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After Floyd Wavered, Tigers Overcame Large Obstacles To Land Purnell

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
April 7, 2003 CLEMSON — The official beginning of Clemson's lengthy basketball coaching search could be traced to a phone call that never came. As Larry Shyatt and his staff expected to receive news of an NIT bid on the night of March 16, they learned instead that their season was over. In essence, so was Shyatt's five-year tenure as head coach. The administration did not actively campaign for a bid, believing it would be better to cut ties with Shyatt sooner rather than later. The next day, Shyatt was forced to resign. That night he described the NIT snub as “the worst crime I've seen in my 30 years of coaching.”

The official end of Clemson's search didn't come until 21 days later, when athletic director Terry Don Phillips announced the hiring of Oliver Purnell after a particularly creative pursuit of the long-time Dayton coach. Purnell, whose name popped up at the very beginning of the search but remained under the radar for most of the next three weeks, led the Flyers to four straight seasons of 20 or more victories. Dayton went 24-6 this season, won the Atlantic-10 title and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Purnell, 49, was 155-116 with three NCAA appearances in nine seasons at Dayton and 256-191 in 15 seasons overall as a head coach with the Flyers (1994-2003), Old Dominion (1991-94) and Radford (1988-91). A 1975 graduate of Old Dominion and an honorable mention All-American as a player for the Monarchs in 1974-75, he was an assistant at ODU and Maryland (under Lefty Driesell and Bob Wade) before becoming a head coach. He immediately made Clemson history as the first black head coach at the school in any men's sport.

Phillips overcame some extraordinary obstacles to hire Purnell, who was a candidate at Clemson when Shyatt was hired in 1998. The terms of Purnell's contract with Dayton permitted him to speak with only five schools without risking a significant financial penalty, and Clemson was not among them. Phillips ultimately got around the clause by speaking only with Purnell's agent until the very end of the process. The AD first spoke with Purnell directly just two days before they agreed to a deal, and the coach had a Saturday evening nice-to-meet-you introduction to Clemson president James Barker less than 24 hours before the official press conference.

“It wasn't the ideal way to do things, but it was the only way to do things if (Purnell) was the guy we wanted,” a Clemson source said. “In the end, he was the guy we wanted.”

The other major obstacle with Purnell came down to dollars and cents. The Clemson administration long ago promised to provide sufficient resources for its basketball program to be successful, but Shyatt and others left town with serious questions about the seriousness of those claims. In their pursuit of Purnell, however, the Tigers showed that money issues weren't going to prevent them from getting their man.

Purnell didn't have a typical contract for a mid-major head coach, most of whom make less than $300,000 annually. As a private institution, Dayton isn't required to release compensation figures, but sources said Purnell made more than $500,000 with the Flyers last year. In addition, he signed a 10-year supplemental agreement with the school in 1998; its value began at $1 million and would rise to more than $1.7 million if Purnell stayed through 2008. His contract also included a buyout clause.

Clemson ultimately signed Purnell to a package worth around $750,000 a year, which put the coach in the same financial neighborhood as Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, N.C. State coach Herb Sendek and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser.

“We knew we needed to be more competitive financially,” the Clemson source said. “(Purnell) will be making an amount similar to most of the other newer coaches around the conference. The only (ACC coaches) making a lot more are those ones who have won national championships, so we thought our offer was very competitive.”

Meanwhile, there was good news and bad news on the image front, as some facts in Purnell's background emerged in the aftermath of his hiring.

One extremely impressive statistic was that Dayton graduated 59 straight four-year basketball players under Purnell. The Flyers' most recent NCAA graduation rate was 80 percent, the sixth-highest average among this year's 65 NCAA Tournament teams. In the same time frame, they graduated 60 percent for their black players.

On the down side, the NCAA placed Dayton on probation for three years in 2000 for recruiting violations. According to an NCAA report, a member of the university's Board of Trustees arranged for two loans totaling $32,000 to help the father of a prospect qualify for a home loan. No member of the coaching staff was implicated in the violation. The Board of Trustees member also made impermissible contact with recruits during unofficial visits to Dayton, resulting in secondary infractions. The coaching staff believed the introductions were permissible, according to the report. Dayton penalized itself three expense-paid recruiting visits in 1999-2000 and conducted rules education sessions for members of the staff. The NCAA imposed further penalties, limiting the Flyers to four expense-paid recruiting visits in 2000-01 and 12 scholarships in 2001-02.

“We did our homework,” the Clemson source said. “(Purnell) has an outstanding reputation for playing by the rules and doing things the right way. You'd be surprised at how many coaches have been involved in at least some type of (minor NCAA violations).”

Earlier in the process, Phillips badly wanted to hire former Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd, a prominent name in coaching circles and someone who would have established instant credibility at Clemson given how he turned around programs at Idaho, New Orleans and Iowa State. Phillips quickly offered Floyd the job — the school denied there was an official offer, but that was just the usual public posturing — and Floyd at times appeared close to accepting, but the coach's attention was diverted as other jobs came open around the country and still others were likely to have vacancies come open in mid-April.

“Tim was excited about the opportunity there, and he gave it very serious consideration,” a source close to Floyd said. “In the end, though, (Clemson) needed a final answer before he was ready to give one, so they shook hands and walked away. I really don't know (if he would have taken the job if he had more time). There were things he liked and things he didn't like. Obviously, something made him hesitate when he got the offer.”

Phillips also made contact and conducted interviews with other candidates before and during the Final Four celebration in New Orleans.

Western Kentucky's Dennis Felton, a former Clemson assistant under Rick Barnes, said thanks but no-thanks early to the idea of having serious discussions. Felton later re-emerged as a possibility when officials performing the search for his dream job, Georgia, failed to beat down his door. By then, however, Phillips had become enamored with Purnell.

Floyd, who has not coached since getting fired by the Bulls in December 2001, clearly became Clemson's No. 1 target after early leads with Felton and Purnell failed to materialize. Phillips was counting on making a quick strike to hire Floyd before other jobs became available. Considering Clemson's lack of basketball tradition, the strategy was a sound one and almost worked.

For the first week of the search, Clemson, Penn State, Virginia Tech and UCLA were the only jobs open in the major conferences. UCLA and Virginia Tech were not compatible for Floyd, leaving only rural football schools Clemson and Penn State. Phillips first met with Floyd during that first week, flying to his home in New Orleans for a meeting. The session was fairly productive, and the two sides agreed to continue discussions.

The first Clemson interview that became public occurred a week later, with Oklahoma State associate head coach Sean Sutton. Phillips and senior associate athletic director Bill D'Andrea flew to Stillwater, Okla., essentially as a courtesy call because of Phillips' past. He was the athletic director at Oklahoma State before moving to Clemson, and he has great respect for Cowboys coach Eddie Sutton. While in Oklahoma, Phillips also met with the elder Sutton, who provided a list of possibilities and offered feedback on Floyd, a former Big 12 counterpart at Iowa State.

When Clemson learned Penn State was bringing in Floyd to visit two days later, Phillips beat the Nittany Lions to the punch. Floyd visited the Clemson campus first on March 25 and met with university president Barker, among others. Phillips wanted to give Floyd something to think about before going to Penn State. The AD clearly left a positive impression, because Floyd soon withdrew from consideration at PSU while still giving serious thought to the Tigers.

Throughout the search, Clemson's hope was that money would not be the deciding factor. Shyatt made just $420,000 annually, which was the lowest compensation package in the ACC and one of only two in the conference (with Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech) under $750,000 a year. Floyd made $2 million a year with the Bulls and is still being paid as part of his buyout. Florida State pulled off a coup last year by hiring Hamilton, a former Washington Wizards coach with an extensive college background, for a relatively cheap price.

Meanwhile, Phillips continued to explore other candidates. He and D'Andrea had a hastily scheduled interview with Maryland assistant coach Dave Dickerson on March 26 in San Antonio, where the Terps were preparing for the Sweet 16.

Dickerson, a native of Olar, S.C., was extremely interested in the job from the moment it opened. The day after Shyatt left, The State newspaper of Columbia ran a column endorsing Dickerson as the next coach and quoted him explaining why he would be a good fit for Clemson. Dickerson at first was hesitant to disrupt Maryland's quest to repeat as national champion, but coach Gary Williams gave Dickerson permission to pursue the job during the season, leading to the interview on the eve of Maryland's loss to Michigan State.

In retrospect, Dickerson or Sutton would have been difficult hires. Clemson clearly wanted someone with head coaching experience, and that was the direction the search headed. As North Carolina painfully learned with Matt Doherty over the last three years, the ACC is no place for someone to learn how to become a head coach, even though everyone realizes there have been some big exceptions (including UNC's Dean Smith) to the rule.

Clemson offered Floyd the job even before meeting with Dickerson. Although the nuts and bolts had not been worked out — the Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier reported an offer of at least $800,000 over at least five years — the bottom line was this: If Floyd wanted to coach Clemson, the job was his.

That remained a major question. Did Floyd want it? He came away surprisingly impressed by Clemson but also aware of the program's difficulty to consistently win. Many colleagues and friends persuaded him to decline the job, believing he would have better opportunities if he was patient.

When Jim Harrick was forced out at Georgia during the second week of Clemson's search, it became clear that Floyd wouldn't be an easy hire. The one thing Phillips didn't want had happened: The search was going to drag on, with more schools entering the picture. Floyd interviewed at Georgia on April 1.

With Floyd rejecting at least one offer from Clemson and considering another, Clemson met with Louisiana-Lafayette coach Jessie Evans that same day in Louisiana. A former assistant at Arizona, Evans expressed a strong interest to the media. While it was uncertain how much Clemson really wanted Evans, his chances essentially ended April 4 when the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote that he might have committed NCAA violations by providing a player with improper benefits.

Phillips traveled to New Orleans on April 1 to continue negotiations with Floyd and make backup plans. He was there for three consecutive days, talking with various candidates, until he finally struck a deal with Purnell. They flew to Clemson together on the Saturday of Final Four weekend, and the press conference was held the next afternoon.

Among the other names that surfaced in the week prior to Purnell's hiring were those of Richmond coach Jerry Wainwright, former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, Creighton coach Dana Altman and Texas assistant Frank Haith. Lavin confirmed to the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail that he was contacted by a third party, but he never heard directly from school officials. Also, Indiana coach Mike Davis expressed a desire to return to the South, but it wasn't certain if he would be interested in Clemson specifically. Common sense suggested not.

As the search finished its third week, Phillips became increasingly quiet. He surprised the South Carolina media by his refreshing candidness early in the process, when he confirmed candidates and discussed plans. As a relatively new AD at Clemson, he obviously wanted to be as open as possible with the media.

But Phillips quieted down while in New Orleans and stopped returning reporters' phone calls. Privately, he said he wished he could conduct the search in anonymity, and he began keeping his cell phone turned off more frequently. In the relative silence, he finally found his man.

D'Andrea, a long-time administrator who coached the Clemson offensive line over a decade ago, was a close confidant throughout the search. Barker kept an active role in the process, too. The president has stated a goal of reaching the Final Four twice in basketball by 2010, making this hire extremely important.

Rick Barnes, the former Clemson coach who reached the Final Four with Texas, gave Phillips some opinions early in the search. Phillips used Carr Associates, a consulting group, to research candidates and speak with them early in the process. The group is run by former Florida and Houston athletic director Bill Carr and former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan.

Former Virginia coach and athletic director Terry Holland also provided his thoughts to Phillips. Holland made some unusual comments to the local media, that he didn't know what he would do if Clemson offered him the job. But Holland never was a serious player in the search, and he likely would have become a candidate only as one of the last fallback plans.