COLUMN: Illinois’ and Loyola Chicago’s success puts more pressure on DePaul to hire right head coach

Chicago News

The game that everyone in the state of Illinois has been waiting for is ready to go.

The Battle for Illinois is set. 

A high-major power versus a mid-major power.

A one-seed taking on an eight-seed for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Loyola Chicago will take on Illinois in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. The winner will hold the bragging rights over the other program and can reign supreme in Illinois. 

It’s not every year that the NCAA Tournament features two college basketball programs from Illinois, let alone those two teams playing each other. Who isn’t excited to watch this game?

Well, how about that team who hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2004? That team that is without a head coach. DePaul and its fans are probably tired of hearing about Sister Jean and Loyola in March, or Illinois’ chances of winning its first national championship. 

Instead, the Blue Demons are participating in March Madness in a different way — searching for a new head coach. DePaul fired Dave Leitao on Monday after serving six years as the program’s head coach. He went 69-112 overall, 21-85 in the Big East and finished in last place in the conference in five consecutive seasons.

“I hope that it is my first and last,” DePaul athletic director DeWayne Peevy told reporters via Zoom on Tuesday. “Right, that’s how you are supposed to get this done. I want to operate at a high level of efficiency. I’ve been prepared for this my whole life, whether it was getting this job of being in this seat, you are not going to be an athletic director if you are not prepared to deal with it. I do understand the important level of it. I do understand being charged with a huge responsibility for Blue Demon nation everywhere.”

This decision will define the Blue Demons’ future, and it will determine if they start closing the gap between them and Loyola and Illinois.

Thirty or 40 years ago it would have been DePaul getting ready to play a big game in March, led by head coach Ray Meyer and stars like Mark Aguirre. I mean that’s all my generation has been told about for the past 15 years: what DePaul men’s basketball used to be. 

The Blue Demons have had nothing to brag about since the turn of the century — only two NCAA Tournament appearances and a boatload of last-place finishes in the Big East since 2005. 

Let’s take a look at what Illinois has done since 2000: 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, a loss in the national championship game in 2005 and a chance to repeat that success again in 2021. 

What about Loyola Chicago? Not nearly the same success as Illinois, but can I interest you in a Final Four appearance in 2018, three Missouri Valley conference regular season titles in the last four years and a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2021?

Not bad for a program that last made the big dance in 1985 before breaking that drought in 2018. 

Right now, with how things stand for Illinois, DePaul and Loyola, the Blue Demons are clinging on for third spot in the relevancy ranks in Chicago. And, yes, that includes the Fighting Illini, who are located in Champaign and are 141 miles away from the Sullivan Athletic Center. 

If you don’t believe me, then go take a look at the sports pages of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. It shouldn’t take long to figure out that Illinois is more relevant than DePaul in the city of Chicago. 

This is why it’s imperative for DePaul to hire the right coach to steer this program in the right direction. The last three head coaches, Jerry Wainwright (2005-09), Oliver Purnell (2010-15) and Leitao (2015-21), have all failed to bring the Blue Demons back to their former glory days.

Now, with a new athletic director in charge after Jean Lenti Ponsetto retired last summer, the Blue Demons have a chance to put themselves in a position moving forward where making the NCAA Tournament is possible. 

“We need to be in the conversation with the programs that are making the tournament every year,” Peevy said. “I want to be in that stratosphere. I want to be looked at as one of those programs where it’s odd if you’re not there.”

Peevy said he wants DePaul to be feared nationally, not just in Chicago. Ever since he took over on Sept. 1 after coming over from Kentucky, he has talked about “dreaming big dreams.” 

This is now his time to make those dreams come to fruition.

“I want to be relevant,” Peevy said. “I want people worrying about us not just in Chicago or this state or this region, but nationally. If we take care of our business and we strive for those types of goals, Chicago will take care of itself. That’s no disrespect to the other Chicago schools. We have a unique opportunity here. I want people to fear what we’re doing.”

Get the right head coach to Lincoln Park, and the Blue Demons can begin their resurgence. 

Fail to do that, teams like Loyola and Illinois will continue to dominate the headlines in Chicago, sinking DePaul further into despair.

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