It's time to address the issues with the athletic director.
Athletic Director’s relative played key role in Wintrust agreements
The Chief Marketing Officer from Wintrust Bank has confirmed that Wintrust Executive Vice President and sister-in-law of DePaul Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, Kandace Lenti, was involved in the multi-million dollar Wintrust Arena naming rights agreement. DePaul officials have also confirmed that Jean Lenti Ponsetto never officially disclosed a conflict of interest form before engaging in the deal.
The 2017 Wintrust Arena agreement was touted by DePaul as a huge win for the university and Athletic Director Lenti Ponsetto. But there seems to be some family ties concerning Wintrust and Lenti Ponsetto that raise questions of nepotism and a potential conflict of interest.
Kandace Lenti is the Executive Vice President at Wintrust Bank. She was named by Crain’s as one of the 30 most influential women in Chicago banking and is credited on Crain’s website for helping to secure DePaul as a client.
Lenti is married to DePaul’s head softball coach, Eugene Lenti — also the brother of Lenti Ponsetto.
Although the details of the Wintrust agreement are confidential, it is estimated by Legends Sales and Marketing, a New York-based sponsorship consulting firm, that the naming rights deal could have been worth at least $22 million for DePaul. At around the same time, DePaul added Wintrust Bank as its exclusive on-campus banking institution to replace PNC Bank. Both the naming rights and banking agreement are potentially worth millions for both parties.
Under the agreement, Wintrust Bank is able to distribute and market to all of DePaul’s students, faculty, staff and alumni. Wintrust also received exclusive banking and ATM privileges on campus. With a total enrollment of over 22,000 students and a sizable alumni and faculty network, Wintrust gained access to a considerable number of potential new clients.
DePaul has a conflict of interest policy clearly outlined in its code of conduct that states, “DePaul requires all employees whose independence of judgment may be impaired by a potential conflict of interest to either refrain from the conflict or disclose the conflict to a supervisor.”
The conduct policy goes on to say, “In these and other situations, a completed Certificate of Compliance with Conflict of Interest Policy form (…) is to be completed and approved by the direct supervisor of the employee.”
But Lenti Ponsetto never disclosed a conflict of interest form, according to the university.
When The DePaulia began investigating the connection between Lenti Ponsetto and Lenti, things got even murkier.
In order to best report this story, The Editorial Board decided to report our process and what it yielded.
Kandace Lenti’s connection
The DePaulia first approached Kandace Lenti on Tuesday, March 6. After identifying ourselves as reporters, Lenti said she was about to head into a meeting and directed The DePaulia to set up an appointment via email. She hung up the phone before The DePaulia could ask her any questions.
The DePaulia emailed Lenti minutes later, requesting an interview regarding the “Wintrust naming rights deal.”
“I don’t believe I would be the right person to talk to about that agreement at Wintrust,” Lenti wrote in an email. “I was not in the trenches of that agreement.”
The DePaulia then asked Lenti, again, to comment on her role in the Wintrust naming rights deal.
A day later, on Wednesday, March 7, at 2:39 p.m., The DePaulia received an email from Matt Doubleday, Chief Marketing Officer at Wintrust. Doubleday said that he would be “happy to answer” any questions The DePaulia had.
The DePaulia, instead, requested that Lenti respond to our questions herself and asked a third time.
On Friday, March 9, The DePaulia received a response from Doubleday. In his response, he said that Lenti is a “banker and the leader of Wintrust’s Government, non-profit & healthcare bank group.” He said that “(Lenti) counts DePaul University as one of her customers. If you have questions about banking, she’s a great person to know.”
Doubleday went on to say that he was the person to ask about “marketing, advertising and sponsorships,” and that he was the appropriate person to answer The DePaulia’s questions.
The DePaulia asked Doubleday, “Specifically, to what degree Kandace Lenti was involved in the naming rights deal for Wintrust Arena?”
Doubleday responded to The DePaulia the same day and did not refute that Lenti was involved in the negotiations. He said that Lenti’s “involvement on the Wintrust Arena naming rights was minimal.”
But Doubleday also said that “(Lenti) made introductions between DePaul and Wintrust leadership and attended most of the meetings we had.”
Doubleday also confirmed that Lenti was, in fact, the banker assigned to DePaul. Indeed, Lenti’s name appears on the banking agreement between DePaul and Wintrust, according to the agreement posted on DePaul’s website.
In the agreement, it states that “all notices” between the university and Wintrust should be sent to “ATTN: Kandace Lenti.” Lenti’s name appears twice in the agreement.
Jean Lenti Ponsetto’s connection
The DePaulia began the investigation into Lenti Ponsetto’s connection, by reaching out to a source who was involved in the day-to-day dealings concerning the Wintrust Arena naming rights deal. Due to reasons concerning their employment, the source wished to remain anonymous.
The source said that Lenti Ponsetto was “involved in the process” and that she had a hand with “price points and deliverables.”
“Whatever is in the contract,” they said, “she was involved.”
On Wednesday, March 7, The DePaulia reached out to Greg Greenwell, Associate Athletic Director for Communications, asking if The DePaulia’s sports editor could ask Lenti Ponsetto “a couple of questions” after the DePaul Men’s Basketball game on Wednesday in New York City.
Greenwell responded by inquiring what questions The DePaulia wanted to ask Lenti Ponsetto. The DePaulia let Greenwell know we planned to ask about the Wintrust naming rights agreement.
After the game, Greenwell told The DePaulia that it was “not a good time” to speak with Lenti Ponsetto and that we could email him instead. Lenti Ponsetto did, however, have time to speak to the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday before the game.
The DePaulia emailed our questions to Greenwell but never received a response. Instead, we received a response from DePaul’s public relations department.
On Thursday, March 8, the DePaulia received an email response from Carol Hughes, of DePaul’s Office of Public Relations and Communications and one of DePaul’s top public relations officers, responding to The DePaulia on behalf of Lenti Ponsetto.
“The naming rights transaction was negotiated under the direction of the Board of Trustees by Jeff Bethke with the support of an external sports marketing firm who helped identify and recruit potential naming rights prospects,” Hughes wrote.
“DePaul Athletics assisted in providing corporate sponsorship and marketing elements and community outreach initiatives.”
On Friday, March 9, The DePaulia reached out again to Hughes asking, “Specifically, to what degree Jean Lenti Ponsetto was involved in the naming rights deal for Wintrust Arena.”
Hughes responded the same afternoon, saying, “We addressed that question in the previous response.”
Who is Jeff Bethke?
Jeff Bethke is the Executive Vice President at DePaul and was instrumental in the Wintrust agreement, according to Hughes and multiple other sources. The DePaulia reached out to Bethke’s office on Tuesday, March 6, and was told by a secretary that he was out of the office until Monday.
On the same day, The DePaulia emailed Bethke asking for Lenti Ponsetto’s role in the Wintrust naming rights agreement.
Bethke never responded, and on Thursday, March 8, Hughes contacted The DePaulia on behalf of Bethke.
In the past, Bethke has been very open and forthcoming with The DePaulia concerning the Wintrust agreement, talking to multiple DePaulia reporters.
At the conclusion of our reporting, The DePaulia asked Hughes a final question, on Friday, March 9 at 3:28 p.m.
“Did Jean Lenti Ponsetto at any point in time submit a conflict of interest form to her direct supervisor regarding her relationship with Kandace Lenti?” The DePaulia also requested that Hughes disclose the form if it existed.
On Friday, at 8:19 p.m., Hughes responded to The DePaulia with the following comment:
“(Lenti Ponsetto) was not required to complete a conflict of interest form.”
The DePaulia’s anonymous source said that while the lucrative banking and naming rights deals are not directly connected, they represent “a significant sponsorship relationship.”
The source said that “many different industries” other than Wintrust were approached by DePaul as possible partners. He said companies in the financial, auto, telecommunications and insurance industries were approached — these are the industries that typically sponsor major sporting venues.
Ultimately, Wintrust Arena was selected as the best sponsor and entered into a 15-year deal with DePaul.
“Our goal when this process started was to find a Chicago-based partner that holds similar beliefs and values to DePaul University,” Lenti Ponsetto told DePaul Newsline, DePaul’s public relations newswire service, in November, 2016. “And we feel we’ve accomplished that goal with Wintrust Arena.”
With family connections between Wintrust and the DePaul athletic department, it’s easy to see how the two could be a perfect fit.
Editorial: Overhaul years overdue in Athletic Department
When the Blue Demons lost Wednesday’s game against Marquette in the opening round of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, they capped off what should have been a season to remember. But a failed first year at the Wintrust Arena might just be the final straw in over a decade of DePaul being among the most laughable, embarrassing and mismanaged programs in the history of Division 1 NCAA basketball.
A sweeping overhaul of DePaul’s athletic department has been warranted, if not necessary, for years. After Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto paid big bucks for questionable coaches, questions about leadership arose — but former president Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider continued to stand confidently behind his embattled athletic director.
When questioned about the men’s basketball team’s track record under her tenure, the response from the Sullivan Athletic Center and the university tends to be just as empty as the skulls running the department. Pointing to the successes of non-revenue generating sports like softball, women’s basketball, track and field and the academic prowess of their student athletes, the athletic department routinely misses the point of why they exist: to be a billboard of success for the university.
Today, amid growing public outcry, a third swing and miss on a washed-up Dave Leitao, $82.5 million spent on an near-empty arena and a new president ready to make his own mark on the university, the circumstances are ripe for real change.
Now that Wintrust Arena’s first official season is all wrapped up, falling comically short of each and every expectation laid out by DePaul’s athletic department, The DePaulia is making a formal call for change: It is the opinion of this newspaper — and a growing contingent of students and alumni — that the general welfare of DePaul Athletics and the university at large is best served by the termination or resignation of Lenti Ponsetto and her most recent failed hire.
Three strikes and you’re out
Lenti Ponsetto took the reins of the DePaul athletic department shortly after the 2001-02 season came to a close, just as five-year head coach Pat Kennedy ended his run with the program. In Kennedy’s place, exiting athletic director Bill Bradshaw picked former University of Connecticut coach and rising star Dave Leitao to take the helm of the fading men’s basketball program for the 2002-03 season. In his first year, Leitao brought the Blue Demons back to the NIT tournament and then to an NCAA appearance just one year later — a feat that no DePaul men’s basketball team has since achieved.
As many rising coaches eventually do, Leitao left the program following a second straight 20-win season to take a higher paying job at the University of Virginia in 2005.
The Lenti Ponsetto regime, however, didn’t really begin to write its own legacy until 2005, when the Blue Demons took a deep breath and plunged into the elite Big East Conference.
“I am excited for student-athletes, coaches, alumni and fans,” Lenti Ponsetto said at the time. “This invitation to the Big East allows us to renew rivalries with some old friends and positions at DePaul to compete against institutions who share similar philosophies both academically and athletically.”
To this day, the old powerhouse from Lincoln Park — the former face of Chicago basketball — has yet to resurface as Lenti Ponsetto continues to anchor the Blue Demons to the bottom rung of the Big East.
Lenti Ponsetto’s first hire, Jerry Wainwright, was an interesting change of pace to say the least. Leitao was one of the hottest names in college basketball when he left for Virginia, so bringing in a guy in his late 50’s with zero experience in a top-tier conference felt uninspired.
But, to the surprise of many, Wainwright managed to walk the Blue Demons into the quarterfinals of the NIT tournament in just his second year. But the revival didn’t last. Just two years later in 2008-09, Wainwright finished 0-18 in league play and was then fired after an 0-3 start to conference play in the following season.
Scrambling to fix the program as quickly as possible, Lenti Ponsetto turned to Oliver Purnell out of Clemson — a coach with a reputation for fixing struggling basketball programs. He couldn’t have been a bigger bust.
Over Purnell’s five years at DePaul, he racked up a grand total of 15 conference wins, four dead-last finishes and zero postseason appearances while getting paid well over $2 million each year to do it. Hall-of-Fame coaches like Jim Boeheim at Syracuse University made less over the same time.
Late on Leitao
When Lenti Ponsetto announced Leitao would be returning to Lincoln Park for the 2015-16 season, it saw mixed reactions. Leitao had been the last coach to take the Blue Demons dancing back in 2003, but in 2015 no program in the country wanted anything to do with him.
After he left Virginia, Leitao found his way to the head coaching job for the Maine Red Claws of the NBA’s Developmental League before making his way back to college basketball as an assistant for the University of Missouri. By the time he was approached to come back to Lincoln Park and build up the ruins of Blue Demon basketball, he was a mere relic of his old self. Still, Lenti Ponsetto broke out the cash and made Leitao the highest paid employee at the university, where he signed a contract guaranteeing him over $1 million per year.
“I absolutely love this school and everything that it stands for,” Leitao said in 2015. “There isn’t anybody more special in college athletics than Jeanne, and I am honored to help raise the basketball program to the level that she deserves.”
Years one and two back in Chicago did not go as planned for the New England native head coach. Walking away with less than 10 overall wins each season, Blue Demon fans started losing the last shreds of faith they had left. This year Leitao had a more talented roster than any Blue Demon team in recent history, but still only managed 11 wins, 20 losses and a tie for dead-last in the Big East.
If more talent and effectively no progress doesn’t point at a coaching problem, what does? In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that the close losses and victories from Leitao’s season had nothing to do with him at all. Former Blue Demon Levi Cook, who transferred from the school because he felt unsupported by the program during a family crisis, says it was former associate head coach Rick Carter running the show when it counted most.
“When we (beat) Providence and we beat Georgetown, (Carter) was the guy on the clipboard calling all the plays at the end of the game,” Cook said. “I think they’d probably have couple more wins if Carter was there.”
Carter resigned from the university to pursue a business opportunity after the 2016-17 season.
“To everyone else out there, I dare you to give us a try,” Leitao said. “We are absolutely going to make you proud.”
Pride is currently the among the last words or emotions associated with DePaul men’s basketball.
Contempt for the crowd
Lenti Ponsetto’s record running DePaul men’s basketball team speaks for itself and it’s inexcusable — no athletic director with her record handling a flagship program would have lasted half as long as she has. But what may be even more despicable is the way she lies and flip-flops publicly about the issues with men’s basketball.
Earlier this year when speaking with The DePaulia about attendance at Wintrust, Lenti Ponsetto said she didn’t think feasibility projections of 9,500 fans at home games was reasonable and that it was never a target for the university. Upon review of The DePaulia’s archives, that turned out to be a bold faced lie.
Lenti Ponsetto told the DePaulia in 2016 that 9,500 “was a relatively achievable number” and that “they are very confident.”
Even outside the realm of twisting attendance figures, Lenti Ponsetto can’t seem to stick to one story about where the program is going. At the press conference held the day Leitao was announced as head coach, Lenti Ponsetto projected a lot of confidence about the immediate future of DePaul men’s basketball.
“We made it clear to everyone we talked to,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “We don’t see this as a rebuild.”
This past Wednesday before the men’s team took the court at Madison Square Garden, she told the Chicago Tribune a very different story.
“I appreciate we have some fans who want to win right away. I think there are some people who thought as soon as we opened the doors to Wintrust, that was going to equal winning right away,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “For us to be able to really realize the value of having a brand-new facility and amenity space that goes with it, it’s going to take us a few years to do that because it’s a recruiting process.”
Lenti Ponsetto seems to have already forgotten that Tyger Campbell, DePaul’s biggest potential recruit in recent history, attended several games at Wintrust Arena throughout the year and still didn’t move to Lincoln Park. And even if it’s really going to take some time for Wintrust to turn the program around, Lenti Ponsetto may have repelled every recruit in the country with her own words.
“I’m excited (for) what I hear from our longtime, loyal season ticket holders who come to games because they want to support DePaul student-athletes,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “They’re not coming to games expecting it to be the junior NBA.”
Translation: if you’re really good at basketball and want to play in the NBA, don’t come to DePaul.
Today the Blue Demons fester at the bottom of the Big East standings, out of everyone’s sight and mind. Once the face of basketball in the Windy City, programs like Loyola have passed us by, emerging as legitimate, NCAA Tournament worthy programs.
While Lenti Ponsetto continues to lament DePaul’s unique circumstances as an urban university, Loyola — just a few stops up the Red Line — is proving that basketball teams can both win and draw a crowd in the city.