DePaul has lost Chicago

CHICAGO -- About 20 miles south of where Jerry Wainwright read a seven-page, seven-minute statement on his last day of work at DePaul University, is a small gym.

"Hey Xavier," Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin bellowed. "Dunk one from the post."

Xavier Taylor, a raw but promising 6-foot-9 freshman forward, does as he's told. He's standing in the low blocks, concentrating hard. He gets an entry pass, dribbles once, leaps and in a quick, violent motion, slams one home in front of the rim. Taylor has been playing basketball for a little over a year and when he came to Morgan Park, he couldn't catch a cold. Now he's a budding star-in-the-making.

"Now imagine him and (Whitney Young freshman forward) Tommy Hamilton playing together," Irvin said, shaking his head.

He knows it won't happen.

Irvin, an energetic, colorful, former college player who now resembles a little Warren Sapp, isn't talking about high school or summer league. He's talking about the near future for DePaul, the ever-expanding Catholic school where George Mikan, Mark Aguirre, Rod Strickland and Quentin Richardson all starred.

The school under the L tracks that plays its games near the airport has regressed tremendously as the last two coaches failed to harness the steady talent that comes from the Chicagoland area, from the northernmost suburbs to northwest Indiana.

We were talking DePaul basketball and Wainwright and, most of all, who should come in and save the Blue Demons from the stifling mediocrity that has pushed the program below Southern Illinois and Northwestern -- not to mention Illinois and the rest of the Big Ten.

The same program that has a very important decision to make in the coming months.

On late Monday morning, DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto held court with a rare full house of Chicago media regarding the state of Blue Demons basketball.

Wainwright, who piloted DePaul for four and a half seasons, through its rocky beginnings in the rugged Big East, was fired after an 0-3 start in the conference (7-8 overall) pushed the school's conference losing streak to 22. Last year DePaul went 0-18 in the Big East before picking up an upset win over Cincinnati in the first round of the postseason tournament.

"The job is performance-based, as well, when it comes to success on the court and unfortunately that didn't take the turn we were hoping it would," Ponsetto said. "I think we got off to a good start, but it was becoming apparent over the last couple of weeks that things weren't quite going in the direction that we'd hope they would."

Wainwright didn't answer questions, sticking to his statement.

"Obviously I didn't win enough to achieve the success that was expected," Wainwright said.

This losing streak isn't officially rock bottom. That low probably came when Joey Meyer's final team in 1997 went 3-23, but this is close, only because Blue Demons basketball has become a non-entity both in the city and nationally. It wasn't ready to enter the bloated Big East, and without immediate action and a lot of luck, it will take years to catch up.

Let's face it, when you talk about Chicago sports, DePaul basketball is about as relevant as the Blackhawks in the halls of Morgan Park High School.

I drove down to Morgan Park (take 94 East to I-57 South to 111th street, and a few more rights) to talk to Irvin and the school's star junior Wayne Blackshear, the top player in his class in Illinois, who committed verbally to Big East power Louisville the day after Christmas.

Blackshear is a lean and muscular 6-5 guard, a five-star recruit who plays both ends of the court. In his first season with the school since his controversial transfer from Curie at mid-season last year, Blackshear is putting up crazy numbers (around 30 points and 14 rebounds) for a 10-3 team that starts two freshmen. Unlike, say, Derrick Rose, who was a star in middle school, Blackshear came into his own a little later, but his star is quickly rising.

I asked Blackshear, who considered DePaul a "safety" school, what he thought of Allstate Arena, the school's rarely-full, hard-to-get-to home court. I knew Wainwright had been to Morgan Park and Blackshear had been on campus for midnight madness, but Blackshear had to have taken in a game there, right?

"Actually, I've never been to the Allstate Arena," he said, succinctly encapsulating DePaul's declining reputation.

What about Louisville? Had he been there before committing?

"Louisville? Yeah, it's crazy there. Sellouts every night."

The top junior in the state of Illinois has never been to a DePaul game, but he's seen a Louisville game. Anyone else wonder if DePaul has lost the city?

Rose, an unabashed homebody, had DePaul in his top four, but chose Memphis. It's not hard for him to see where the problem lies.

"They just don't have talent there like they used to have," Rose said. "That's the only thing that I see."

Ponsetto and all the big donors should read those quotes and get angry. Because DePaul has failed to create a link between the school and the area's young high school stars. These are kids who don't remember the old days, who don't know Tom Kleinschmidt from Rod Blagojevich. These are kids who want to play with the best, not just against the best.

Irvin, who comes from a very influential basketball family (his father, Mac, is a celebrated summer circuit coach), said he likes DePaul. In fact, he almost went there when his older brother was an assistant from 1992-97, before ending up at Fresno State and he always thought Wainwright was a good guy.

"Wainwright, I thought he did a good job with what he had," Irvin said. "He put everything into it. When you coach, though, you've got to have ballplayers."

But recruiting is a big part of the job. Wainwright's lineup has a handful of Chicago products on his roster, but no stars. Bolingbrook product Will Walker wasn't a big-name recruit. Mac Koshwal was, but he can't do it alone.

Wainwright's predecessor Dave Leitao didn't focus his recruiting on the city and then Wainwright exacerbated the problem by hiring East Coast assistants. Bringing in Billy Garrett (Garrett's son, Billy Jr., is a freshman guard on Morgan Park's varsity), Tracy Webster and David Booth this past year was too little, too late.

"DePaul," Irvin said, "needs to get that city base back. Right now they probably need to get a big-name player to go there"

DePaul's next coach should look at current verbal commitments, like Blackshear's to Louisville, as if they're rainbows: impressive and impermanent.

"With a commitment anything can happen," Irvin admitted. "Kids change their minds."

In my mind, Blackshear is still open game for the next DePaul coach, and whoever takes over should aggressively pursue the class of 2011 this spring and summer, starting with the crème de la crème: Blackshear, De La Salle's Mike Shaw and Andre Henley, Rock Island's Chasson Randle, St. Ignatius' Nnanna Egwu (verbal to Illinois), Whitney Young's Sam Thompson, Aurora East's Ryan Boatright and Mount Carmel's Tracy Abrams (Illinois). All are ranked by Rivals.com as being in the top 75 nationally in their class.

Some of these players have DePaul on their short lists, but they should all be bombarded with a new message: DePaul is Chicago basketball.

"I think our legacy and history is built on Chicago players," Ponsetto said. "We'd certainly like to be in the mix for all young men in the Chicago area, but I think we also recognize that these students, like other kids in the Chicago area, like to go away from home. Sometimes that's the situation."

True, but there's no reason that Oregon should have a steady pipeline of Chicago products, or that the Kansas-Memphis national championship game two seasons ago pitted Sherron Collins (Crane High) against Rose (Simeon). Or that local kids keep making commitments to Big East schools.

Blackshear said if DePaul had been a top 25 program in the past few years, he would have looked closer at the program before offering a verbal, and so would his talented peers. Heck, he would've at least went to a game.

"Yeah, it would probably change a lot of Chicago kids' minds," he said "Going to a hometown school, you can get seen every night by your fans and family. I think they should focus more on (local) kids. You would keep bringing more and more of the top kids to the school. And it will bring other kids from other places to come to Chicago."

Ponsetto praised Wainwright's commitment to coaching well-rounded, academically capable students, but she admits that recruiting has fallen short of Big East standards, if not Conference USA ones.

"You have to have outstanding student athletes," she said. "This is a man's league. This is a league where a lot of pro athletes are developed and a lot of high profile young men who are going to play professionally. You have to have talent level of that caliber."

It sounds easy, right? While Ponsetto repeated, several times, how fiscally solvent the school is, the Chicago Tribune reported on its Web site that U.S. Department of Education figures show that DePaul spent about $3.257 million on basketball from July 2008 to June 2009. That's the second-smallest amount by a Big East school and $7 million less than Marquette, which headed the list.

Is it any wonder why the Golden Eagles land top players from Chicago? Then again, how much did Dwyane Wade, who came in as an academic non-qualifier, help their recruiting? Tom Crean helped make Marquette a national power, so who is DePaul's Crean?

"We're going to do a national search at the conclusion of the season," Ponsetto said.

Webster has taken the interim coaching reigns and Ponsetto said he and Garrett are candidates for the job. But both would probably be happy just to stay on a new staff.

I mentioned a few names to Irvin: Oregon State's Craig Robinson, Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery and Duke assistant Chris Collins. Robinson brings the ultimate name recognition as the brother-in-law of President Barack Obama. He's attracting Chicago kids to Corvallis, Ore., so he should have a field day in Lincoln Park. Collins has star power from his connection to Duke. But the choice should be Lowery, the very successful coach of a program that lost its last two coaches, Matt Painter and Bruce Weber, to Purdue and Illinois.

Irvin isn't neutral, because his brother, longtime assistant Lance Irvin is the associate head coach at SIU, but his money is on Lowery getting the gig.

"Chris Lowery, you can't go wrong with, to be honest with you," he said. "Chris Lowery gets city kids. He got Ryan Hare, Kevin Dillard, (Iowa transfer) Tony Freeman. That wouldn't be a bad move at all."

Irvin sat back and smiled.

"Jean's got a lot to think about," he said.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@espnchicago.com.