After Wainwright fired, where does DePaul turn?; Missouri on rise
DePaul's lack of support for basketball team has program in down cycle
Missouri not as deep as last year's squad but is better on defensive end
Jim Boeheim enjoying chemistry his Syracuse team has developed this year
Ah, if only we were back in the good old days -- like, three years ago -- when it wasn't until March that I started hearing from fans whose coach just got dumped. Alas, I guess that is officially a bygone era.
Jerry Wainwright, who had a career record of 186-145 before taking over at DePaul five years ago, was let go this week with his Blue Demons carrying a 7-8 record (0-3 Big East), making him the fourth coach this season to lose his job (Fordham's Derek Whittenberg, Penn's Glen Miller and Dartmouth's Terry Dunn are the others). Nobody is surprised that Wainwright didn't last, but even so the timing was illogical and unfortunate. DePaul is going to lose a lot this season no matter who is on the sidelines. Might as well let the guy finish his job.
And so, as I dip into this week's mailbag, let me begin with a couple of disgruntled Windy City natives:
In the wake of the Jerry Wainwright firing, the Chicago Tribune ran an article wondering if anyone can win at DePaul anymore. What's your take? Can DePaul ever get back to where it was in the 1980s? Can it win in any capacity in the hypercompetitive Big East? What would it take?
You're right that Wainwright is a great person (which he is), but as a DePaul season ticket holder (and an Illini grad who worked in the SID office when Bill Self was there), Wainwright was arguably the worst game coach, recruiter and game planner I have ever seen. After 4 1/2 years, I was still not sure what his philosophy was on offense or defense. The next play that DePaul runs will be their first one in a long time. He subbed like it was a hockey game and his teams lacked fundamentals and got worse as the seasons went on. Obviously you never want to see anyone lose their job, but this was long overdue. Four years is enough time to show improvement.
First of all, I disagree with Matt's assessment of Wainwright's coaching abilities. This is still the same guy who went to the NCAA tournament three times in a five-year span at UNC-Wilmington and Richmond. That is not easy to do. I will, however, allow that Wainwright had enough time to show he could win at DePaul, but we all know the reason he didn't: His players weren't good enough. Which, of course, is his fault.
Second, I don't care how bad a coach is. Unless he is abusive to his players or causing some sort of ancillary problem (as apparently was the case at Dartmouth), there is no reason -- none -- to fire him on Jan. 11. The fact is, the school wanted to get rid of Wainwright at the end of last season but couldn't come up with the money to buy him out -- which by today's standards was not a lot. At season's end, athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto ordered Wainwright to change up his staff and he did, which included firing his own son. The school made the decision to stay with the coach, and it should have lived with that decision for another seven weeks.
As for where DePaul goes from here, that terrific Tribune story by Brian Hamilton tells you all you need to know. The only Big East school that spends less money on its men's basketball program is South Florida. The Blue Demons play their games not in a gleaming on-campus arena, and not even in the United Center, but rather at something called Allstate Arena, which sits out by O'Hare airport. As for returning to the glory years of the '80s, I would never say never, but I would say it's not likely. DePaul spent much of its glory days under Ray Meyer as an independent before moving into Conference USA, which provided weaker competition and was a better geographic fit than the Big East. Those days also came before the massive, expensive arms race in which so many schools have spent tens of millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities, leaving the school hopelessly behind the times. At DePaul a great year means you get to finish seventh in the league. Who in the world will want to put up with that?
So you can scratch all the big names off your list if you're hunting for a successor to Wainwright. It goes without saying that the next coach will have to have strong ties to Chicago, because without that there is not much reason why Chicago kids would want to play for DePaul. That's why I agree with many of the experts who have said that the front-runner for the job will be Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery. Not only is Lowery a terrific young coach (though the Salukis have not made the NCAA tournament the last two years after getting there three straight times), but one of his assistant coaches is Lance Irvin, whose father, Mac, runs the premier summer program in Chicago. (You know the high school scene is irrelevant, right?) As Jeff Goodman reported at FoxSports.com, Lowery also coached the son of the man who runs the other prominent program in town, the Illinois Wolves, which produced Evan Turner among other notables who didn't play for DePaul.
Other possibilities being thrown out there are Oregon State's Craig Robinson, who of course brings the cachet of being Barack Obama's brother-in-law, and fellow Chicago native Isiah Thomas. But Oregon State is having a terrible year, and while Zeke would certainly create a splash he also brings with him plenty of baggage. So let me bring up a name that I haven't seen mentioned: Dayton's Brian Gregory, who grew up in Mount Prospect, Ill, just outside of Chicago, was a longtime assistant at Michigan State and has proven that he can recruit and coach city kids from the Midwest. I would argue that the Dayton job is far better than DePaul, but if DePaul came at Gregory with enough money and commitment to the program, I believe he would give a long, hard listen.
As for the rest of the mailbag, I lead with what may be the most prescient e-mail I've ever received. It came in last week from a Tennessee fan before the Volunteers upset top-ranked Kansas:
Setting aside what it means off the court, maybe the situation on the court isn't quite as bad as it looks at Tennessee. Look, I like Tyler Smith and think the other guys have talent, but it seemed this team for a couple of years now has lacked chemistry. When they've been of one mind, they've been fantastic. When they haven't, they've been frustrating as hell. A starting five of Chism, Hopson, Prince, Bobby Maze and maybe Ro Woolridge still has to be able to play with the most of the teams in the country. Now the rest of the guys have clear roles, the rotation will be tighter. The bench isn't deep with scholarship guys, but two of the walk-ons had offers to other D-1 schools, so they're not terrible. Now, this is before the Kansas showdown, but I think there's a good chance we see a tighter, more cohesive, more consistent, albeit less talented, Tennessee team in the coming months.
John, my friend, you are Kreskin. I will have to check in with you before I write my next Pickoff column. Oh, and you got any stock tips?
Better still, it looks like the situation will improve more quickly than either of us anticipated. Bruce Pearl told me on my new show Courtside on CBS College Sports that there is a good chance the remaining three suspended players will return to the team in the foreseeable future. He said he expects to make that decision sometime this week.
Pearl has handled this whole situation like the stand-up guy he is. You should know he agreed to come on the show on Saturday, even before the big upset.