Oliver Purnell: Year One
The head coach explains his method for building winners and why year one is almost always a struggle
Published: Monday, April 18, 2011
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
The hiring of Oliver Purnell in April of 2010 was touted as a new era by the DePaul Athletic Department, a return to the winning ways of old. During his introductory press conference, he did himself no favors, setting expectations sky high.
"Everything you could possibly need to build a tremendous basketball program is here," Purnell said at the time. Later that day, he added that the school "belongs in the elite of college basketball."
After year one, the program is not there. Purnell knows it, the school knows it, fans know it. But for Purnell, this season was simply step one—the first movement of what he hopes will eventually be a successful suite.
An Expected Struggle
"I think it was a solid foundations season," Purnell said after a Thursday workout, about a month after the team's season ended with a 97-71 loss to UConn in the Big East tournament. "It was about putting in systems, changing the culture to our culture, our fans kind of getting accustomed to the way we were trying to play."
Oftentimes however, it wasn't pretty.
Purnell ended his first season at DePaul with a 7-24 record, including a 1-15 mark in the Big East during the regular season. A record nearly identical to the 2009-10 campaign that got former Head Coach Jerry Wainwright fired during the season.
But before Purnell stepped on the court for the start of the regular season, the well-traveled coach said he had a blueprint. He knew what needed to be done in order to take a program headed for the ground and reverse course, pulling it out of a tailspin. Part of that plan requires shifting pieces and establishing a new way of doing things. That often means year one is a struggle, as he works to set up the program for success, the next year and beyond.
"Was it expected? Sure. Why was it expected? Because I've done it four or five other times, and that's what happens," Purnell said. "That's what happens. Unless LeBron James or someone is gonna show up, you're gonna struggle."
Make no mistake: Purnell isn't happy with the handful of wins and bucketful of losses, even if it was anticipated.
"There were two or three games that were right there for the taking and we didn't get it done," he said. "So you can go back over those, and there's always game you could pick out that hey, you're right there. But the bottom line is, if you don't win a substantial amount of games and you don't get to postseason play you're gonna be disappointed from a win-loss standpoint. That's what you compete for."
Purnell has never had the luxury of a player like The King show up alongside him for his first season with a down program. His first year at Old Dominion, the team went 15-15 (8-6 in the conference). At Dayton it was 7-20 (0-12). And at his most recent stop, Clemson, the record was 10-18 (3-13). Part of his blueprint means a rough first year, as the radar is recalibrated and new schemes, routines and attitudes are instituted.
"Bottom line, in that first year, you want to establish a way of doing things off the court. You want to establish the way you wanna play on the court," Purnell said. "You want guys to kind of understand what you're doing, and you want to win as many games as you can, there's no question about that. But I think it's clear that we were a little outmanned in maybe the best Big East in the history of the Big East, in terms of balance and good teams."
Molding The Team
Purnell took over a team that waved goodbye to its two most productive players from a year ago—Will Walker, who scored 16.2 points per game to lead the 2009-10 squad, and Mac Koshwal, the athletic forward who put up 16.1 per game, both left the team. Together, they accounted for 42.6 percent of the team's total scoring.
"It's hard to expect something different when you look at where we were, and you look at what we had coming back," Purnell said. "Mac Koshwal wasn't walking through that door, and when you look at the point production coming back, there wasn't a lot there."
On top of that, early season-ending injuries to Eric Wallace and Devin Hill—two players Purnell wanted to utilize—thinned the bench right away. Moses Morgan and Mike Bizoukas also dealt with less serious injuries during the opening weeks of the season that kept them out of games and limited Purnell's options.
All of that—injuries, departures, expectations—combined to open the door for the freshmen and promptly shoved them through. Cleveland Melvin, Brandon Young and Moses Morgan finished the season as integral parts of the team. In Purnell's eyes, their emergence as go-to players wasn't all that surprising when looking at it in the context of the team.
"I thought we could have that kind of contribution, mainly because when you look back on what has transpired before, certainly we didn't have a whole lot of offensive production coming back," Purnell said. "We had no guys who were All-Big East players coming back, or even potential All-Big East players. As you're establishing a foundation, you want to play your freshmen. You want to build a foundation, you want a core group of guys moving forward that now help with the next group coming in."
But the youth also required some special handling on Purnell's part. He and the coaching staff only implemented about half of the entire offense, and it was kept simple. The coaches would call a play, giving them a specific look. If the defense took it away, Purnell wanted them to "just make a play."
"We want our guys to be able to play kind of freely," Purnell said. "If you put too much in, they couldn't handle it…you don't want Cleveland thinking about, ‘Am I running this right or am I running that right?' And Brandon too. [You say] alright, just go make a play, because you've got some ability. That's not an easy or comfortable way to coach, but it's the right thing for a young team I believe."