Finally, after 18 years in control of the fate of DePaul Athletics, Jean Lenti Ponsetto is retiring. It’s happening.
I can remember meeting Jeanie up in Milwaukee at an Alumni gathering before a DePaul-Marquette game just after being named the new Athletic Director. I was excited for her, and I was excited that the University was progressive in its thinking. There are times when promoting from within can be the right choice. If the ship is afloat, why rock it?
This method was an excellent approach when it came to the DePaul’s Women’s Basketball program. Doug Bruno was running a well oiled machine, and the machine has kept humming, making 18 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
This approach worked well for the Women’s Softball Program as coach Eugene Lenti lead the women to four College World Series appearances over a nine year period.
This approach was working at the Men’s Basketball Program as JLP inherited Dave Leitao in 2002. Leitao brought youth, energy, and experience of being the top assistant on one of the biggest programs in college basketball in the University of Connecticut Huskies. The energy was felt on the recruiting trail. The players he inherited immediately improved. Taking a team that was 9-19 under Pat Kennedy to 16-13 in his first year. In his second year, 2003-04 Leitao lead the Blue Demons to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000, and only the 2nd appearance since 1992. The program looked to be on the rise.
In Leitao’s 3rd season, the Blue Demons had an arguably a better season than their prior year, but due to a couple of close late season losses to UAB, the Demons settled for a trip to the NIT. The University of Virginia came calling for Dave, and Leitao took the money and ran.
Then the problems began. With a full cupboard of quality players ready to win, Lenti Ponsetto went the opposite way in hiring. Instead of following the blue print that was laid out during the hiring of Leitao, a young, energetic, up and comer, JLP hired Jerry Wainwright.
Wainwright was coming off a 3 year stretch at Richmond where the Spiders accumulated a 49-42 record with one quality season. The 59 year old coach did have Chicago roots, meaning, that he might be able to navigate how to get around the city, but he did not have recent Chicago ties, and was not known as a dynamic recruiter.
Wainwright inherited a quality team, plus future NBA first round pick Wilson Chandler. Year one was a disappointment with the Demons going 12-15 in their first year of Big East play. In conference, the Demons went 5-11 finishing 14th in a 16 team super-conference.
The 2006 season started off slow, but a memorable victory over Kansas sparked the team to several Big East victories, and the Blue Demons ONLY winning Conference Record in the Big East Conference. After narrowly missing out on the NCAA Tournament, DePaul made a run in the NIT, which was the last time that the Blue Demons were in a major post season tournament.
Then the downfall of Wainwright began. Other than recruiting Mac Koswal and Dar Tucker, Wainwright’s recruiting chops were lacking. This immediately lead to DePaul having talent issues in games. 20-11 went to 11-19 to 9-24 with an 0-18 conference record (although hilariously beating Cincinnati in the last Big East Tournament game win for the Demon until 2020, no really) to 8-23 with an 1-17 conference record, with a miracle 51-50 victory over Marquette. Wainwright got canned.
Now with a firm Big East TV contract in hand Lenti-Ponsetto declared, “The board of trustees made a commitment that we should go out and get the best coach DePaul possibly can,” Lenti Ponsetto told reporters. “So they have given us the financial resources to be able to do so, and obviously we look to go get the best coach we can and pay them accordingly. It may be that turns out someone who will be very high on the list of paid Big East coaches.”
So, instead of going down the Marquette route of finding an up and coming top assistant coach, JLP overpaid Oliver Purnell, who was looking to leave Clemson. Purnell famously had never won an NCAA Tournament game after six appearances. Purnell had zero Midwest ties. The average fan was flummoxed by the choice. Fans talked themselves in to the fact that Purnell had taken his prior three stops to the NCAA Tournament, why couldn’t he do it at DePaul?
Predictably, inheriting Wainwright’s abysmal team lead to immediate losses, going 7-24 with 1 conference win. The next year was OP’s high water mark with 12 whole victories, winning two games against top 100 teams. He won 12 games in two of his last 3 seasons. For a brief moment in his last campaign, DePaul was 3-0 in Big East play. Fans knew it was smoke and mirrors, and of course, the smoke cleared up and the mirrors shattered, and Purnell, who had never been fired, resigned.
This should have been the end for Lenti Ponsetto. The flagship had sunk to embarrassing levels, to levels that no other Power 6 Basketball Conference team had. Even Northwestern made a NCAA Tournament and several NIT appearances. Rutgers finally got over the hump this year and would have made the NCAA Tournament if the season was not interrupted, along with having several years of just below .500 basketball.
But no, an Administration going through a leadership change at the very top allowed Lenti-Ponsetto a 3rd chance to hire a a coach to bring DePaul back to respectability. Using a search firm to identify candidates, JLP identified up and comer, Bobby Hurley, the former Duke star and coach of the University of Buffalo, and Bryce Drew, former star player and then head coach of Valparaiso to interview.
Hurley actually made it to campus. DePaul fans were excited. But Jean decided to make it a requirement that assistant coach, Billy Garrett Sr. must be retained by the Hurley. Alarm bells went off in Hurley’s head, and he moved on to Arizona State. Hurley has since lead the Sun Devils to 3 consecutive winning seasons and were on track to make the NCAA Tournament for the 3rd year in a row.
Drew landed in Vanderbilt, reaching the NCAA tournament in his first season. Drew did not have sustained success and was fired after 3 seasons.
As the big game of musical chairs starting coming to an end, word started traveling through the DePaul community that JLP had found her perfect man, Dave Leitao. Of course she would be hiring Dave Leitao. A national search by a search firm and who is found? The old coach that no program wanted. Somehow, the Board of Trustees, derelict in their duty, approved of this fiasco, instead of looking back at the Athletic Director and making a change.
While DePaul’s biggest rival, Marquette, was reaping the benefits of hiring young assistant coaches, like Tom Crean, Buzz Williams, and Steve Wojciechowski, the Blue Demons went with the old and unwanted.
Predictably, Dave Leitao’s 2nd time around has not mesured up to the success of the first ride. There has been a noticable increase in talent coming into the program, but other than a nice 11-1 run to start the 2019-2020 season, there have been rare moments of immense happiness. The team has become respectable, but has still not had a .500 in conference season or winning conference season under Leitao. Additionally, an alarming number of players have transferred from the program, which makes everyone wonder about its stability.
The DePaul/Marquette Rivarly
These two programs had been rivals forever and had had similar successes. At the point of Lenti-Ponsetto’s first coaching hire, the tale of the tape between the two programs was Marquette 23 NCAA Tournament appearances to DePaul’s 22 appearances.
Since that point in time, Marquette made the tournament 10 more times, while time has stopped for the Blue Demons.
The point is, Jean Lenti-Ponsetto should not have had the option to retire, she should have been relieved of her duties as AD during the end of the Oliver Purnell era. Sheer hiring incompetence should have been her death knell, but instead, JLP would boast about the successes of the Women’s Basketball program and the Women’s Softball program, two programs that had coaches in place before her promotion.
Jean Lenti Ponsetto did in fact help DePaul join the Big East. This movement to a preeminent conference, allowed for more national exposure. As anyone knows, DePaul’s initial rise in the public consciousness was related to the rise of cable TV and Superstation WGN. With the Blue Demons joining the club, it brought the brand back onto the big stage.
JLP did in fact help DePaul team up with the other non-football Big East universities to form the ‘new’ Big East. The creation of a conference centered around basketball eliminated the constant stress of conference realignments as football schools catered to football TV contracts. Aligning with Xavier, Butler, Creighton, and the other six marquee Basketball schools of the Old Big East was unquestionably a great decision.
The building of the Wintrust Arena, which halved the size of the seating from Allstate Arena, but improved the atmosphere 100%.
Where do we start? The nepotism? As the DePaulia has pointed out repeatedly, there are a lot of Lenti’s and relations of the Lenti’s throughout the Athletic Department. Conflicts of interests in relation to the naming rights for the new Arena in the South Loop would have gotten many other employees terminated.
Conflict of interests in relations to the handling of discipline with the Women’s Softball coach would have resulted in may other employees being terminated. As covered by many publications, Eugene Lenti allegedly punched an assistant coach in the face, along with verbally abusing his players.
All of the losing by the flagship program. The brand being tarnished by repeated losses and disappointments. The butt of jokes by national media. The punchline to every win being, ‘DePaul won?’
A new stadium being put up in the South Loop. A 20-25 minute car ride or 30 minute “L” ride from the Lincoln Park Campus. Granted driving to the old Rosemont Horizon/Allstate Arena could take an hour, but if you are going to build a new stadium, do it on campus.
Never Selling out the Wintrust Arena. As of today, the largest audience to see DePaul play at the new building was Notre Dame on opening night, when DePaul missed selling out the arena by a few hundred.
The loss of an entire generation of fans and alumni. DePaul has been irrelavant for nearly 20 years. With a student population that is mostly commuters, the one thing that both the commuters and the on campus residents could connect over was the Men’s basketball program. There was a pride of going to DePaul and sharing the winning experiences for those fans who attended the university in the late 70s through the mid-90s. It allowed the university to grow from the “Little School Under the ‘L'” to the largest Catholic University in the United States. That generation of commuters just think of DePaul as a place they got their degree, instead of having the immense pride that is evident when travelling fans waltz into the Wintrust. Pride translates into student engagement, alumni engagement, and alumni donations. That is all lost.
Jean Lenti Ponsetto’s reign turned an energetic alumni into a disengaged, bitter afterthought.
In conclusion, I hope that Jean Lenti Ponsetto heals from her latest bout with cancer. I wish her well in her retirement.
However, I also hope that DePaul’s Athletic Department, its students and alumni can also heal from the cancer that was Jean Lenti Ponsetto.