CHICAGO — Vowing to make DePaul “Chicago’s team” again, Clemson’s Oliver Purnell simply couldn’t resist the urge to restore a storied program and became the Blue Demons’ coach on Tuesday.
He leaves behind a stunned school back in South Carolina — the Tigers clearly didn’t see this coming — while taking on the huge task at DePaul, which has one regular-season Big East win the past two years.
“I think we’ve got a great opportunity to re-establish DePaul as Chicago’s team and hopefully get our share of Chicago guys,” Purnell said.
It’s been awhile since DePaul was Chicago’s basketball team.
It might help if the Blue Demons played on campus rather than 15 miles away in Rosemont, Ill., but Purnell said a new arena was never discussed during his courtship and insisted the facilities in place are good enough for success.
“DePaul belongs in the elite of college basketball,” Purnell said during his introductory news conference. “DePaul belongs in the elite of the Big East. DePaul belongs as Chicago’s college basketball team. The commitment is clearly there, the desire is clearly there to restore this program.”
He replaces interim coach Tracy Webster, who took over after Jerry Wainwright was fired in midseason. DePaul did not disclose the terms of the contract, although several outlets reported the deal was for seven years and $15 million.
“His veteran experience is really important for what we’re trying to accomplish because not only are we looking to resonate with young kids, the guys that we’ll be recruiting, but we’ve also got to go in the Big East,” athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said. “There are 18 games against some of the top coaches in the country.”
Clemson AD Dr. Terry Don Phillips said during a news conference he was shocked by Purnell’s decision to leave. He said he learned of the move during a phone call from the coach at about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“I’m not sure I know what to say,” Phillips said. “I’m in a little bit of shock. … I’m as surprised as anyone.”
Phillips said Purnell left South Carolina without addressing his players, who the director said were still reeling from the announcement.
“I didn’t really see any signs of him wanting to leave,” said junior guard Demontez Stitt, who spoke with Purnell at length Friday about the team’s next season. “It’s going to be tough. … We want to stay positive.”
The 56-year-old Purnell was 138-88 in seven seasons at Clemson and is 394-279 in 22 years with stops at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton. He led Clemson to the NCAA tournament the past three years, but the Tigers lost in the first round, making him 0-6 overall in the tourny.
“It’s tough to get there,” Purnell said. “Put me back there again, and we’ll start there and go from there. You’re playing against tough teams in the NCAA. Every game that we’ve been in has been a close one. We just haven’t gotten over the hump.”
For DePaul, reaching the postseason would be a major achievement. The Blue Demons have made 22 NCAA appearances, but none since reaching the second round under Dave Leitao in 2004.
DePaul went 8-23 this season and 1-17 in Big East play.
Although they lost their final 13 games, the Blue Demons were more competitive after Webster replaced Wainwright in January following several blowout losses. That’s little consolation for the “little school under the El tracks,” as the late legendary coach Ray Meyer called it.
Ponsetto made it clear a few weeks ago that DePaul was ready to make a big splash, saying the next coach could be among the highest paid in a conference that Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Bob Huggins and Jim Calhoun call home. She went with Purnell after interviewing former NBA star and Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus. Ponsetto said the only offer was to Purnell and that there was no contact with Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and UCLA’s Ben Howland, whose names surfaced in reports.
Clemson went 21-11 this season and Purnell signed a two-year extension in June. He was making more than $1.3 million a year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but his buyout was only $250,000.
He joins a long line of Tigers coaches who have left what appeared to be a program on the rise for a challenge in a different league. Bill Foster, who led Clemson to the regional finals in 1980, left in 1984 to restart the basketball program at Miami. Cliff Ellis, the Tigers’ winningest coach, left in 1994 to go to Auburn, and Rick Barnes departed for Texas in 1998 after leading Clemson to three straight NCAA tournaments.
For now, the school is launching a national search for Purnell’s replacement, and Bradley would like to be considered.
“[Purnell is] leaving a great legacy that we have to build upon,” Phillips said. “We can’t change what’s happened. The only thing we can change is what our thoughts are, moving forward.”
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