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Windy City renaissance

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

CINCINNATI – "We are DePaul" they used to say, year after year when Coach Ray ran things on the North Side.

The Blue Demons were a Chicago institution, like deep dish pizza and Wrigley Field. Being constant and classy in a hoop-mad city college hoops made DePaul a powerhouse.

But then the bottom fell out. Ray Meyer won more than 67 percent of his games from 1942 to 1984. His son Joey averaged 21 a year and made seven NCAA appearances in his first eight seasons as head coach. And since then DePaul has been a disaster. Joey was canned after a three-win season in 1998 and Pat Kennedy split in 2002 after all his big-name recruits produced little more than an uneasy feeling about the program's ethics.

Ray Meyer wouldn't even attend games.

"We Are DePaul?" Who would claim part of this underperforming train wreck?

Well, scream it from Lincoln Park to the Mount Greenwood again. Chicago, you've got your program back in a big way, the right way and, maybe most importantly, courtesy of a blue-collar group of guys who aren't the least bit satisfied in what they have accomplished.

DePaul plays for the Conference USA title Saturday (11:30 a.m.) against the league's premier power, Cincinnati. The Blue Demons are 21-8 and headed for the NCAA tournament for the just the second time since 1992. And once they get there, they have the potential to stick around for a while.

And this isn't some miracle season, some lucky streak. This is just the start of what looks like the good old days again, the DePaul juggernaut beginning to crank up again.

"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves," said second-year coach Dave Leitao, who has worked wonders but would prefer not to talk about it. "This is the beginning of this process."

Leitao is an unlikely conductor of this renaissance. A tall, serious Massachusetts native, he spent 16 years as an assistant to Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. He's an Eastern guy. Chicago used to be a city he changed planes in. Now he is on his way to become a major star in Midway.

He's put together a tough, hard-working team, has a slew of promising recruits en route and has presented a feel-good image about the program that has reestablished the city's love affair with the program.

Attendance is up. Victories are up. Spirits are up.

Even Ray Meyer has started attending games again.

"The fans of Chicago are really eager," said senior Delonte Holland after the Blue Demons outlasted UAB 75-74 here Friday. "They really want us to do well. It is just a great feeling."

But by no means does Leitao consider returning to the tournament or reaching a C-USA final the end goal here. Not at DePaul. Not with this many advantages at his disposal. Where some wondered if the Blue Demons could ever again compete – being an urban Catholic school with less than ideal facilities – Leitao only saw the positives.

Had he stayed at Connecticut he would have almost certainly succeeded Calhoun and taken over one of the nation's best programs. But he jumped at the chance to come to the Midwest and take this job, even if failure would ruin his chances of taking the reigns in Storrs.

"What do you need for success?" the 43-year-old said. "You need great tradition. You need a fan base. You need a recruiting base. And you need exposure. I think Chicago and the University gives you all of that.

"Now you've got to work your tail off. I'm fortunate to come from a program and a mentor where that is all we were about, working our tail off."

Hard work is the hallmark of this team. The Blue Demons aren't the nation's most talented club, but they fight and scrap and rebound and defend and never quit. This is a team that represents its city well.

"Being a Chicagoan that means everything," said assistant coach Gene Cross, who grew up in the area. "We want to be the team the people in Chicagoland are proud of. We're a hard-hat group and we feel Chicago is a working-class city. We want to be Chicago's team."

Saturday Chicago's team plays for a conference crown. Next week it heads to the NCAA tournament. No one here is even remotely satisfied with these developments.

"It's the old cliche, (it is) hard to get there harder to sustain it," said Leitao, who won't even admit the Blue Demons have gotten anywhere.

But they have. They've gotten back. Back to winning. Back in vogue. Back to relevance.

"We are DePaul."

Say it again with pride.