By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Ten years ago, in an office just off the Fullerton Red Line stop, Dave Leitao and Jean Lenti Ponsetto cried together.
DePaul’s head basketball coach and athletic director had grown close through success, but Leitao chose to use that for a better paycheck and more prestigious job at Virginia. Recalling that day from a decade ago, Lenti Ponsetto’s eyes welled up with tears once again Monday.
Making her third head coaching hire for DePaul’s lone revenue sport, Lenti Ponsetto showed such emotion on multiple times Monday when introducing Leitao — the old, new basketball coach. There was something genuine and sweet about it, but that doesn’t make it any easier to explain why Leitao was chosen to lead the Blue Demons once again.
A bizarre press conference — to which Lenti Ponsetto was late and used her opening statement to read a list of coaches who Leitao has defeated — left little clarification as to why this move makes sense.
“This is truly an exciting day for us in DePaul athletics,” Lenti Ponsetto said.
Added Leitao: “Today is a new day.”
But it’s not. That’s the problem with this hire. Instead, this is more of the same. Lenti Ponsetto reiterated that Leitao was her top candidate during the entire search, which would appear to be a lie, given Leitao confirmed he was contacted a week after Oliver Purnell’s dismissal. Did Ponsetto really take seven days to establish contact with her top candidate?
A better fit would’ve been Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew or Buffalo’s Bobby Hurley, two candidates who interviewed but backed away from the interest, multiple sources said.
After that, Lenti Ponsetto and her hired search firm — the one which was paid to rehire the school’s former coach — would’ve been wise to target then-Wisconsin Green Bay coach Brian Wardle (who was hired to Bradley last week), Kentucky assistant/ace recruiter Kenny Payne or any of the dozens of better-suited candidates that could breathe new life into DePaul’s dormant program.
Much better fits were available for DePaul. Leitao doesn’t have the recent success to justify a hiring now — it’s why he hasn’t been targeted in any job opening since his Virginia firing. His 143-129 overall record isn’t inspiring, either. Lenti Ponsetto could’ve and should’ve picked a coach who brings a new energy and fresh start for DePaul’s problematic program.
Instead, DePaul has a coach that will start with an approval rating that would make George W. Bush blush.
“Whether I’ve got 100,000 fans or 10 fans right now, it’s all going to depend on winning basketball games,” Leitao said.
In the end, winning is all that matters in the public eye. Leitao is the last man to lead DePaul to the NCAA Tournament, taking the Blue Demons dancing in 2004. That was a long time ago. For Leitao, that was four jobs ago. Chicago’s recruiting climate is drastically different, changing with the game itself.
Lenti Ponsetto cited Leitao’s familiarity with the Big East as an important selling point. The new Big East was formed last year and has just five teams and zero coaches from when Leitao was an assistant at UConn from 1996-2002.
Does familiarity mean realizing it still exists after Syracuse and Louisville left?
DePaul is a much different job than what Leitao left in 2005. That’s a really bad thing, by the way. Even Leitao’s prior success in Lincoln Park is irrelevant as a draw because of how different the climate is.
None of that mattered to Lenti Ponsetto, who followed through with her search firm’s obscure recommendation of Leitao. With those tears dripping from her eyes, Lenti Ponsetto referred to what a great man and mentor Leitao is as a coach. She has received emails from former Blue Demons Drake Diener and Sammy Mejia to back that claim.
Additionally, Lenti Ponsetto pointed to DePaul’s “primary purposes” as a program. Those include:
1.) The education of student-athletes
2.) Enriching lives with extracurricular activities
3.) Building community for friends, family and alumni at DePaul
What about — I don’t know, maybe — winning?
“We talk way too much about the sources of revenue, we talk way too much about facilities, we talk way too much about how big everybody’s budget,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “I’m a huge fan of providing as many services and doing as much as we can to support the student-athlete.”
Fans of DePaul are only interested in seeing victories. Graduation rates are fantastic, but basketball fans aren’t showing up for the commencement ceremony. Allstate Arena has averaged 2,581 in attendance the past five years, because the Blue Demons weren’t good.
Like it or not, college athletics are a big business that’s based on results on the court, field, rink or pitch more than the classroom. DePaul seems oblivious to that fact. That’s a problem for Lenti Ponsetto, who is paid a great deal of money to oversee that the Blue Demons win games and generate a substantial revenue.
A hundred or so members of the DePaul athletic department gathered with the basketball team, its new coach and his family and celebrated on Monday as Leitao was introduced. They cheered as Leitao took to the stage and watched as he and Lenti Ponsetto shed tears of their memories from 10 years ago.
It felt like a reunion of the Blue Demons’ past, not a step toward a better future. This wasn’t the right direction for DePaul.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.