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The next DePaul coach needs to create fresh highlights

The next DePaul coach needs to create fresh highlights

Dave Leitao is probably on his way out after another disappointing season in Lincoln Park. Can his replacement finally turn things around?

David Brown

Men's basketball at DePaul used to mean something.

If you go to a special room at DePaul's campus and flick on a light, it will shine on a glass trophy case dedicated to celebrating some of the more impressive figures and moments in NCAA men's basketball history.

Ray Meyer. George Mikan. Mark Aguirre. Terry Cummings. Rod Strickland. A national championship from the NIT in 1945. An NCAA Final Four berth in 1979. Legendary individuals, legendary accomplishments for DePaul men's hoops.

Of course, realizing that all of it happened so very long ago, does anyone still remember? Who can verify the legend of the Blue Demons? The answer isn't "nobody," but we come closer with each lost season that passes.

DePaul hoops has become more ghost story than legend.

The Blue Demons fell 94-60 to UConn on Thursday night in the quarterfinal round of the Big East tournament and, considering they finished with a 5-14 record overall, the NCAA tournament won't be calling to offer an at-large bid.

Coach Dave Leitao's record at DePaul is 127-146 over nine seasons, and the team still has a year of probation to serve for an NCAA recruiting violation. Leitao is under contract through 2024, but reports say the rest of his deal isn't guaranteed. If he's not replaced, a lot of people will be surprised.

The next move for new athletic director DeWayne Peevy would be hiring a new coach to lead DePaul out of its self-perpetuating dark age.

We've all heard it before, and many of us have written it before, many times, about how DePaul "needs to be relevant again" locally, regionally and nationally. Win the recruiting battle in Chicago while staying competitive in the state, Big East Conference and nationally. Bring light to a program that’s gone dark.

Only, it's never been this dark. DePaul's record since its most recent NCAA tournament victory, which came in 2004, is 201-324. Previously, when the athletic administration had pivoted to make a change, the situation seemed not great, but also not quite as hopeless.

In 1997, when DePaul hired coach Pat Kennedy, it had been only six years since the Demons reached the NCAA tournament under Joey Meyer.

In 2002, when DePaul hired Dave Leitao to revive the program, it had been only three years since the Demons fell to Kansas in the opening round of the NCAAs.

When DePaul hired Leitao again in 2015, it had been 11 years since the Demons won an NCAA tournament game during his first stint. Before that, DePaul's previous NCAA victory came in 1989. Nineteen-hundred and eighty-nine! Two NCAA tournament victories since Ronald Reagan was president, when you could still climb the Berlin Wall to escape the Iron Curtain.

In the spirit of Reagan: "Mr. Peevy, rebuild this men's basketball program!"

As they build, DePaul will be playing catch-up to their regional rivals. As usual.

Marquette, on the whole, has been the model of what DePaul desires (or should): an urban, Catholic setting with men's basketball leading on a national level. Rarely, since Al McGuire built Marquette's modern program in the 1970s, has the Milwaukee-Chicago juxtaposition ever worked in DePaul's favor. And if you want to compare Al McGuire vs. Ray Meyer regarding hardware, note that McGuire's team won the national championship in 1977. Coach Ray's team won the NIT when it was a bigger tournament than the NCAAs — but also just before the Allies vanquished the Nazis.

Never has the gap with Marquette been this wide. If you needed to be reminded, Marquette has qualified for 12 NCAA berths since 2002 and made the Final Four with Dwyane Wade in '03.

Whatever Marquette can do, DePaul also should be able to do. It also should say that in the mission statement.

Thing is, it's not just Marquette now, but also Loyola in Chicago under coach Porter Moser. The Ramblers made the Final Four in 2018 and are said to have a better team this season. Jumpin' Jesuits! Not to rub it in, but Loyola men's hoops also won a national championship (in 1963) more recently than DePaul. The Alfredrick Hughes Loyola team of 1985 also managed to make the NCAAs with the Meyer Family chi still radiating. So it's not one or the other. DePaul and Loyola can co-exist in the NCAAs at the same damn time.

There's nothing you can do about the University of Illinois. It's just harder when they're competent or better, like now.

So, what should Peevy do? He comes from Kentucky, where he was an assistant AD who did a lot of fundraising. Marquette obviously has been outspending DePaul — 2-to-1, 3-to-1, whatever — for at least as long as anyone the schools currently recruit has been alive. Maybe their parents too.

Peevy coming from U-K doesn't mean he would be able to extract John Calipari, who signed a contract extension in 2019 worth about $86 million. Hey, is Coach Cal sick of Lexington yet? No matter, DePaul should still be able to get a young coach willing and able to build from the ashes up.

How about Bryan Mullins, the men's coach at Southern Illinois? It would require an aggressive move, because he's only finishing his second season there after assisting Moser at Loyola, but the guy knows how to build a program at a Catholic/urban school, having just done it. Plus, there can't be that much difference between the Jesuit and the Vincentian ways, if that's a hangup.

DePaul also might need to step it up in the practice facilities department, although they always have the excuse of being limited by the square footage available to build in Lincoln Park. Alas, this is due to real estate mistakes made by school administrations of the far past.

While the facilities don’t rank highly among other Power Five schools, they do seem to be good enough for coach Doug Bruno and the women's program, which is frequently ranked nationally and almost always reaches the NCAA tournament. Lay that guilt trip on the boys.

DePaul's men need their own Doug Bruno, or Al McGuire, or somebody, to become competitive again on the recruiting trail — in Chicago, in the Big East and nationally. It's going to take enthusiasm, money, a strong work ethic, winning, more money, and a memory of what can be done at DePaul. Other than for fleeting moments over the past 30-something years, everyone else has failed.

It's been long enough. Time to flip DePaul's light switch again, before nobody remembers the fading legend of the once-great Blue Demons.

David Brown attended DePaul from 1997-2001. To get more Chicago sports writing like this in your inbox, sign up for the free Midway Minute newsletter below.