CHICAGO -- Tracy Dildy feels good. It won't take him long to tell you why, and he won't modulate his volume when he does.
"I'm at a great university," Dildy said. "I'm undefeated. What can you say right now? I'm in first place!"
If part of being a head coach is dealing with the media, and part of dealing with the media is waxing enthusiastic, Dildy, the new head man at Chicago State, is already ahead of the game.
Next up? Transforming the Chicago State Cougars from your favorite school's perennial early-season cupcake into a real, actual basketball program. Or, as Dildy -- who grew up a couple of miles from the CSU campus on Chicago's south side -- will tell you without a hint of irony, it's time to wake a "sleeping giant."
"I've always thought that," Dildy said. "Then they put dorms on campus, an arena on campus, and I started to think, 'This isn't a secret anymore. The secret is getting out.'"
If so, that secret has been well-kept. In 1984, the then-NAIA power jumped to Division I. Since then, 23 of the Cougars' 26 seasons have included sub-.500 performances. In one particularly brutal stretch -- from 1989-1999 -- Chicago State didn't win more than six games in any season.
The Cougars' conference affiliation doesn't help. The Great West Conference isn't awarded an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament yet, and the teams that comprise it form less of a conference than a loosely affiliated group of schools bound together by a common schedule.
Nor has there been much in the way of recent success. Benjy Taylor, Dildy's predecessor, led the Cougars to their best season in decades in 2008-09. Chicago State went 19-13 and featured perhaps the best player in the history of the program in guard David Holston. But last season, in Taylor's third year, the Cougars slipped to 9-23, and athletic director Sudie Davis decided to go another way.
"We felt it was very important to have people from this area running this university," Davis said. "Not only from the athletics [office] standpoint, but from the coaches standpoint."
Dildy certainly is that. He graduated from Martin Luther King High in Chicago and played college hoops in the late 1980s at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he was later inducted into the athletic hall of fame. His first assistant coaching position was at UIC, and he served for six years as an assistant at DePaul.
During that time, Dildy built a reputation as one of the Chicago area's best recruiters. He lured Steven Hunter, Bobby Simmons and Quentin Richardson to DePaul, got Bonzi Wells to come to Ball State, and landed a variety of Chicago-area players at each of his other coaching stops (Auburn, Ole Miss, and UAB) along the way.
The path that led him to Chicago State was circuitous, to say the least. It was also contentious. Dildy returned to UIC in 2006 with the expectation that he would be first in line for the school's head coaching position once 14-year veteran Jimmy Collins eventually retired.
When Collins retired earlier this spring, Dildy says he was told he was the top candidate for the job, but that he would have to interview along with other candidates. Rather than take that risk -- and perhaps a bit spurned by the cool reception from his alma mater -- Dildy jumped to the sure thing at Chicago State.
(UIC disputes this view. In September, UIC athletic director Jim Schmidt told Rivals.com "there was never any verbal agreement" Dildy would be Collins' successor.)
Dildy, for his part, says he has no hard feelings about the split, though his language was somewhat coded.
"UIC is my alma mater," he said. "I wish them nothing but the best. But I'm at the program that I want to be at. And the program that wanted me."
The program that wanted him also desperately needs him. As a university and an athletics program, Chicago State sees itself on an upward trajectory. The school completed work on a 7,000-seat arena in 2007, and has recently poured money into a variety of new campus facilities, athletic and otherwise. (The school's new library, completed in 2006, features a state-of-the-art robotic book retrieval system. True story.)
Davis' long-term belief is that Chicago State will have the "best facilities of any Division I school in the Chicago area" and, eventually, "all the amenities any other Division I school would have."
That's where Dildy comes in.
"The strategy right now is to just get kids on campus," Dildy said. "A lot of families, when they come to campus, they don't realize we have all this. The campus presents itself."
From there, Dildy plans to follow the template he used as an assistant at DePaul.
"A lot of athletes have an ego," he said. "We want that one guy, that one star, who wants to come here and be a part of something special. That's how we did it at DePaul. That's how we got [Bobby] Simmons and Quentin Richardson."
Dildy plans to combine that pitch with what he called a "player-friendly" style -- an uptempo, pressing system he dubbed "94 feet of heat." If all goes well, Dildy said, Chicago State will be the new Butler -- a perennial league champion and NCAA tournament darling.
"We want to go to the NCAA tournament," Dildy said. "That's going to happen. We want to win the league year in and year out. And that's going to happen. We're going to have something special here," he said.
NCAA tournament? Butler? These are big words for a program that's had one winning season since 1987. Can Dildy turn those words into results?
Say this much for Chicago State's new coach: If he fails, it certainly won't be for lack of enthusiasm.