COLUMN: DePaul has to find its identity before becoming ‘Chicago’s team’ again

New DePaul men’s basketball head coach Tony Stubblefield outlined his vision for the program when he was introduced at Wintrust Arena.

One phrase that stuck out during his press conference was, “We will become Chicago’s team again.”

But what exactly does it mean to be “Chicago’s team?”

“I think it’s a team that resonates with the city, a team that people think about,” said Adam Rittenberg, senior college football writer at ESPN and faculty at DePaul. “It’s always going to be a pro sports town but when you’re trying to label yourself that, you’re trying to enter the mind of all Chicago sports fans.” 

In the battle to be Chicago’s team, as it stands, DePaul is not in the conversation.

The Blue Demons have finished in last place in the Big East for five straight seasons. The last time they made the NCAA Tournament was back in 2004 during Dave Leitao’s first stint as head coach when they were in the Conference USA. 

Given how long DePaul has been mired in mediocrity, becoming the city’s team “again” may have raised a few eyebrows. Did DePaul ever hold that moniker to begin with?

“I think so, definitely in the late ‘70s and ‘80s,” Rittenberg said. “The combination of a really good team, a team that went to the Final Four in ‘70, and the connection with WGN. I remember growing up in California, I would see DePaul basketball on WGN. I had no idea who they were, but they were consistently good throughout the end of the Ray Meyer era and into the Joey Meyer era. They were a team that mattered in Chicago. It’s obviously not the case much anymore.”

As far as who can claim that tag at the moment, there is little argument that it belongs to Loyola given their recent run of success. Loyola has made the NCAA Tournament and made deep runs in two out of the last four seasons.

“There’s been this real longing for one of these city teams to emerge and I think the hope’s always hinged on DePaul just because of the rich tradition of basketball at DePaul,” said Shannon Ryan, college football and basketball reporter at the Chicago Tribune. “But Loyola doesn’t use that tag of ‘we’re Chicago’s team’ but Chicago really has embraced Loyola these last couple of years because, whether you went there or not, it just seemed like the city was really eager to get behind a team doing really well here.”

For a program like DePaul, falling behind Loyola is unacceptable. DePaul plays in the Big East, which is considered a tougher league than the Missouri Valley Conference. But Loyola was able to do something DePaul hasn’t — build an identity. 

That identity can be built from more than just basketball. Loyola proved that with Sister Jean. She was a good representative of the school and added more national spotlight to the university.

It’s an aspect DePaul should aim to emulate from the Ramblers.

“Loyola was a largely irrelevant program until the last few years,” Rittenberg said. “But what they did is they found the right coach, which has been a big problem at DePaul. They’ve had an identity issue at DePaul. Loyola was able to capture who they wanted to be. They got into the right conference, they invested in their program after an incredible year when they made the Final Four and now they’re set up to at least have a chance to have a really good program outside of that coach.”

For anyone who has been following DePaul, the “right” coach has been a point of contention. Leitao’s second stint did not go as expected. In any other program, he might not have lasted as long as he did, given the team’s consistent underperformance during those six years.

To become Chicago’s team, the fastest route is simple — win. Normally, winning fixes everything. However, in college, it takes a little bit more and it goes back to the concept of identity.

“They have to market their value in the city,” said Joshua Hicks, DePaul graduate student and senior writer at WARR media. “They are in the heart of downtown with D1 sports and other strong academic programs. Use all of those tools to market the school and target the local high schools, whether it is through CPS, charter, etc. Hit the areas where most colleges won’t; the under-privileged, low-income areas of the city.”

Identity goes hand-in-hand with establishing a connection. For DePaul to get back into the minds of Chicago sports fans, they need to do a better job of recruiting local talent. Sustained success is great, but it means just a little bit more when the success is brought about by talent with roots in the city.

DePaul should have a leg up on some of their city competition. Northwestern, who market themselves as Chicago’s Big Ten team, have only made the NCAA Tournament once back in 2017. UIC has made it only three times, with the last appearance coming in 2004.

The Blue Demons have a large number of alumni in the city, play in the Big East and have Wintrust Arena — all factors that should attract top local talent. But sustained failure and poor administration have held DePaul back.

What will it take for DePaul to become Chicago’s team?

“Until DePaul is this regular top, or near the top, of the Big East and making annual NCAA Tournament appearances consistently, and then winning there as well, then they’d be embraced as ‘you’re our team,’ whether you went to DePaul or not,” Ryan said. “You’d have this connection to the city. Being in a pro town has its own unique challenges where you have to do really well to catch people’s attention, so you can’t be mediocre. You’ve got to really wow people here when it comes to the college teams to have them get behind you.”

DePaul has taken steps to try to improve. They hired a new athletic director in DeWayne Peevy and hired Stubblefield as coach. These are steps in the right direction.

“They’re in a position to sort of turn the page and now they have to give this coach the support he needs to get out and form that identity,” Rittenberg said. “Kind of like Porter Moser did at Loyola or even Chris Collins when he started at Northwestern. You need to have that and then, obviously, recruit well.”

For DePaul, the battle for Chicago, if you will, is not over. In some ways, it’s just beginning. While Loyola may be at the top, they’re going through some restructuring given the loss of a couple of players and their coach, who departed for Oklahoma. 

DePaul needs to establish itself as a basketball program that players want to come to and make better. It’s going to take more than marketing the old logo but with new faces in charge; it will require a clean slate. One with renewed hope.