"The first few years I was in a daze," he says. "I didn't know what it was all about. Plus, we didn't have much to sell because we hadn't been winning. So when I went in to talk to a top local player like Bo Ellis, it was a joke. I was out of my league."
Ellis went on to Marquette and helped win the national championship in 1977. But by 1977-78 DePaul had put together enough talent of its own to go 27-3. The star of that team was Dave Corzine, a big center from Chicago who had been considered a disciplinary risk by many colleges. "A lot of people said we were taking a chance with Dave," Joe Meyer says, "but with him we began to turn the corner. The player who finally changed everything was Aguirre."
Joe Meyer recruited Aguirre—and Dillard—almost by accident. During their junior year at Westinghouse, Meyer was in hot pursuit of their senior teammate Eddie Johnson. Aguirre was hoping to go to Marquette in two years, but when Al McGuire announced his resignation, effective at the end of that season, Aguirre began to listen to what Meyer was telling Johnson about DePaul. "I liked his approach," Aguirre recalls. "He said DePaul was building a program, and he didn't try to win you with the limelight. Eddie went to Illinois because he wanted to go away to school, but I decided I wanted to stay in Chicago and go to DePaul."
Because Aguirre and Dillard had already pretty much decided to attend the same school, Joe Meyer found himself with not one player but two. After so many recruiting disappointments, however, he refused to take anything for granted, so he made a point of watching every one of their high school games. "I kept telling him I was coming and that he should go get us somebody to play with," says Aguirre, "but I don't guess he believed me."
In fact, Meyer felt it was too good to be true. "Getting Mark meant a lot to me personally, because I had taken so much abuse," says Joe. "The only problem was that it was too early to tell anybody we had him. People would tell me I didn't have a chance at him, and I just bit my tongue."
Aguirre's greatest importance, says Meyer, was that he "opened the door to the public league." By enrolling, he proved that Chicago's best talent not only could be attracted to DePaul, but that they also could make the basketball team nationally prominent. Last year, while Dillard improved his grades at Casper ( Wyo.) Junior College, Aguirre averaged 24 points a game and led the Blue Demons to third place in the NCAA tournament. None of this was lost on another pair of Chicago high school stars, Grubbs and Cummings. Nor were their performances lost on the DePaul coaches.
A few years ago Joe Meyer might not have wasted his time going after players of their ability. Grubbs had starred since his sophomore year, becoming a high school All-America as a senior. Cummings had been a late developer, but private preschool workouts with his high school coach had turned him into a top prospect, too. They were both big and strong and talented, just the type DePaul never used to get. But this time the Blue Demons did get them, and they have already played leading roles in the team's success.
Ray Meyer realizes that local recruiting success has brought DePaul into a new era of competitiveness. "Everything has changed," he says. "Until recently, I don't think we were ever able to take a kid away from Notre Dame or a Big Ten school. We were in the Dark Ages. Now we're able to recruit for a particular position and even go after the best players outside of Chicago. It's an amazing thing what Joey has done with our resources."
The younger Meyer has developed a recruiting strategy that seems to work just fine. "I sell DePaul, and Coach sells himself," says Joe. Ray says, "I just sit there and smile and try to recruit the mother."
Of course, DePaul is not getting all the local talent. The school finished second to Indiana last year in the wooing of freshman star Isiah Thomas. "I saw Thomas play 12 times, and that's 12 more times than I had watched anybody play in some other years," says Ray Meyer. "Every time Joe sees an open date on my calendar, he sends me off someplace."