Daily Herald
With Purnell, DePaul lands experienced rehab expert
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 4/6/2010 7:01 AM | Updated: 4/6/2010 7:52 PM

The Oliver Purnell file

Born: May 19, 1953

Record (22 years): 394-279 (.585)

Six NCAA bids (0-6)

Eight NIT bids (10-8)

PREVIOUS STOPS

Clemson (2003-10): 138-88

Dayton (1994-03): 155-166

Old Dominion (1991-94): 57-33

Radford (1988-91): 44-42

Oliver Purnell is college basketball's version of an "American Picker" - a man who rummages through others' attics to discover intriguing antiques that regain their value with a lot of TLC.

Purnell is the guy who purchases distressed properties at real estate auctions and flips them only after putting in the extensive rehab work.

And, as of Tuesday, Purnell's name is on the title of college basketball's most renovation-needy project: DePaul.

After a whirlwind wooing from DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto - they didn't start talking until late last week - the 56-year-old Purnell signed a 7-year contract estimated at $2 million per season to become the school's 13th head coach.

He earned the nod based on the strength of his painstaking rebuilding jobs at Clemson, Dayton, Old Dominion and Radford - and his love for that type of task.

"As the recruitment of me kind of heated up," Purnell said, "as I thought about DePaul, it became apparent to me that this kind of challenge is something I have a passion for: To have an opportunity to restore a once-great program to where it belongs.

"DePaul belongs in the elite of college basketball. DePaul belongs in the elite of the Big East. DePaul belongs as Chicago's college basketball team."

While Purnell was busy reaping the spoils of his work at Clemson - the Tigers earned no worse than a No. 7 NCAA Tournament seed in each of the last three years - DePaul was busy becoming a BCS afterthought.

The Blue Demons went 28-66 over the last three years with an 8-49 showing against Big East comrades.

Taking a broader perspective, DePaul owns just one NCAA Tournament win and two appearances in the last 18 years... so Purnell's lack of success at that level (0-6 during his 22-year career) doesn't matter as much as the fact he built his programs to get to that point.

Ponsetto, who led the search with help from consultant Linda Bruno of Bruno Sports Enterprises, claimed Purnell was at the top of her radar from the start.

He fulfilled her desire to find a proven winner who rebuilds programs, but Purnell has little experience with the unique Chicago recruiting scene.

"He doesn't recruit in Chicago regularly," said Ponsetto, who has known Purnell for nearly 20 years. "But everywhere he has been, he has developed and created the kinds of relationships that have drawn people to him. He has made parents want to send sons to him because he's such a great mentor and such a great role model."

Purnell plans to rectify the Chicago angle by hiring a "power staff" with local recruiting expertise.

He didn't promise to keep any of DePaul's current assistants - former interim coach Tracy Webster, David Booth, Billy Garrett and Tom Kleinschmidt - but didn't rule it out either.

Purnell didn't meet with his new players (or contact DePaul's three incoming freshmen who've signed letters of intent) until after being introduced Tuesday, but the players are intrigued by his reputation.

At Clemson, he employed a diamond-and-one press that led to lots of turnovers and uptempo play.

"That is my preferred style," Purnell said. "But at Dayton, we were more of a power team, more of a half-court man-to-man team. The reason that we were is because of the personnel that we had and the personnel we thought we could recruit."

Junior forward Eric Wallace, a North Carolina native who was recruited briefly by Purnell, hopes his new coach opts for a more aggressive style after becoming familiar with his players.

"It speaks for itself," Wallace said. "I think he has a good palette with the players he has here to install that same game.

"He's a really good guy. He rewards hard work. Instills defense. He just loves to win."

Clemson, where he won 93 games over the last four years, was stunned to discover Purnell wanted to win elsewhere.

"I'm not sure I know what to say," Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips. "I'm in a little bit of shock. ... I'm as surprised as anyone."

But as Purnell evaluated DePaul's recent performance while debating whether to take the job, he was reminded of his Dayton days.

When he took over from Jim O'Brien in 1994, he inherited a program that went 10-47 in its two previous seasons with just four conference wins.

Purnell took his lumps his first year (0-12 in the Great Midwest), but posted a winning record in Year 2 and earned 21 wins and an NIT berth in Year 4.

In his final four years at Dayton before departing for Clemson, Purnell earned two NCAA bids and two NIT spots.

That might be too slow of a rebuild to suit DePaul's remaining fans, but at least the Dayton experience allows Purnell to understand how comprehensive this job will be.

"Our players and, to a degree, our fans and supporters there were fractured, if you will," he said. "Kind of gotten beat down so much in the last 3-4 years that their expectation was not to do so well.

"We had to change that mindset. That was probably the biggest obstacle because your mind leads your body.

"To generate a feeling a hope, to generate excitement, to generate positiveness, to generate belief: I think those are some of the things you want to start with."

Habitat for Hoops

Oliver Purnell, DePaul's new basketball coach, has rebuilt four programs in his 22-year career as a head coach, with 6 NCAA bids:

At Clemson (2003-2009): 138-88 overall (.611), 50-62 ACC (.446)

At Dayton (1994-2003): 155-116 overall (.572)

At Old Dominion (1991-1994): 57-33 overall (.633)

At Radford (1988-1991): 44-42 overall (.512)

Overall record: 394-279 (.585); Conference: 171-161 (.515)