Shocking Departure

Oliver Purnell, who led Clemson to three straight NCAA tournaments, accepted the DePaul job Tuesday.

M. Spencer Green

CLEMSON -- Less than two weeks ago in the McFadden Building's conference room, Oliver Purnell said during his season wrapup press conference he didn't anticipate any staff changes, but he added: never say never.

In the same space Tuesday afternoon, Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips met with the media, promising to immediately begin a national coaching search to replace Purnell and maintain the gains the program made in seven seasons under his stewardship.

Seven hundred miles to the northwest, Purnell was introduced as DePaul's new basketball coach, receiving a significant raise with a seven-year, $15 million contract. He gave little explanation for his decision to defect to a program that had won only one regular season Big East conference game the last two years. Purnell said he enjoyed turning programs around, pledging to make DePaul Chicago's team.

The decision sent a shockwave of surprise across the campus and college basketball

"This happened so quickly, my head is still not clear," said Phillips, who learned of Purnell's decision at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. "And like I just got through telling the team, I'm in a little bit of shock as well. But as time passes by, I'll get a little better grasp on why Oliver made the decision."

Phillips' hiring of Purnell stands as one of the signature achievements during his tenure as athletic director.

Purnell compiled a 138-90 record at Clemson, leading the program from the bottom of the ACC to three straight NCAA appearances. The last coach to lead Clemson to three

straight NCAA appearances was Rick Barnes, who like Purnell, vacated his post after the third trip.

Phillips referred to Purnell's work as "a foundation" for the next coach to build upon.

As for Clemson's next coach, Phillips says he's working on it.

"We've probably got a relatively short list," Phillips said. "There is tremendous interest in the position. I'm working on it as we speak."

Phillips didn't confirm or deny the short list includes Butler head coach Brad Stevens, saying it never hurts to place a phone call. After leading the No. 5-seeded Bulldogs to Monday's NCAA title game, Stevens figures to be one of the most sought-after coaching commodities in the country.

Also being speculated as a possible coaching candidate is former Clemson assistant Shaka Smart, who is coming off his first season as a head coach at Virginia Commonwealth, going 22-8.

Phillips' first choice during his first men's coaching search ahead of Purnell was Tim Floyd, who recently accepted the head position at Texas-El Paso.

Clemson assistant Ron Bradley was named as the interim coach, with a chance to interview for the head position. Bradley declined to comment on whether Purnell had offered him a position on the DePaul staff. Purnell said at his introductory press conference he plans on constructing a "power" staff.

Both Smart and Stevens are young coaches, fitting the profile of Phillips' last two significant hires -- young, energetic coaches like Dabo Swinney and women's basketball coach Itoro Umoh.

Phillips didn't reveal a particular profile he's looking for in his next coach, and said maintaining the uptempo press style is not a prerequisite.

"I'm not afraid to take a shot on someone," Phillips. "I also understand you get shot at, too."

A source said Phillips did make a counterproposal, which included showing the cost of living increases that accompany a move to Chicago. However, Phillips said an official counterproposal was never made to Purnell, who was making $1.3 million annually at Clemson and had six years remaining on his contract.

By leaving, Purnell also forfeited $1.1 million in a retirement plan that would have vested later this month.

Phillips preferred to not speculate on whether dollars were the main motive behind Purnell's decision.

"I don't want to dwell on compensation issues, (they are) always at the forefront," Phillips said. "Look at our record with compensation, it's been very fair."

Purnell began negotiating with DePaul officials Friday, officially telling Phillips of his decision early Tuesday morning.

"Oliver just said 'I'm accepting the job,' " Phillips said. "It was a short conversation. He didn't elaborate on his decision. He enjoys building programs."

Some of the Tigers learned of Purnell's decision around the same time period, while others awoke to text messages Tuesday.

Clemson players said they were "shocked" -- the key word of the day.

Purnell did not meet or communicate with the team prior to, or after, his decision.

"I talked to him for 15 minutes on Friday," point guard Demontez Stitt said, "everything seemed like it was all right. We were talking about next season."

The players met with Bradley at 7:30 a.m. and practiced Tuesday.

Bradley went into immediate damage control with Clemson recruits, including prized signee Marcus Thornton.

The players said they doubted there would be defections among their ranks. Said point guard Andre Young: "Life goes on."

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com and check out his Clemson blog at www.postandcourier.om/blogs/tiger_tracks.

Oliver Purnell

Record in seven years at Clemson | 138-90

NCAA Tournament appearances | 3 (2007-08, 08-09, 09-10)

Best season | 2008-09: 24-10 overall, 10-6, 3rd in ACC