COLUMN: Pressure is now on President Esteban to hire the right athletic director


Ryan Gilroy | The DePaulia

President Esteban speaking at 2019’s State of the University address.

It has been nearly three years since A. Gabriel Esteban took over from Dennis H. Holtschneider as DePaul’s president. During these three years, several facets of the university have experienced plenty of changes under Esteban — except the athletic department.
Under Esteban, the athletic department, run by Jean Lenti Ponsetto, has been given the freedom to do as they please. No matter the scandals that have come out of the Sullivan Athletic Center and the men’s basketball program’s continued free fall to irrelevancy, there was no change.
That is up until recently when Lenti Ponsetto announced she will be retiring this summer after 18 years as DePaul’s athletic director. Esteban, who has publicly backed Lenti Ponsetto, will now be forced to make an important decision regarding the athletic department.
The DePaulia requested to talk to Esteban about Lenti Ponsetto’s retirement and the state of DePaul athletics, but he declined the interview because of the “pending AD search.”
After Lenti Ponsetto announced her retirement, The DePaulia asked for a comment from one of the members of the Board of Trustees, but that person also declined to comment.
DePaul hasn’t always been transparent about everything they do, especially when it comes to the athletic department, but this was their chance to be open with the university’s fan base about the search. Instead, they are opting to keep this search private.
Depending on who they hire, the search will determine if the path Esteban and the Board of Trustees are taking is the right one. It will be Esteban who takes the heat from fans if they don’t agree with the hire, but it’s ultimately up to the Board of Trustees to approve that decision. They have also sat idly by these last couple of years, letting Lenti Ponsetto make one poor decision after another.
And it was the board who approved men’s basketball head coach Dave Leitao’s four-year contract extension in April — a coach that is 64-98 since returning to DePaul in 2015.
When DePaul announced that Lenti Ponsetto will be retiring, they said the school will conduct and complete a national search for a new athletic director over the summer. Well, it’s now Esteban’s time to put down his mark on DePaul athletics.
Change in the athletic department has been overdue for years, even before Esteban came over from Seton Hall in 2017. When Esteban was named Seton Hall’s president in 2010, it took him less than a month to replace the athletic director. At DePaul, however, he didn’t hold Lenti Ponsetto accountable for damaging DePaul athletics.
From the poor play of the men’s basketball program, to the NCAA suspending Leitao and placing the program on probation for three years, to the Wintrust Arena naming rights agreement, to the scandal involving former softball coach Eugene Lenti, there has been no accountability with the athletic department.
But now Esteban will have to hire a new athletic director, one that will be challenged with fixing multiple issues surrounding DePaul athletics. So, DePaul now faces a question: In what direction do they want to take the athletic department?
If this will truly be a national search, then there’s no reason for Esteban to hire anyone from within the DePaul circle. Lenti Ponsetto has been affiliated with DePaul for 46 years and most of the people inside the athletic department have some sort of prior affiliation with the school — but that hasn’t worked out particularly well the last 18 years.
The other criteria that Esteban and the school need to consider is which person will be best equipped to bring the men’s basketball program back to relevancy. Like it or not, Lenti Ponsetto has done more damage than good for the school’s flagship program.
When The DePaulia asked Esteban about the state of the men’s basketball program, he was hesitant to criticize Lenti Ponsetto.
“Am I supposed to ignore student athlete success in other sports all at the expense of men’s basketball?” Esteban said to The DePaulia in 2018.
Nobody is saying to ignore other sports, but there is a reason why Leitao is the highest paid person at the university. Basketball matters more than the other sports because it brings in the most money, and there’s much more attention on them than the other programs. And in 18 years under Lenti Ponsetto, the Blue Demons have gone from being Chicago’s college basketball team to irrelevant in Lincoln Park.
“We always have to keep in mind that these are student-athletes not athlete-students,” Esteban said in 2018. “And sometimes I think we forget the student part… we’ve been retaining and graduating our student-athletes at rates that are higher than the national average. Having said that, I understand the desire for our, in particular, men’s basketball program to be good.”
No offense, but that’s an excuse.
Villanova’s men’s basketball program won the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and 2018, while also scoring a perfect 1,000 in the Academic Progress Rate. Under Lenti Ponsetto, the men’s basketball team has only scored a perfect APR one time.
So, please save us this pity party of how well your student-athletes are doing in the classroom. As Villanova has shown, being successful in the classroom and on the court at the same time is possible.
Lenti Ponsetto was allowed to hire three different head coaches, Jerry Wainwright, Oliver Purnell and Leitao, and all of them dug DePaul into a bigger hole. But it was Lenti Ponsetto who gave all three coaches seven figure contracts for a combined one NIT appearance. And how can we forget about the famous CBI run in 2019?
When DePaul moved from Allstate Arena to Wintrust Arena in 2017, that was supposed to signal a change for the program. It did not. The Blue Demons have remained the laughingstock of the Big East, with four straight last place finishes following the team.
In April, a lawsuit was filed by Dr. Jenny Convisier, alleging that former women’s softball head coach Eugene Lenti verbally and physically abused his players and assistant coaches. Lenti, who is also the brother of Lenti Ponsetto, surprisingly retired in the summer of 2018 without any formal announcement from the athletic department. Since the lawsuit was filed, Esteban and Lenti Ponsetto have remained quiet.
Not a great look for two people that have already been severely criticized by fans and alumni. DePaul’s fan base has also been increasingly frustrated with the direction of the men’s basketball program, with most of their ire being pointed toward Lenti Ponsetto. She’s now leaving, and it opens the door for Esteban to bring in a person who can give DePaul a fresh, progressive look.
The new athletic director will have more challenges than just fixing the men’s basketball team, but figuring out that mess will solve a lot of problems. DePaul has been out of the national landscape for too long, especially as the largest Catholic university in the country, to continue with the status quo.
Esteban can stay quiet about the school’s process to hire a new athletic director, but donors and ticket-holders will keep a close eye on who he hires, and it will tell them everything about DePaul’s commitment to winning.
For Esteban, this is his one opportunity to overhaul DePaul’s athletic department. For the sake of DePaul athletics, this has to be a home run hire.