Coach Doug Bruno made a courageous decision in 1997 that has resulted in a run of 13 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
March 17, 2015
CHICAGO - Imagine this as a scene from a Hollywood movie.
When the Blue Demons take the court on Friday for their NCAA tournament opener against Minnesota, images of Jean Lenti Ponsetto, Melanee Ehrhardt, Diana Vines, Maggie Dixon, Latasha Byears, Kim Williams, JoAnn Feierreisel, Debra Robinson, Molly Watson, Khara Smith, Jenni Dant, Allie Quigley and many others who make up this program's stellar tradition begin swirling around Purcell Pavilion on Notre Dame's campus.
Brittany Hrynko, Chanise Jenkins, Megan Podkowa and their teammates will remain completely focused on the task at hand---a successful start to DePaul's 13th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
At the same time on another level is the overarching theme of how this current Blue Demon program got to where it is today.
It comes down to a potentially life-altering decision for DePaul coach Doug Bruno after his team had competed in the 1997 NCAA tournament.
Here's how the Blue Demon program arrived at that critical juncture. In the 1970s, it was all about trying to secure scholarships for female athletes. The following decade was all about making it to the NIT. In the 1990s, it was NCAA or bust---and DePaul went dancing seven times in eight years.
Somehow, that wasn't enough for Bruno.
"After the 1997 NCAA tournament, I made what could have been a life-changing decision," Bruno said. "I made an objective self-assessment of the program. We had achieved our goal of consistently competing in the NCAA tournament and yet, it didn't feel whole to me. High school All-Americans were not flocking to us.
"We had been coaching players and setting things up team by team and year to year. What we needed was to establish a culture of how you do things. Instead of a series of teams, I wanted to establish a program."
It was a daunting metamorphosis, and Bruno took a huge gamble in hopes of evolving into something even better where most coaches would have played it safe and stuck with the winning formula.
"We began to recruit players with great academics who would embrace DePaul's mission about caring for the less fortunate," Bruno said. "You do the right things on and off the court.
"The players that came before were good people, and this wasn't about them. It was about an adjustment in the leadership and focus as we strived to create a program.
"We didn't go to the NCAA tournament five years in a row. When that happens in this business, you usually get fired. I was well aware of that. Either I got fired, or DePaul would evolve into the program I had envisioned."
Bruno spoke those words on the same day DePaul won its second consecutive Inside Higher Ed's academic national championship of the 64 teams in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament field. The academic title is based on the Blue Demons' APR (NCAA's multiyear measure of classroom progress) and their NCAA Graduation Rate Success.
After the five-year hiatus from the NCAA tournament, DePaul went on its current run of 13 in a row. Only six other teams in the country (Connecticut, Notre Dame, Stanford, Tennessee, Duke, Oklahoma) can make that claim.
In that surge of excellence, the Blue Demons advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2006, 2011 and 2014. Last season they beat Oklahoma 104-100 in the highest-scoring game in the history of the NCAA women's tournament.
Gaining national prominence and earning the respect of the NCAA selection committee, DePaul was the No. 3 seed in 2011, No. 4 in 2006 and a No. 5 seed in 2005.
"I had a vision for the program beginning with that first NCAA team in 1990," Bruno said. "We started scheduling the best teams in the country which gave our players confidence they could compete and beat those teams.
"That four-year NCAA run (1990-93) was led by Melanee Ehrhardt, Veronica Ross, Beth Hasenmiller, Rita Hale, Beth Creamean, Gail Ash, Tammy Williams. In our first-ever NCAA tournament game, we had a huge win over Western Kentucky which was among the best teams in the country.
"I remember going to a noon shootaround before the second-round game against Washington in Seattle (77-68 loss). Students were lined up for blocks around the arena waiting for the doors to open so they could rush in for their seats. Gail Ash got food poisoning from fish she had eaten earlier in the day and had to be carried off the court in a stretcher during the game.
"In the 1991 NCAA tournament, I got to spend some time with legendary coach Hank Iba before our game. We lost 81-80 in Stillwater, Okla., and Oklahoma State shot 48 free throws to our 11. Beth Hasenmiller scored 34 points and Shakuntala Smith's 13 assists set an NCAA Midwest Regional record."
In the mid-1990s, Bruno expanded his recruiting base to include junior college players that would lead the Blue Demons to NCAA tournament appearances in 1995-96-97.
"We helped place kids in junior colleges," Bruno said. "We had been recruiting Kim Williams since her freshman year at Marshall. We brought Kim, Latasha Byears and Tawona Alhaleem into our program.
"The 1995-96-97 group featuring Latasha, Kim, Tawona, Kris Booker, Anne McDonald, Amy Lundquist, Mfon Udoka and Stacy Krumrei were probably the most talented teams in DePaul history.
"Here's a recruiting story for you. We pursued 6-foot, 5-inch Amy Lundquist, but she chose Loyola Marymount after meeting actor Burt Reynolds on her visit. She wound up transferring back to DePaul after two seasons."
Bruno gets a little emotional remembering the difficult transition phase that began in the 1997-98 season.
"It was players like Candis Blankson, Molly Watson, Sylvia Blakeslee, Lenae Williams, Yolanda "Yogi" Lewis, Jamie Smith and Laura Sobieszczyk who are the forgotten ones in the history of our program" Bruno said. "They were the ones who helped us get standouts like Sarah Kustok and Ashley Luke and laid the ground work for the run of 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments we are on right now.
"From there, Sarah Kustok, Ashley Luke, Khara Smith, Charlene Smith and Jenni Dant catapulted us to the next level. Those kids from the late 1990s and early 2000s, they see how special they are to me. We wouldn't be here without them.
"That was their significant contribution in building the program and effecting a culture change---just as the Jean Lenti Ponsetto group of the 1970s laid the ground work for our NIT appearances in the 1980s."
Bruno will be the first to acknowledge he is not alone in building the program, noting the contributions of former DePaul coaches John Lawler, Ron Feiereisel, Debbie Miller and Jim Izzard who guided the Blue Demons to the WNIT title in 1988.
"These 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments (20 overall) are all about the players---all of them and our managers pouring their blood and guts into the program," Bruno said. "It's about all the talented assistant coaches we've had, and it's about our great administration with DePaul President Father Dennis Holtschneider and Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto.
"That's why we win at DePaul. How do I figure in all of this? I am who I am, and my coaching style is to make them accountable and responsible for their actions. My players would say I'm consistent---and quickly add that I'm consistently a pain in the you-know-what.
"They all make a commitment to put in the blood and guts, and they have the work ethic to do this. Believe me, it isn't easy. There are times during a season when there's the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It's a commitment that includes the not-always-so-pleasant, ongoing tough love."
It has enabled the program to overcome season-ending injuries to key players such as Deirdre Naughton, Keisha Hampton, Anna Martin and two months ago, Megan Rogowski during this 13-year NCAA run.
A lot of it stems from Bruno's recruiting philosophy.
"Our recruiting is very honest and we don't manufacture bells and whistles," Bruno said. "Our style is reality recruiting. We let our prospects know it is going to be demanding and not all just jump up and hug each other, put on a championship cap and celebrate.
"It's going to be tough love, and sometimes that means saying no. We're going to make people accountable for the things they don't always want to do. We make players understand they are responsible for their own actions.
"We've probably lost a few recruits because of that. But when a player says yes to DePaul, I can remind them exactly what we told them when they were being recruited. Our day-to-day reality is to study hard, work hard, play hard, and we have fun on top of all that."