's a lot of added pressure on the coaching staff to keep guys within the city. And it's not all about basketball—a lot of guys, coming out of high school, want to go somewhere else for college. That's a normal thing for guys that age. But critics don't really weigh that aspect of the equation."
There's also the question of just what DePaul can be to the city of Chicago. In a town with so much professional sports, will a winning DePaul program fill a new arena? The current version sure doesn't: DePaul finished last in the Big East in attendance last season, averaging just over 6,000 per game.
"There's a basketball love affair here that goes from high school to college to pro," Leitao said. "High school basketball is beloved like no other city I've been to in Chicago. The Chicago Bulls are loved. And so it's important for a lot of people to bridge that gap, that's something we talk about every day."
While Leitao wouldn't put a number on what would constitute a successful first season—a reasonable standard in a sport where winning is usually a lagging indicator—Garrett wasn't nearly so shy. "I think it boils down to, really, wins," Garrett said. "It's a win-lose business. It's what fans want to see, what recruits want to see. We won 13 games last year, and have our guys coming back. I think 18 to 22 wins represents extreme progress, and anything short of that would be underachieving."
Both Leitao and Garrett seem to understand how far DePaul needs to climb to reach its lofty long-term goals, let alone the top half of the Big East. Garrett, with two years of eligibility left, will be gone by the time the new arena opens, but spoke of his hope that DePaul can build a program that maintains consistency and puts a competitive team on the floor every season. It's a program that sounds a lot like…well, DePaul, actually, albeit the DePaul of a generation ago.
For Leitao, DePaul's history provides reason for hope: it's easier to rebuild than to start form the ground up. "It's not like that was the only period of time," Leitao said. "We'd started a new legacy when I was there before. It's almost like in the stock market, you've got to buy low sometimes. We've got a lot of room to grow."