A Different Time, A Different DePaul

posted by Dan Pfeifer -

We here at Marquette Courtside occasionally bemoan rivalries not being what they once were. Greater forces have done damage. In a world where distance far less hinders communication or travel, geography carries less weight, making rivalries born of proximity (Packers/Bears) or lack thereof (Lakers/Celtics) less interesting. Players and fans are also less loyal to teams. The influence of free agency, fantasy sports, “Ultimate Team” video-game modes and whatnot has taken its toll.

Rivalries ebb and flow, too. Buzz Williams briefly turned West Virginia’s fans against Marquette with a 2012 dance routine, but that ire probably transferred to Virginia Tech with both Williams and the end of regular Mountaineer/MU meetings. At present, Marquette fans might consider Butler and Xavier rivals, but those are moreso one-way streets, with the Marquette/Wisconsin rivalry falling more and more in the same boat since Badger Football regained relevance in the early 1990’s. While basketball is by no means a UW afterthought, if you gave them the choice between success in one sport or the other, the oblong ball will win. Plus, a segment of Marquette fans seeking a football team to follow has, for better or worse, decided it’s OK to at least borrow the Badgers in the fall, cooling any deep-seeded animosity.

If you asked long-time (read: old) Marquette fans for three historic rivals, the first two would be Wisconsin and Notre Dame. The Irish fight has continued in lacrosse, despite their following West Virginia and football bucks out of the BIG EAST. The third, though, might surprise young fans: DePaul.

While World War II raged continents away, Ray Meyer became DePaul’s head basketball coach in 1942, five years before Al McGuire even played college basketball. In Meyer’s first Blue Demons season, he led them to an eight-team 1943 NCAA tournament, as well as a win over Dartmouth that pushed DePaul into what would eventually be branded the Final Four. Thirty-six years later, two years after McGuire retired from coaching, Meyer returned to the Final Four with his 1978-79 Demons, falling just two points short of beating Indiana State and disrupting a historic title-game meeting between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Meyer ended his career with a 27-3 season, number-one regional seed and trip to the Sweet 16 in 1983-84. His 42-year coaching run put him just short of winning 70 percent of his games. The Basketball Hall of Fame welcomed Meyer in 1979; they’d have to modify his display when he was named the AP’s Coach of the Year in both 1980 and ‘84.

Hopefully the message is clear: Yes, kids, DePaul was good at basketball — really good, as in a national powerhouse in line with Kentucky and UCLA. And yes, Marquette was among their most common foes. In that 1942-43 season, DePaul beat Marquette in front of 6,300 fans on New Year’s Eve at the Milwaukee Auditorium. In 1979, Hank Raymonds and Marquette lost to DePaul twice: Once in Chicago and once more in the Sweet 16. In between, McGuire and Meyer fought many a legendary battle in either the smoke-filled Milwaukee Arena or DePaul’s cramped Alumni Hall.

During the 70’s, the latter was deemed too small for the popular Blue Demons, who had two choices to accommodate their burgeoning fanbase: The “Madhouse on Madison,” downtown’s Chicago Stadium, or the new Rosemont Horizon in the growing northern suburbs. While the former would eventually be known for Michael Jordan’s mastery, its late 70’s reputation was different: A crumbling, old building with little parking, crime on its surrounding streets and primary tenants consisting of the mediocre Bulls and a Blackhawks team hampered by miserly owner Bill Wirtz. The Horizon, construction issues aside, offered economic advantages and the feeling DePaul was going from old-school Chicago to a jet-propelled future near O’Hare International Airport. At the time, per this 1981 Chicago Tribune article, it was a good decision; over 14,000 season tickets were sold. But hints of problems to come showed up the very first night: A “potholed parking lot,” hindered by closed exits to limit local traffic; important university figures in horrible seats, and, in a dark act of foreshadowing, costly prices for everything.

Things seemed fine through the 80’s with Meyer’s son, Joey, as coach. But the tide started turning in 1992. DePaul opened an internal inquiry into Jeffrey Tassani, a booster and bank executive. Current college fans will understand the doom when NCAA investigators were joined by the FBI. Tassani “helped” the Blue Demons from 1985-89. DePaul’s four NCAA appearances during those years would be vacated, among other punishments issued in 1994 and later. Tassani landed in jail.

Three years of post-sanction struggles saw Joey Meyer replaced by Pat Kennedy, with Dave Leitao, Jerry Wainright, Tracy Webster and Oliver Purnell to follow. Returns to the tournament occurred under Kennedy in 2000 and Leitao in ‘04, but damage had been done. Much like the Bradley Center, the Horizon, later renamed the Allstate Arena, is a big, characterless building. Far from downtown, 30-90 minute drives to get to the antiseptic facility were worth it when the basketball was good. A losing DePaul, though, allowed many to discover it was more fun, and easier, to go see the Bulls or now-talented Blackhawks, particularly when both moved into the United Center.

DePaul hasn’t finished above .500 since 2007. It went 0-18 during the 2008-09 BIG EAST season and just 2-34 over the next two years. After 10 years away, rehiring Leitao in 2015 had the excitement of two jilted exes begrudgingly fulfilling an “if we’re still single at 40” marriage pact. Even attempts to right its wrongs have gone awry. In 2013, DePaul revealed a public partnership to fix the Rosemont situation by building the recently opened Wintrust Arena downtown. It became problematic immediately, as the City of Chicago pledged $55 million, then announced it would close 50 public schools days later. While the new building is fine, questions about whether it was needed linger after DePaul turned down playing rent-free at the United Center. Parking is expensive and seats are still unfilled with DePaul in line for yet another woeful season. All the issues that could be present away from home were there Monday against Marquette. The Blue Demons shot an abysmal 18 percent in the first half in a 70-52 loss.

Pieces are there for a rebuild. There’s a new facility in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. Blue Demon Athletics as a whole aren’t awful; their women’s basketball team has been good for a while. But a generation of kids in both Chicago and Wisconsin doesn’t remember DePaul men’s basketball being much more than a doormat. It’s a far cry from having just as rich of a hoops history as Marquette.

The BIG EAST will never do away with DePaul. It gives the league a presence in the Chicago market, which is huge when selling market size for TV rights. But in its current state, no one is watching and the rivalry is basically dead. It is what it is, as the kids say, but in many ways, it’s simply a shame.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

GIVE ME A BREAK: Marquette’s win over DePaul allowed MU to go into a long stretch without a game on the strength of a solid, if unspectacular, win. They don’t play again until Wednesday, when they get a rematch against Xavier in Cincinnati. The No. 11 Musketeers have gone up two spots in the AP poll since they beat Marquette at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Dec. 27, 91-87.

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