Commentary: A long summer at Sullivan Athletic Center
September 10, 2018
If you followed the DePaul Blue Demons athletic department over the summer, you probably spent some time scratching your head.
From recruiting drama to sudden, high-profile retirements, to text messages from Rick Pitino, the Sullivan Athletic Center was a place where mystery abounded.
It was a high school standout from New Haven, Michigan who gave the Blue Demons athletic department a hot start to the summer. In a live-streamed press conference from his high school gym, the 6-foot-7-inch Romeo Weems stunned everyone when he picked up the blue DePaul hat, stood and placed it comfortably on his head.
“I know everybody is going to ask, why DePaul?” Weems said. “But why not DePaul? They asked me when I came to New Haven, why New Haven? I’ve always been different. I feel DePaul is rebuilding, but when I get there we are going to be successful.”
It’s a fair question, given that he chose a basement-dweller over programs like Michigan and Michigan State- and everybody outside Lincoln Park seemed to be asking it. Tyger Campbell received similar inquiries after his verbal commitment in May 2017, but that actually made a little bit of sense.
The Blue Demon coaching staff has a history of targeting and recruiting players from Campbell’s high school, La Lumiere in La Porte, Indiana, and Dave Leitao even hired Campbell’s former coach, Shame Heirman, in an effort to cement his La Lumiere pipeline.
Weems simply defied our conventional wisdom about recruiting in NCAA basketball and he may be the player to set the program back on a path to its former glory. But for now, it’s fingers crossed until signing day.
Just a few days after the best men’s basketball news since (arguably long before) Tyger Campbell, the Blue Demons suffered a blow to their 2018- 19 roster with the exit of sophomore point guard Justin Roberts.
“After talking to my Family and praying over it, I decided that continuing my basketball and education at DePaul University isn’t what’s best for me,” Roberts said in a tweet.
“I just think it’s better to re-open my recruiting process and seek other opportunities. I want to thank the University [sic] for the opportunity and the people who truly cared about me during my freshman year. I will forever love my teammates and will never forget the times we shared on and off the court.”
Roberts’ exit is concerning for a couple of reasons. For one, the Blue Demons struggled to stick with a point guard for the much of the season after Devin Gage suffered a season-ending achilles injury and keeping some depth at the point guard position with an untested Flynn Cameron and a recovering Gage could be huge. Depth troubles last year put talented scorers like Eli Cain on the ball and out of rhythm, helping to produce an abysmal year on offense.
Roberts also showed flashes of brilliance last year. In DePaul’s road match with the University of Illinois, he dropped a season-high 19 points, five rebounds and five assists. He continued to play second fiddle to Gage at point guard until the injury, but never earned the starting role due to inconsistency and fluctuating minutes.
The summer narrative for all things DePaul athletics took a sudden, yet quiet, turn in the second week of June. After nearly four decades as coach of the Blue Demon softball program, Eugene Lenti retired shortly after a second- straight Big East Championship title.
The retirement of the long-time softball coach isn’t so strange within itself. Senior second baseman Sabrina Kuchta said Lenti had mentioned retirement coming at some time in the not-too-distant future, but nobody expected it to come this year.
What makes Lenti’s departure especially strange is the silence. After more than 30 years running what has often been DePaul’s most competitive sports program, you would expect a heartfelt send off. Or, at the very least, a public statement from the athletic director — especially if she is your sister.
But there was nothing. Generally when The DePaulia reports on the departure of a notable university employee, university public relations officials send out a press release. When we took the rumors we received to the the athletic department for confirmation and comment, there was no answer. Instead, the university’s public relations office responded to confirm his retirement and provide a statement from Lenti himself.
But now, three months later, Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto is still yet to make a single public comment regarding her brother’s exit, but made quick work of finding his replacement in former star Blue Demon pitcher Tracie Adix-Zins.
The most notable DePaul athletics story of the summer came a little over a month ago when text messages from Rick Pitino surfaced in court filings that suggested DePaul offered five-star 2017 recruit Brian Bowen $200,000 to become a Blue Demon.
“Coach DePaul [sic] trying to pay Bowen 200K to come here. Crazy world!” Pitino wrote to his former assistant coach, Kenny Johnson.
Pitino fired back, saying his text was meant as a joke and that the source of his information was untrustworthy. The former Louisville head coach went as far as to say that Bowen wasn’t worth paying to play, even though Bowen took $100,000 to attend Louisville, thus launching the scandal that pushed Pitino out of the NCAA and into the lawsuit that exposed the text messages. Former DePaul coach Rick Carter also denied the allegations.
So did DePaul offer to pay Bowen? We don’t know, but it would be quite embarrassing if we did. Having a prospect deny $200,000 to play for half as much somewhere else would highlight so clearly the state of Blue Demon basketball — so bad we can’t even cheat well.
That story seems to have blown over for now, but the athletic department didn’t make a very strong denial, if any, when the news broke.
“DePaul University takes seriously the high standards of conduct expected in our athletics department and will not tolerate deviation from those standards. To date, neither the NCAA nor federal prosecutors have contacted us about this matter. We will, of course, fully cooperate if contacted in the future by
the NCAA or federal law enforcement.”
Those sound an awful lot like the words of somebody who did the crime but hasn’t been caught yet, but public relations hasn’t been a strong suit of the men’s basketball program, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in press releases from the Sullivan Athletic Center.
Finally, the summer concluded with some all-to-familiar recruiting whiplash. On August 12, Terrance Shannon gave his verbal commitment to the Blue Demons from just down the road. The Lincoln Park High School standout chose his neighborhood school, placing DePaul’s 2019 recruiting class in the top 10 nationwide.
Then pulled back on his commitment less than a week later. And just like Tyger, he made clear on his twitter account that DePaul was still in the running but he needed more time to make his decision. And so, another waiting game begins.
All of this is contributing to the growing pressure surrounding the program and Lenti Ponsetto’s athletic department. Even the good news, like the commitment of Weems, puts more pressure on Leitao and his staff to keep recruits on board and help them win games.
The DePaulia will continue to put pressure on the administration and keep our readers as informed as we can about the state of the athletic department throughout the coming year. But until there is notable change, in either leadership or the success of the men’s basketball program, our eyes will remain fixed on DePaul athletics in support of the student body (athletes included), faculty and staff.