INDIANAPOLIS – Attend a DePaul University men’s basketball home game and the chasms within the program are abundant and clear.The highlight videos overly emphasize the Blue Demons’ past because being in the midst of their 10th consecutive losing season, there simply isn’t much good in the present to advertise.
DePaul’s arena is a traffic-filled 30 minutes from campus, which severely hinders much of the student interest and attendance, and the Allstate Arena is antiquated, as well.
The crowd is often numbering more in opposition support than DePaul backers and the fact that current coach Dave Leitao has to compete in the Big East, as opposed to Conference USA, which is the conference DePaul played in during Leitao’s first tenure with the program (2002 to 2005), makes his job much more difficult."I can’t make generalities," Leitao said following his team’s most recent defeat (an 82-66 loss at Butler). "If I expected then, to happen now, then I’ve made the first and biggest mistake.
"The time is different. The players are different. The league is different. Everything is different."
And the amount of his success most certainly is.
During Leitao’s first run with the Blue Demons, he took over a losing program (21 wins combined in the previous two seasons), but quickly found success.
The Blue Demons won 16 games in his first year (making the NIT), and won 42 games in the next two seasons combined before he departed to lead the Virginia program.
As he noted, there are a lot of components that haven’t translated from one era to this one, but a critical aspect needed for success that he spoke of Saturday isn’t so obvious.
Butler won its seventh straight game in the series with the Blue Demons and it did so because of the type of unselfish culture that has been developed over the past 28 seasons at Hinkle Fieldhouse. It’s a culture that DePaul doesn’t have today, but will need in the future, if it hopes to climb out of the conference cellar.
"An underlying factor from a coaching standpoint," Leitao explained, "is when you can take older guys, like (Butler veterans) Tyler Lewis and Kelan Martin, and not start them, and still be able to play with great rhythm, it makes a very loud statement about the kind of people that exist within that locker room."
Lewis and Martin have combined for 44 starts this season, but none in the last four games, and they are handling that with a maturity that is admirable.
"I’m staying positive," Lewis said when asked about coming off the bench. "Like (coach Chris Holtmann) says, we have 7 to 8 starters. He told me that my role can change from game to game and I just continue to have faith in him."
It’s easier for a player to have belief in the coach and his system when a program has years of evidence – decades in Butler’s case - as proof of what works.
Martin could very easily have caused issues within the locker room because of his altered role. He remains the team’s leading scorer despite having his role and minutes reduced, but that isn’t what happens inside the Butler locker room.
What Martin has done – and what Leitao respects – is that Martin looked in the mirror in regards to improvement rather than looking at Holtmann or anyone else.
"Me and coach had a conversation after the Creighton game (a 76-67 Butler loss)," Martin said, "He just made a decision that I’m not playing you. But I learned from that situation.
"I came to practice and started dominating at both ends and trying to impact the game in a variety of ways."
If it were easy to emulate the Bulldog program, then every coach would do it. But it takes time and a consistent message, regardless of who is leading it, before being selfless evolves into an expectation and ultimately a way of life.
Holtmann is the sixth coach to lead the Butler program since 1989, but the foundational philosophy behind the Bulldogs’ success has never changed since former coach and current athletic director Barry Collier implemented it.
"That is a credit at being at this place, really, "Holtmann said of the unselfish Butler culture. "The reality is, and (the players) know this, that is what this program has been about for years and decades. It just is. It’s what this program has been about."
Certainly, Leitao needs to recruit talented players in order for his reclamation project to take hold. But just as importantly, he needs those players to commit themselves to the program, the school, and each other, and that needs to happen over an extended period of time, before DePaul basketball can truly be regarded as special again.
"We’ve got to go about a complete culture change top to bottom," Leitao said. "Not just this basketball team, but this program. We’re in the middle of it right now. We’re doing a self examination. What I’ve been doing, is it working?"
As of right now, the answer is a definitive no, as the Blue Demons trudge through another poor season. But time – as Butler followers can attest – will tell.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.