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Editorial: Overhaul years overdue in Athletic Department

The+Blue+Demons+were+once+the+face+of+Chicago+basketball+during+the+1970%27s+and+80%27s+but+under+Jean+Lenti+Ponsetto%27s+leadership+they+have+faded+into+irrelevancy.+%28Ally+Zacek+%7C+The+DePaulia%29
The Blue Demons were once the face of Chicago basketball during the 1970's and 80's but under Jean Lenti Ponsetto's leadership they have faded into irrelevancy. (Ally Zacek | The DePaulia)

The Blue Demons were once the face of Chicago basketball during the 1970's and 80's but under Jean Lenti Ponsetto's leadership they have faded into irrelevancy. (Ally Zacek | The DePaulia)

The Blue Demons were once the face of Chicago basketball during the 1970's and 80's but under Jean Lenti Ponsetto's leadership they have faded into irrelevancy. (Ally Zacek | The DePaulia)

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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.

20 Comments

20 Responses to “Editorial: Overhaul years overdue in Athletic Department”

  1. Terry Sidlow on March 12th, 2018 9:29 am

    Bravo DePaulia. My wife, late son and I are DePaul alums and former season ticket holders. This recommended action is long overdue. Recent responses from the A.D. are at best sophomoric and more likely delusional. University leadership at the board level has been derelict in providing oversight to the flagship athletic program.

    [Reply]

  2. mike on March 12th, 2018 9:54 am

    GREAT ARTICLE!!! TRUE STATS, GET RID OF HER AND GET PITINO!!!! HE CAN TURN IT AROUND, AND IM SURE HE HAS SOMETHING TO PROVE.

    [Reply]

  3. Ryan ward on March 12th, 2018 10:16 am

    Well done with this and exposing the truth. A long overdue analysis and insight into the grossly mismanaged tenure of JLP.

    Patience can only be expected for so long and after 3 disastrous hires the time once again presents itself for DePaul to acknowledge responsibility and make the necessary changes. I assume DePaul won’t do that and instead will continue preaching patience and lean on the narrative of “doing things right”. Which begs a follow question to JLP around the Melvin situation and APR failing in ’06.

    [Reply]

  4. Frank on March 12th, 2018 10:28 am

    They got their shiny new arena and still stink. So much for the talk about a new arena and what it would do for the program. It’s simply a continuation of the suckfest that has been going on for the past 12 years. At one time, the program actually meant something to the city even if you didn’t attend the school. They celebrate “close losses” and tell us to be patient. Forget it folks, hold onto the nostalgia of the past because I’m not sure this program would make the final four of the IHSA.

    [Reply]

  5. Dan on March 12th, 2018 11:17 am

    Great reporting! Really can’t believe it’s taken this long for enough people to get upset to start doing something. She’s had too many chances. Bad decision after bad decision. No way she would have kept her job at any other school. Time to wipe the whole slate clean and give fans something to look forward to on the court. Make the change! I hope they have the fortitude to do what’s right. Bye JLP.

    [Reply]

  6. Mtw on March 12th, 2018 1:03 pm

    Great article!!! Quit calling for pitino tho guys, he’s a slime ball!!! Tom crean, Payne from Kentucky are much better options

    [Reply]

  7. Michael on March 12th, 2018 1:28 pm

    Great article. As a 1976 graduate and long time season ticket holder it sickens me to see the sad state of the men’s basketball program. We gave up our tickets after many years rather than follow them downtown into the new crystal palace just to watch more losing and more excuses. I love my Blue Demons, but It’s time for a new AD and coach.

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  8. Michael Wedeven on March 12th, 2018 3:25 pm

    As a DePaul alumn and die hard Demon basketball fan, I have been wanting Lenti Ponsetto removed for quite some time now. She has been not only an abysmal failure, but her delusions of grandeur are quite something to behold. She cannot own a mirror….because ANYONE with a soul who has led this once proud program into the ground cannot in good conscience look at themselves in the mirror and be PROUD of what they have accomplished. Just for her own morality….she should step down!! She will not, as she holds onto this position like a Pope. It will take the kind of pressure we see here to have her REMOVED and I pray daily that it happens SOON! I want my DePaul Men’s Basketball program back JLP and the ONLY way that will happen is for you to hit the bricks. So for the love of EVERYTHING HOLY…..realize and accept the fact that you have been an unmitigated disaster and step down….OR….DPU….wake up and FIRE HER!

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  9. Scott on March 12th, 2018 4:24 pm

    Great article! I am a recent alum, and have known nothing but being a Big East bottom feeder for as long as I’ve been bleeding blue and red. I’ve been following college athletics a long time, and no AD has had this long of a leash. Change needs to be made!

    [Reply]

  10. Mike on March 12th, 2018 5:42 pm

    Fantastic article. Tyger Campbell giving us the Heisman should be the final nail in the coffin. You had him and somehow you lost him. Time to clean house. I do like Tom Crean for head coach.

    [Reply]

  11. Mike Potter on March 12th, 2018 6:32 pm

    DePaulia Question: Are there other significant AD criticisms other than Men’s basketball? Honest question. You should take a look. Other sports have seemingly thrived under JLP, Women’s Basketball is a top 10 program, Softball has had way more success than many Big Ten programs. Facilities are great, BUT WILL NEVER BE Power 5 Conference football school quality. Yes, Men’s Basketball is the only one that matters, but with the new Arena I think that could change with a new hire. Don’t kid yourself, JLP has a committee that hires Men’s BB coaches, it’s naïve to suggest she does it herself.. JLP inherited RosemontAllstate, traffic and all.. An on campus arena in one of the highest priced real estate areas in the world doesn’t really work. DePaul has a very modest endowment for a university of it’s size, it’s not Notre Dame. I honestly don’t know, is it fair to say DePaul is doing OK other than Men’s BB? I’m not making an excuse, but I it seems reasonable. I think DePaul is a diamond in the rough for a young up and coming coach. If she nailed the next hire, is all good?

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  12. Alum on March 12th, 2018 6:59 pm

    DePaul please make a change

    [Reply]

  13. Richard Nelson on March 12th, 2018 7:49 pm

    Thank you so much for giving this issue the attention it deserves! I started my freshman year at DePaul 6 years ago, going to many home games. The few students that made the trip to Rosement were talking about how she needed to be fired immediately.

    6 years later, we are still here. She would have been fired anywhere else TEN YEARS AGO. She has to go. We can only praise her for the other sports for so long…

    [Reply]

  14. Jerry Lange on March 12th, 2018 9:21 pm

    All true. Good people sometimes make poor leaders. DePaul was the face of Chicago basketball, but the audience today has no idea about that, because its been so long ago……..very sad.

    I am a season ticket holder, but won’t be next year if there the University does not make changes, been fooled long enough. The new arena is beautiful, but remains empty, very empty, Can’t anyone see that. Students could care less, and that’s evident by the lack of student attendance. Maybe 16 max any game.

    Current coach quit on DePaul for Virginia, and we hire him back………odd! How’s Virginia doing without him now………right…… #1 seed.

    Please restore the past proud Blue Demon tradition. Hopefully our new President has the leadership to enact needed changes.

    [Reply]

  15. Kevin Brooks on March 12th, 2018 10:53 pm

    As an alum I find this basketball program an absolute embarrassment. I knew once they hired Leitao back the program had no interest trying to compete. FIRE PONSETTO!

    [Reply]

  16. Michael Class '13 on March 13th, 2018 8:20 am

    Terrific article! All we want is for her to be held accountable the same way everyone else is. I was one of the few to actually attend games during my time at school. I went to 32 games as a student and they won 4! The DePaul basketball program is an embarrassment to all alums and it has become a joke around the city. I don’t want to hear about how DePaul is behind the eight ball because they don’t have a football team. Tell that to Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. Johns, Xavier and all the rest of the teams in the Big East. If anything, being based in Chicago should give them an advantage over schools based in Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Cincinnati. The DePaul athletic department is being run like a mom and pop shop and Father H let it slide. Hope the new president finally puts his foot down!

    [Reply]

  17. Mike Enright on March 13th, 2018 8:50 am

    Review the Tv coverage of DePaul’s Big East conf. game./ loss. Leitao was on camera telling his team that they need energy- saying this with an energized emphasis of a paralyzed snail. During one of the last time outs, Leitao was filmed in the huddle methodically saying” guys you kinda wanna do something to get excited, like slap the floor or something,.” The players looked at him like “whatever”. He has the motivational speaking skills of Knute Rockne, no not from Knute of the 1920’s, but his present day coffin remains. Marquette played 2) 5’10 guards and DePaul did not use their size advantages in the post once. Time for an overhaul, but it sure is nice to know that the softball team is doing so well, those crowds of 30+ people and the nacho sales should be enough to cover the cost of Leitao’s kleenex supply.

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  18. Soveryblue on March 13th, 2018 5:08 pm

    This is amazing reporting.
    While you’re at it, please investigate the Athletics graduate assistant program, and the bullying behavior of Karen Loiacono. Long hours, middle of the night emails and empty promises for more workers and pay. And Peter Tombasco and his belittling behavior toward the student workers.Find out what really happened to Statz and McDonough. Did they decide to stop being puppets to JLP? Did Hurley and
    Drew really decline to work at DePaul due to the
    lack of commitment to winning?
    Kudos to Bruno, but let’s get real. UConn and ND leaving for new conferences sure helped their opportunities for conference championships.
    There are more problems there than just basketball.

    [Reply]

  19. Sandyinaccounting on March 14th, 2018 8:46 am

    How does Max Strus,’ Mom get that job as assistant coach of Volleyball? Mmmmmm…was she more qualified than other candidates? If so, then let’s hear that now, because this sure smells funny once again. More investigation needed since the Depaulia has finally shined a light on this poorly run family department. As stated in the last post, this is not just about basketball.

    [Reply]

  20. Hank Scorpio on March 22nd, 2018 9:55 am

    What a great story. Very proud of DePaul. #fireJLP

    [Reply]

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Editorial: Overhaul years overdue in Athletic Department