When Ricardo Patton arrived at Northern Illinois in 2007, he identified Chicago as an area he would target often in recruiting, much to the delight of fans and supporters of NIU basketball.
On of the first events Patton went to in Chicago as the Huskies' head man was when now-former assistant coach Dennis Gates was being inducted into the Chicago Public League Hall of Fame.
"My entire staff was there," Patton said. "We went around and met some of the guys that I didn't know and had an opportunity to speak to probably over 100 high school coaches on an in-service day."
By all accounts, it was supposed to be a good first step for Patton in Chicago.
Recruiting the City of Big Shoulders hasn't been easy, though, and three years later the desired results have yet to come to DeKalb for the Huskies.
So how much time and resources should NIU be spending in the city, specifically in the Chicago Public League, from which a few coaches have taken public shots at Patton in recent months? Is it worth it?
The Huskies did land Seton Academy guard Tony Nixon, who picked NIU out of 21 offers. Nixon had an up-and-down freshman year but has a good chance to start next season.
The combination of the since-dismissed Jake Anderson (Carver Academy), departed Von Steuben players Mike DiNunno and Michael Fakuade, Nixon, Whitney Young's Bryan Hall and St. Ignatius guard Keith Smith have yet to bring the Huskies past a 20-loss season in Patton's three years at NIU.
The Huskies lost 10 games in a row, including nine conference games. at one point last season. But NIU athletic director Jeff Compher stood behind Patton, saying he didn't see a reason for a change but that improvement was necessary next season.
In Patton's latest recruiting class, he brought in a power forward from Memphis, Tenn., (Nate Rucker), a point guard who played in Chicago who now hails from Indianapolis and comes from a North Carolina prep school (Kyree Jones), a power forward from Danville Area Community College by way of Avon, Ind. (Tim Toler), and a transfer from Lee Community College in Baytown, Texas (Cameron Madlock).
"At the end of the day, you have to recruit guys that are going to help you win ballgames," Patton said. "When you identify your need, that has to be your focus. Certainly we'd like to fill those needs locally. But when you can't, you have to look outside this area."
Anderson's dismissal and the subsequent fallout from that news didn't help matters in Chicago, and might force NIU to look for recruits outside the area more often in the future.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Chicago Vocational coach Chris Pickett wrote an extensive e-mail to the Daily Chronicle about his feelings regarding the relationship between the NIU staff and the Chicago Public League.
Pickett's thoughts represent the consensus of the 25 Chicago-area high school coaches contacted by the Daily Chronicle.
"I believe one of the real issues that keep 'non-Chicago connected coaches' away from Chicago Public League players is the stigma and stereotype of our players being 'style over substance,' 'uncoachable,' 'selfish' and "pampered,' " Pickett wrote. "We, as coaches, have all made a concerted effort to dispel those beliefs.
"We know that we have a great deal of talent and that we have players who can help Northern Illinois, DePaul, Northwestern, UIC, Loyola, Chicago State, Eastern Illinois, U of I, Illinois State, Bradley, SIU-C[arbondale], SIU-E[dwardsville] and Western Illinois. There is NO reason why our state should not have multiple representatives in the NCAA Tournament on a yearly basis. But until we get coaches who prioritize the talent that's here in the area...Catholic League and suburban schools included...our schools will continue to struggle. With that being said...the CPL is NOT a priority for certain schools and I question that approach.
"We do have student-athletes who qualify. We do have student-athletes who are coachable. We do have student-athletes who prioritize school and education. The fact that NIU's staff has severed ties to the only 3 CPL players on its roster is perplexing. I don't have the power nor the desire to start a 'ban Patton and NIU from the CPL gyms and recruits,' but he and his staff will have to clean up and do some damage control if they want to recruit CPL players...especially at Carver (where Anderson attended) and Von [Steuben] (where the other to kids went)."
Patton read the e-mail and responded as such:
"The stereotype of the players being style of substance, I don't know that I've heard that. Uncoachable, OK. Selfish, pampered. If I were writing this, I would eliminate, I don't know that they're pampered," Patton said. "Uncoachable, selfish, maybe. Style over substance, not sure that I (agree with that)."
Fearing those comments would flare up what already was a less-than-positive situation in Chicago, Patton called the Daily Chronicle the day after the interview contending that he thought his response to the e-mail was off the record and only for people in the room.
"Why would I say that to a reporter? When I first saw that e-mail, I thought I'm not going to comment on what [Pickett] says," Patton said Friday.
The Daily Chronicle made it very clear during a group interview last Thursday with Patton and assistant coaches Todd Townsend, Sundance Wicks and Will Smith which parts of the interview were on and off the record.
When Townsend asked during the interview that we go off the record, Daily Chronicle reporter John Sahly obliged, turned off his recorder and stopped writing in his notebook. When the off-the-record portion was concluded, the recorder, which was in the middle of the table, was turned back on and Sahly picked up his notebook again.
After replaying the tape of the interview multiple times, although Patton might have thought he wasn't going to comment on it, not once did he say his response to the e-mail was off the record. He never asked for that portion of the interview to go off the record. He never said that his response would be off the record.
"If you print that, I'll tell you what buddy, we're done," Patton threatened last Friday. "You cannot be trusted."
Patton's response last Thursday to the e-mail continued with this:
"I think what's a more interesting story is he named just about every Division I program in the state and talked about there being a larger NCAA presence," Patton said. "To me, that's telling. This doesn't appear to be a Ricardo Patton/Northern Illinois problem. If I have a cough, and I'm the only guy in the room with a cough, then I'm the only guy in the room with a cold. But if we all start coughing, then we've all got the same problem. That's a bigger story.
"Why aren't the Chicago Public League players helping these programs win? Are all the coaches bad coaches? Are all the coaches poor recruiters?"
Of the Rivals.com top 25 prospects in Illinois for the 2008 recruiting class, 12 called Chicago home. NIU got two of those players – DiNunno and Hall – and have lost one. Hall has been inconsistent, injured and ineffective in two seasons while DiNunno is transferring.
Of the 12 Chicago kids, 10 came from the CPL. Five still are with their original program. Three have announced they will transfer. One player – Simeon's Kenyon Smith – failed to qualify academically but this year signed again with Illinois State. One, Ryan Hare, was dismissed from Southern Illinois following a charge of battery.
Only Stan Simpson and Steve Goins, both of whom reportedly are transferring and saw little to no playing time at their respective schools, have been to the NCAA tournament.
The two Chicago Catholic League players went to Oregon and announced they will transfer after the Ducks fired coach Ernie Kent this year.
Asked if he has relationships to repair with CPL coaches, Patton said, "I don't know."
"I don't think anybody has to repair anything with Ricardo Patton," Patton said. "I don't take anything they say personally and the reason I don't take it personal is because they don't know me. For anyone to come out and believe that Ricardo Patton is in this business to screw kids, doesn't know Ricardo Patton."
On April 12, Anderson, who had been a starter for three seasons under Patton, told The Daily Chronicle that he was forced out in a short meeting with Patton just after spring break. Anderson, who had been suspended for a game for a violation of team rules as a sophomore, said he didn't want to leave the Huskies and that Patton was at least an hour and 15 minutes late to the meeting.
Johnail Evans, who coached Anderson in high school at Carver, said NIU Deputy Athletic Director Robert Collins, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of several sports, including men's basketball, called him days after news broke of Anderson's dismissal to apologize for Anderson's situation.
"It went well. It went real well," Evans said. "I've known Robert Collins. He was a Chicago Public League coach (at Calumet and Robeson high schools). He was a CPL kid at Robeson. I've known him since when I was a player. I've known him for a long time. It went real well. He apologized and he's upset about the situation."
Collins said Evans' description of the phone call is accurate.
"I'm hurt that it happened this way," Collins said. "I'm sorry, but I never said a derogatory word about coach Patton."
Patton issued a statement three weeks ago saying the dismissal of Anderson and the departures of DiNunno and Fakuade were internal matters.
During last week's meeting, Patton said he wouldn't go into more detail about Anderson or Collins' apology.
"I'm not going to talk about any of that," he said. "I'm not going to apologize for any of that. I'm not going to second-guess any of that. I'm not going to even engage in that. Robert Collins is an adult and whatever he felt he needed to do, you'd have to talk with him about that."
With his expansive public league background, Collins said he felt the need to call because he endorsed Patton to CPL coaches when Patton first arrived at NIU. He also felt that NIU has done a lot for Anderson. Collins said he personally mentored Anderson when he first came to NIU as a partial qualifier and helped put him on track to graduate, but said, "I am apologizing for him leaving on a note like that."
Asked why he felt compelled to call Evans after Anderson went public with his displeasure rather than a few weeks before when Anderson departed the team under what was thought to be mundane circumstances, Collins said this:
"I can't really answer that question," Collins said. "I know when [news broke of Anderson's unhappiness], I got some phone calls. I didn't get phone calls a couple of weeks ago."
Collins said he also called Von Steuben coach Vince Carter to say the same thing.
"I think in time it works itself out," Collins said. "But in the position I sit, I couldn't just sit back and not (do anything)."
Evans, who said he is upset with how he feels Anderson was treated by Patton, said he also received a phone call with similar sentiments from Gates. Evans said two weeks ago that he had not received a call from Patton.
In the past 24 seasons, there is no direct link between the number of Chicago Public League players on NIU and the success or failure of the Huskies.
According to numbers provided by the NIU sports information office, the average number of CPL players on NIU's roster over the past 24 years is 2.1.
The Huskies didn't have a CPL player the last time they won the Mid-American Conference West in '05-06. The Huskies had one public league player when they last made the NCAA tournament in 1995-96.
In three straight 20-loss seasons under Patton, the Huskies have had four CPL players in each season.
But when the Huskies made the NCAA tournament in 1990-91, they had four from the public league.
Despite NIU heavily marketing itself as a Chicago school, it's still a 90-minute drive to the city from DeKalb. The team's 2009-10 media guide depicted Patton and the Huskies from Chicago standing in front of a cornfield with the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan in the background with the headline "Chicago moves West."
The distance between the two, however, is a reality the coaches have to face when going on Chicago recruiting trips.
Patton said he's been to the city tournament every year he's been at NIU and this past semester the coaches moved NIU practices to 6 a.m. from 3:30 p.m. to allow for more afternoons and evenings to get to the Chicago area.
Townsend, who was touted for his Chicago ties when he was hired last season, said the MAC schedule hurts NIU's ability to recruit the city as well as the staff would like to.
"We play Wednesdays and Saturdays in our league and we bus everywhere," Townsend said. "So we leave Tuesday and Friday. The high school teams play on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. We try and do as much as we possibly can, why wouldn't we?"
Although there is no definitive number for success or failure based on the number of Chicago Public League players on the roster, those numbers do raise an interesting argument on whether or not the talent of the public league is all it is made out to be, especially the talent available to mid-majors such as NIU.
"Sometimes people call you just so you can take a guy who is borderline and do a favor," Townsend said. "Sometimes you're not in a position to do that, especially when you're trying to build a program. Some kids you just can't take."
Townsend said that refusal to take what NIU evaluates as a player who likely isn't good enough to play for the Huskies can affect the relationship with that player's coach, but it depends on the coach.
"Certain guys out there have been great for the most part," Townsend said. "But you just can't take borderline prospects just because they're good guys or just because you want to get a player in the future and expect to win the league."
NIU, Chicago and the CPL
The average number of Chicago natives on a Northern Illinois men's basketball roster since the 1986-87 season is 3.5. The average number of players from the Chicago Public League in the same span is 2.1. Here are the numbers of Chicago natives and CPL players per season, along with the team's record.
HEAD COACH RICARDO PATTON 2009-10 (10-20): CPL 4 CHI 5 2008-09: (10-20): CPL 4 CHI 5 2007-08 (6-22): CPL 4 CHI 3
HEAD COACH ROB JUDSON 2006-07: (7-23): CPL 2 CHI 2 2005-06: (17-11): CPL 0 CHI 0 2004-05: (11-17): CPL 1 CHI 2 2003-04: (10-20): CPL 3 CHI 3 2002-03: (17-14): CPL 3 CHI 4 2001-02: (12-16): CPL 2 CHI 3
INTERIM HEAD COACH ANDY GREER/BRIAN HAMMEL 2000-01: (5-23): CPL 1 CHI 3
HEAD COACH BRIAN HAMMEL 1999-00: (13-15): CPL 0 CHI 4 1998-99: (6-20): CPL 2 CHI 4 1997-98: (10-16): CPL 3 CHI 3 1996-97: (12-15); CPL 2 CHI 5 1995-96: (20-10): CPL 1 CHI 2 1994-95: (19-10): CPL 1 CHI 2 1993-94: (10-17): CPL 1 CHI 2 1992-93: (15-12): CPL 0 CHI 2 1991-92: (11-17): CPL 1 CHI 1
HEAD COACH JIM MOLINARI 1990-91: (25-6): CPL 4 CHI 6 1989-90: (17-11): CPL 4 CHI 6
HEAD COACH JIM ROSBOROUGH 1988-89: (11-17): CPL 4 CHI 5 1987-88: (8-20): CPL 3 CHI 6 1986-87: (9-19): CPL 0 CHI 2
– Courtesy of NIU Media Relations