After 37 seasons, DePaul closes chapter in Rosemont
The year was 1980 and DePaul basketball was the biggest game in town.
The men's team, led by superstar Mark Aguirre and coached by the gregarious Ray Meyer, had a national following -- no doubt cemented by its Final Four appearance the year before in a game against Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores.
Busting at the seams in its 5,308-seat Alumni Hall gym in Chicago's Lincoln Park, the Blue Demons moved to the newly constructed Rosemont Horizon in the Northwest suburbs -- a venue with some 17,000 seats that was big enough to fit all of those lucky enough to get a ticket.
"We were the pro team, and the college team, and the center of attention," said Joey Meyer, who was assistant to his dad Ray before becoming head coach in 1984. "When we walked in the building, it was full. It was a tremendous atmosphere."
After 37 seasons, DePaul will close a chapter of its history Saturday with its final game at the Rosemont stadium now known as the Allstate Arena. DePaul, with a record of 9-21, faces Xavier at 1 p.m. in a game that has little consequence, for what is shaping up to be the program's 10th consecutive losing season.
Attendance, too, has been in the doldrums for years, and university officials hope a move to a stadium now under construction near McCormick Place will give the program the jolt it needs.
DePaul is splitting the $164 million construction cost for the 10,387-seat Wintrust Arena with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the city-state agency that runs McCormick Place. When the stadium opens in the fall, it will bring to fruition a long-held desire of university leaders to have a home for its men's basketball team closer to campus.
But in the late 1970s, Rosemont seemed like the perfect fit for the basketball team, which was beginning to make regular appearances in the NCAA postseason tournament and attract top recruits from the Chicago Public League.
There had been talk of expanding Alumni Hall or building somewhere close to campus, but DePaul was already landlocked in an increasingly congested neighborhood.
Then-Athletic Director Gene Sullivan, Ray Meyer and Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens brokered a deal that led to DePaul becoming an anchor tenant of the new stadium, which was being built to host sports, concerts and other events like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
"Coach and I and any DePaul person wanted something on campus. It was the one thing we pushed for but wasn't feasible," said Joey Meyer, who coached DePaul until 1997 and is now an NBA scout and radio analyst for Northwestern basketball games. "What was the next best thing? It was Rosemont. They were building it and it was new and 17,000 (seats) and we could fill it. It made sense at the time to move there."
In the first Rosemont game on Dec. 1, 1980, DePaul defeated Gonzaga 74-56. And in the years that followed, fans kept the stands filled during some of the program's most successful years, featuring the likes of Aguirre, Terry Cummings, Rod Strickland and Dallas Comegys.
It was the pre-Michael Jordan era of Chicago sports, when DePaul's success dominated the headlines in the sports pages and most of the team's games were broadcast on WGN-TV's national superstation.
Observers have assigned a number of factors to the program's decline, chief among them inability to recruit top talent from the Public League. And some fans -- especially students -- have complained about the time it takes to get from the Lincoln Park campus to Rosemont.
Jean Lenti Ponsetto, DePaul's athletic director since 2002, said there have been no less than 20 iterations of plans over the years that proposed DePaul playing closer to its campus in Chicago.
But it wasn't until May 2013 that DePaul, McPier and city officials revealed plans for a stadium at Indiana Avenue and Cermak Road on the Near South Side -- six miles from campus and a Red Line el ride away. By comparison, Allstate Arena is 14 miles away.
"There's been a clamoring from them (students) to be able to come to games along the el line," Lenti Ponsetto said.
Construction on the new stadium started in November 2015. The venue will have 22 suites, two VIP club lounges, and a second-level Demon Deck student section. Officials plan to host more than 60 events a year, including DePaul games, concerts, shows, conventions and meetings.
Lenti Ponsetto said she believes the new stadium's locker room/lounge area and practice facilities -- a state-of-the-art weight room and training area -- will help lure top recruits.
In preparation for DePaul's departure, Allstate Arena has filled its schedule with Northwestern men's basketball games, which will be played in Rosemont for at least one season during renovations of Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston.
DePaul's exit -- and the announcement earlier this year that Ringling Bros. circus will cease operations -- don't worry Pat Nagle, executive director of the Allstate Arena.
"I've already got them both replaced," Nagle said, adding that one well-attended concert can make as much money for the village as a full 15-game home season of DePaul. "There's so many shows we can't do because we're so busy."
While paid attendance at DePaul games has hovered around 5,000 per game, the number of people that walk through the turnstiles has averaged 1,500 to 3,000, Nagle said. The arena's other sports tenants, the Wolves and Sky, average 10,000 and 5,000 fans a game, respectively.
"It's a hard sell," Nagle said of DePaul games. "It's been that way for a while."
DePaul is planning a halftime ceremony during Saturday's game to recognize the program's storied history in Rosemont and thank the Allstate Arena staff and village officials for their support. And Mayor Brad Stephens has promised to be at the first game at the new DePaul stadium.
Of all the games in Rosemont, two stand out to Joey Meyer: his dad's final game as coach in 1984 and a last-minute comeback against St. John's in the 1987 NCAA tournament. "We had a great run and that building rocked for many years," Meyer said. "There was a stretch there DePaul was as great as any program in the country."