Ex-Terp is changing Tigers' stripes

Purnell gets his ACC fix, rebuilding Clemson

January 24, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Throughout Oliver Purnell's climb up college basketball's coaching ladder, he always had it in the back of his mind that he would like to return to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The brief taste of the ACC that Purnell received, as an assistant during former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell's last season and Bob Wade's first two years in College Park, had never dissipated during the 15 years that had passed.

In that time, Purnell had gone from Radford to Old Dominion, his alma mater, and eventually to Dayton for the past nine seasons. There was also one ACC job that particularly intrigued Purnell.

"I remember visiting [former coach] Rick Barnes at Clemson, and saying it was a lot different than I thought it was," Purnell recalled recently. "When we were there with Maryland, all you saw was the hotel and the gym. You never saw the campus."

The Old South setting on Lake Hartwell was certainly not the only lure for Purnell when Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips called him last spring and offered him the job. He signed for $700,000 a year for six years.

It was the challenge of rebuilding a program that had suffered four straight losing seasons under Larry Shyatt, an assistant to Barnes when the Tigers went to three straight NCAA tournaments (1996-98) for the first time in school history.

Purnell's rebuilding project is well under way. Despite two straight losses going into tomorrow's home game against Maryland, Clemson (8-8, 1-4 ACC) has done little to discourage its new coach. Nor have there been many surprises for Purnell.

All of the team's wins, along with three defeats, have come at home at Littlejohn Coliseum.

"I'm pretty pleased to be honest with you," Purnell said, sitting a week ago in his hotel suite several hours before an 86-69 defeat at North Carolina State. "With most coaches, whether or not they're pleased, it has a lot to do with their last game."

Until that night, Purnell had seen steady progress that included a 74-62 win over Boston College on Dec. 30 and put Clemson's record at 7-4. But Purnell knew he had to judge his team differently in the ACC, more on its effort than results.

The Tigers were fairly competitive with Wake Forest on Jan. 10 in Winston-Salem before the Demon Deacons, then ranked in the Top 10, pulled away for a 78-63 win. Clemson beat Florida State at home, 53-48, three days later for its last win.

"Over the last four or five games we've got progressively better, mainly because I think our guys are buying into what our identity has to be - blue collar, defending, rebound," Purnell said the morning of the N.C. State game. "We don't mind being in what most people would perceive as an ugly game.

"We're not going to outscore most teams, but if we defend and rebound and control tempo - I'm not talking about slowing it down, but not forcing anything - then we're going to have a chance to win. The guys have been buying into that more and more and we've been playing better and better."

The last two games - Clemson also had an 11-point defeat at Virginia on Tuesday - have not tempered Purnell's enthusiasm for turning around a program that has not had much success since Barnes left for Austin. (Shyatt's first team went 20-15 and made it to the NIT finals.)

"We're starting to change the image around the state, on campus, with our players, with the people around there that basketball is a big deal," said Purnell, 50, a native of Berlin, Md., who was Most Valuable Player on a Division II national championship team at Old Dominion in 1975. "It's fun. I think the time is ripe. Right and ripe. We're having a good time with it."

With a coaching staff that includes another former Maryland assistant, Ron Bradley (who followed Purnell at Radford and is Clemson's associate head coach), Purnell knows that his success with the Tigers comes down to the same ingredient that was present in his first three head coaching jobs.

He needs to get players.

Having lost point guard Edward Scott, a first team All-ACC selection who led the Tigers in scoring and assists last season, Purnell is building for the future. Vernon Hamilton, a freshman from Richmond, Va., has taken over the point. There is only one senior on the team.

"There's no question that we need to raise the talent level in the future," said Purnell, who received the oral commitments of two high school juniors rated in the Top 30 nationally. "A go-to guy or a big-time offensive player would be very helpful.

"We're not going to mortgage our future. Grow these guys up, teach them the system and then raise the talent level the next year."

Hamilton, who signed with Clemson when Shyatt was still the coach and could have been released from his agreement had he wanted to transfer, said he is happy with his decision to remain with the Tigers. Much of Hamilton's decision was the result of getting to know Purnell.

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