Following a blunder- and rejection-filled search, DePaul finally decided on Clemson's Oliver Purnell. Sounds like a good hire: basement-dwelling big-conference team nabs someone who marginally improved another basement-dwelling big-conference team. So why are Chicago hoops figures apoplectic?
DePaul used to be a national powerhouse, but those days are long gone: Nationwide recruiting boomed in the '80, they haven't landed an Illinois Mr. Basketball since 1991, Ronnie Fields got in a terrible car accident, Eddy Curry went pro, and by the time Derrick Rose and Evan Turner were living the good parts of Hoop Dreams, DePaul was where they are today — a low-mid-major team playing in the most stacked conference in the country, hardly ideal landing spot for top-rated prospects. The fact that the Blue Demons got a coach from a better team in another power conference should be looked upon well.
But around Chicago, it's not. And the reason for that tells you a lot about how "amateur" basketball works these days, especially in that city. Several high school coaches there and one AAU coach have already spoken out against the hire. Mike Irvin, coach of club team Mac Irvin Fire and the World Wide Wes of the Chicago prep scene, was insulting and deliciously passive-aggressive in his assessment: "I don't know who he is ... I guess Chicago players aren't important to DePaul." Irvin thinks DePaul should have gone with someone younger who "would hit the streets ... and get to know some of these kids."
Whitney Young (Quentin Richardson's alma mater) coach Tyrone Slaughter saw it as part of "a pattern of hiring coaches from the East Coast." Since Purnell is from Maryland — but has coached at Old Dominion, Dayton, and Clemson — Slaughter is, I suppose, geographically correct.
Simeon (Derrick Rose, Bobby Simmons) coach Robert "Not That One" Smith (pictured above with Rose) is outraged that Duke assistant Chris Collins, a Northbrook native, wasn't offered the job. Never mind that most people from Northbrook probably pretend that DePaul doesn't exist, Duke assistants aren't guaranteed bets. Johnny Dawkins is doing well, but he isn't lighting up the Pac-10 at Stanford. Tommy Amaker had a nice year at Harvard, but I remember Michigan fans being quite happy when he left Ann Arbor.
Smith went so far as to suggest that DePaul was no longer going to be able to recruit his players, saying "if they don't keep [the previous interim coach] Tracy Webster ... they can't recruit my kids." Then, seemingly forgetting his prior Northbrook remarks, said, "Rosemont [the site of the Allstate Arena, where DePaul plays] is like Wisconsin to me."
Why are these coaches so upset that an also-ran school hired someone with a track record of gradual fixes and first-round NCAA loses? Because in Illinois, and particularly in Chicago, they hold the reins. Again Smith: "We have what everyone is looking for, the product, which is the kids."
None of this is new behavior. In 1996, Illinois hired Lon Kruger away from Florida when Lou Henson retired. Henson had recommended his assistant, Jimmy Collins (currently toiling away at UIC in the Horizon League). Then, as now, Public League coaches vowed to "steer their players elsewhere to punish Illinois" for not giving the job the Collins. (As it turned out, no Chicago Public League player signed with Illinois during Kruger's tenure.) And now, in basketball's one-and-done era, AAU and high school coaches — people who can influence where the best prep players choose to serve their brief apprenticeships — have more clout than ever; they're the power brokers now. If you don't make nice with the AAU and Public League guys, you'll get blackballed. DePaul isn't going to be an elite program until it gets elite talent. The school isn't going to get the elite talent until it's an elite program in the eyes of Chicago's power brokers. They're the ones moving product, after all. That's just how college basketball's sausage gets made.