DePaul basketball: Cleveland Melvin’s departure means the time for change is now

Enough is enough. This is agonizing. This is comical. This is embarrassing. Rip it up, tear it down, and start over from the beginning. There’s no other way.

Cleveland Melvin’s mysterious and untimely departure from DePaul University is the last straw in a long list of mistakes concerning the athletic department’s handling of Blue Demon basketball. Calling back to the halcyon days of Ray Meyer and Mark Aguirre can no longer shield the current regime from criticism; in the category of “what have you done for me lately,” DePaul basketball fails in every measure imaginable.

It starts at the top, unfortunately, with Athletic Director Jean Lenti-Ponsetto. For all of her outstanding accomplishments not only as an athlete at DePaul but as a leader in men’s and women’s sports, Ponsetto will forever be defined by her inarguable failure to lead Blue Demon basketball back to relevancy.

By the numbers

She arrived July 1, 2002 to head a program that was no longer dominant but certainly not a doormat. Head coach Dave Leitao was busy shoring up a team that had been reduced to shambles at the inconsistent hands of coaches Joey Meyer and Pat Kennedy. Leitao, who was hired by Ponsetto’s predecessor Bill Bradshaw, compiled a 58-34 record in three seasons and led DePaul to two NIT trips and the school’s second appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1992. He left after finishing 20-11 in 2005 to take a higher-paying gig at the University of Virginia. It was Ponsetto’s time to shine.

It was time for her first hire, her first chance to directly influence the future of DePaul basketball. And at first, it seemed to work. Ponsetto tabbed former Richmond head coach Jerry Wainwright to lead the Blue Demons.

Around this time, the athletic department made a decision that drastically changed the face of DePaul sports. Ponsetto, in one of her finest moves as athletic director, successfully shifted DePaul from the unheralded Conference USA to the biggest moneymaker in college basketball: the Big East. An NIT appearance in 2007 signaled that perhaps Blue Demon basketball was on the fast track to relevancy.

It wasn’t.

After posting 32 wins in his first two years, Wainwright struggled to just 27 wins until January of 2010, when he was fired following a 67-50 home loss to No. 13 Georgetown. From 2008 to the firing, DePaul went a staggering 0-20 in conference play. Ponsetto’s first experiment had failed miserably.

Enter Oliver Purnell. The respected coach had won everywhere he had coached and was coming off of a supremely successful 138-90 stint with Clemson. It seemed like a slam dunk hire, at the very steep price of about $15 million.

The rest is history. Purnell has “led” DePaul to a mark of 40-75, including a spectacularly horrid 8-59 in conference play. Purnell’s signature win is a double-overtime victory over unranked Butler Jan. 9 of this year. The Bulldogs were already 0-3 in the conference and not considered a threat. It was a game that no one would consider important. In fact, the Associated Press’ recap of the game still references DePaul as the “Blue Devils” three times, signifying the insignificance of the “signature” win.

Wainwright and Purnell are Ponsetto’s only two hires for the men’s team. Wainwright went 58-80 before getting fired, giving coaches under Ponsetto a total record of 99-170 (including 15 losses in 16 games under interim coach Tracy Webster in 2010) which is good for a .368 winning percentage. The conference record is even more miserable: a combined 29-123, which comes out to a measly .191 winning percentage.

As they say, the numbers never lie.

Judging Jean

Straying from the stats, it is obvious that Ponsetto is qualified for her job. Those who say otherwise on the message boards and radio shows are entitled to their opinions but foolish nonetheless. She has done wonders for women’s college athletics and has overseen superb play from several of DePaul’s sports, most notably the women’s basketball team and the softball team. She facilitated the move from mid-major conference to BCS conference and played a large role in securing the new arena that will be built downtown for DePaul to call home starting around 2016. DePaul athletes routinely finish near the top of the entire country with test scores and GPAs, and Ponsetto’s reputation amongst her peers appears to be immaculate in several ways.

But none of that matters. It’s unfortunate, but having one major sports team can be a curse. No matter how you perform in other facets of the job, no one will care if said sports team plays poorly. The men’s basketball team is the only squad in the department that brings in significant revenue for the school. The issue is twofold: many of DePaul’s sports depend on that very revenue to continue operating. If the basketball team can’t bring in enough money, every sport, player and coach suffers. Moving to the Big East was the biggest step. Losing at a BCS conference is still more profitable than winning in a mid-major conference. But television deals and radio ads only do so much. The seats are empty, the boosters have little motivation to contribute financially, and the prospect of filling a brand new, multi-million dollar facility in the near future seems bleak. Winning is the ultimate cure, and the entire department is brought down a few pegs with every loss by Purnell’s squad.

That’s where Ponsetto finds herself. And it might be time she gets the boot.

A common defense is that DePaul is still easing its way into the Big East. Nothing could be further from the truth. The new Big East is weaker than it’s been in decades and the results are the same. DePaul is not the first team to make a switch like this. Missouri and Texas A&M moved to the SEC from the Big 12 in 2012 and have been wildly successful in football; neither team was particularly dominant in their prior conference but A&M has been a perennial Top- 25 team and Missouri played in the conference tournament. Making the switch is tough, but other programs have proved that a quick turnaround is possible. Moving to a better conference is supposed to draw better recruits. It’s supposed to increase your level of play. DePaul’s been working at this for nearly a decade.

Ponsetto can stay in the athletic department-she’s earned it-but someone needs to step in and run this basketball team more efficiently.

Unfair? Yes. But necessary? Certainly. Twelve years of ineffectiveness is far too much. At a major university with big-money sports teams, Ponsetto would have been gone long ago. The men’s team hasn’t just played badly, they’ve played horridly. And the nail in the coffin is that there have been absolutely no signs of improvement. No signs of hope. Only empty seats and barren box scores, with not even the faintest reason to believe it could change.

Pressing Purnell

Purnell arrived with a reputation for turning teams around. No matter where he coached, he always found a way to win. DePaul was a particularly large challenge-the fan base was waning, the stadium was too far away, and lack of success had tarnished the program’s reputation.

It’s not hard to argue that Purnell has, for all intents and purposes, failed in every way. Despite those challenges, there has been nothing to be proud of. This is especially true on the recruiting side.

Purnell can claim all he wants that the University of Illinois steals all the good recruits, and that programs like Kentucky and Duke poach the highest-ranking Chicago talent. DePaul has a rich basketball history and the Midwest is the hotbed for high school talent. If Purnell can’t recruit Chicago, Indiana, and Michigan – three areas with enormous amounts of talent- how can he possibly lead this team into the future? His highest-rated recruit, Billy Garrett Jr., likely would have gone elsewhere if his father was not an assistant coach on the team. Purnell’s most prosperous recruits, Melvin and Brandon Young, are both from Baltimore and, despite putting together a pair of decent careers in Chicago, would likely be role players on most BCS conference rosters. They have been good for DePaul, there’s no doubting that, but there’s also no question they haven’t improved in the slightest over the last four years. Melvin, in particular, has failed to get better. After winning Big East Rookie of the Year as a freshman, his stats remained static and his defense is still questionable. Purnell simply hasn’t gotten the best out of his players, be it Melvin and Young or former Blue Demons like Moses Morgan and Donnavan Kirk. Purnell needs to go. Similar to Ponsetto, it’s unfortunate and unfair. While the blame on Purnell is inescapable, his track record still indicates that he’s one of the finest coaches in the country. Perhaps his personality doesn’t click. Maybe he’s not comfortable recruiting in the Midwest. Perhaps the program is too damaged for even a coach of his caliber to fix. Still, you can’t convince me or anyone else that teams like Creighton (Omaha, Neb.), Providence (Providence, R.I.) and Xavier (Cincinnati, Ohio) have a better recruiting edge in their respective areas than DePaul. Purnell is a proven commodity, but he obviously does not belong in Chicago.

Changes on the horizon

Ponsetto and Purnell each have contracts extending through 2017. I hate to say it, but it would take a huge amount of guts for anyone to keep those contracts on the books for that long. If there was some semblance of improvement, then maybe. But DePaul basketball has become a laughingstock, and things need to change.

A final, damning comparison resides in Dallas under the watchful eye of 73-year-old Larry Brown. Brown took the reigns at Southern Methodist University in 2012 to turn around a program that hadn’t been the NCAA Tournament since 1993. SMU finished 15-17 as a member of Conference USA in Brown’s first year, finishing second to last in a conference that had only two tournament teams and boasted such “powerhouses” as Rice, Tulane, and East Carolina. Like DePaul, SMU made the jump-this time, a move to the newly formed American Athletic Conference, of which they became a member in 2013. The level of play has been much higher in the AAC than SMU played in C-USA. Brown’s squad routinely battles perennial powers like Memphis, Connecticut, Cincinnati, and last year’s national champion Louisville Cardinals. Yet SMU currently stands at 20-5 with three wins against Top-25 AAC teams (including a 21-point rout over then-No. 7 Cincinnati) and is ranked No. 23 in the country.

SMU has done a thousand times more in one season than DePaul has done in a decade, and with far less history to lean on. This, more than anything, is an embarrassing example of the failure that is DePaul basketball.

Melvin’s departure should be the straw that broke the camel’s back. It won’t be. That kind of bad publicity should shock an organization into fixing what ails them-but motivation from bad press means nothing when the leadership at the top has no idea how to correctly run an organization.

All that’s been released on the expulsion is 61 measly words, words as vague as they are uninformative. If DePaul is assuming the public will accept this ridiculous “explanation,” then the department truly is dysfunctional. Schools always report expulsions for academics; since DePaul hasn’t said that was the reason, then there are only a few things that could have possibly warranted an un-enrollment.

Transparency is key to running a functional organization. Thus far, the school has been decidedly opaque, and is running the program further into the ground. Until DePaul comes forward with the truth, the Melvin saga will continue to be a dark splotch on a department that can’t afford any more mistakes.