By Chris Emma-
CHICAGO (CBS) — A good challenge doesn’t faze Oliver Purnell. In fact, he embraces it.READ MORE: 2 Semi Truck Drivers Injured After Crash On Dan Ryan Expressway At 83rd Street
In his first head coaching gig, Purnell turned tiny Radford into a 22-win team in just three seasons. He then moved to Old Dominion, leading it to an NCAA Tournament bid in his first year, followed by two straight 21-win seasons. After that, he turned Dayton into a mid-major power and made Clemson relevant in the basketball-rich ACC.
Purnell prides himself on turning programs around, something he’s successfully done in his first four stops. But DePaul has been an incredible challenge. His record stands at 42-77, 9-57 in Big East play through four seasons.
“I knew it would be a long-term project, just evaluating it,” Purnell said. “Fortunately, the people at DePaul recognized it as well.”
The administration at DePaul, namely athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, has backed Purnell through great turbulence. Given such immense struggles, his leash has been longer than most are allowed. But the Blue Demons have exercised patience because Purnell has done it before and can do it again.
Purnell didn’t quite comprehend the task he was walking into at DePaul, as winning in Chicago can be brutally difficult. His hire wasn’t welcomed locally, with many high school and AAU coaches — most notably the outspoken Robert Smith of Simeon — tuning out the Blue Demons. Meanwhile, Purnell was working to recruit rising superstar Jabari Parker.
In time, Purnell made connections in Chicago, but it was a long, tedious process.
“I don’t think I realized how challenging it was,” Purnell said. “I certainly did the day after I took the job, when guys were saying, ‘Who is that guy? Where is he from? He’s not one of us.’ That kind of thing. But I think we’ve established that we are a big part of Chicago.”
Eight current players on DePaul’s roster are from the Chicago metro area, including names like Billy Garrett and Tommy Hamilton, “cornerstones” for the program.
But luck hasn’t been on Purnell’s side, by any means. He locked down Shane Larkin, only to see him move to Miami, lead it to an ACC title and a two seed in the NCAA Tournament, then go in the first round of the NBA Draft. That’s just the beginning of it.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Temperatures Back To The 30s, Lake Effect Snow Thursday Night
Star forward Cleveland Melvin was dismissed from school last February, then standout guard Charles McKinney was booted last week. Had Larkin become a Blue Demon, teaming up with Melvin, McKinney and a talented core, perhaps Purnell would’ve had another success story.
Still, he doesn’t let the misfortunes get him down.
“Every program that I’ve built — some more than others — you have hiccups,” Purnell said. “It’s just always the way it is. We did at Dayton, we did at Clemson and maybe here more than others. You sort of supress the hiccups and remember all the good times.”
Through it all, Purnell remains upbeat, ever so confident in his plan. This will be his fifth season at DePaul and first with a team of all his recruits. In 2017, the program will open a state-of-the-art, $173-million downtown arena, replacing the aging Allstate Arena that’s an hour drive from campus in rush hour.
Above all, there’s stability with these Blue Demons, a roster of players committed to Purnell and his plan.
“I’m very excited about the future,” Purnell said. “One of the reasons is I feel like we’re at that tipping point where we can start going downhill. Now, all the kids in the program, we recruited. We do feel like we have a culture shift.”
Purnell’s pitch in recruiting involves playing in Chicago, thriving in the new Big East, breaking ground on a new arena and, above all, reviving the rich tradition of DePaul. But just as momentum is building, patience is wearing thin after a 12-21 season in 2013-’14.
The pressure is on Purnell — more so than ever before — to bring the Blue Demons back. His seat is hot as the demands to win become greater. Is the job security unsettling?
“I don’t get concerned about that, because of experience,” he said. “I know where we are, I know what we can do. This program has more potential than any program I’ve taken over before. Now, it’s time to start squeezing some of that out of it.”
Purnell can envision his future, what the program has been building toward. He just hopes the fruits of his labor are prepared to pay off. and create a revived DePaul.MORE NEWS: Suspect Shot, Wounded By Police On Lower Wacker Drive; 2 Others Taken Into Custody After Being Found In Vehicle Taken In Carjacking
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.