The year was 1984. The NCAA tournament was in Lincoln. So was an early March snowstorm, which hammered the city.
On the off day of the tournament, DePaul assistant coaches Joey Meyer and Jim Molinari sat in the coffee shop of the Cornhusker Hotel, watching the snow fall and having an intense conversation.
Meyer would take over the DePaul basketball program the following season. His father, Ray, the patriarch of the program, was stepping down after this NCAA tourney.
Were Meyer and Molinari plotting the future? Were they already navigating life without the Chicago legend?
No. They were sweating out the present.
“I remember that NCAA tournament,” Molinari said. “We had been ranked No. 1 in the country the previous two years and both years lost in the first game of the NCAA tournament.
“We knew we couldn't let that happen again with Ray's last tournament. We were consumed by that. I remember we went into the locker room before the game and told the players, 'Look, fellas, we cannot lose this game.' ”
They didn't. On a wintry Sunday afternoon at the Devaney Center, the Blue Demons, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, beat Illinois State 75-61 in the second round (because the field was 53 teams, DePaul had a first-round bye). In the other Lincoln bracket game, Wake Forest beat Larry Brown's first Kansas team and would end the Ray Meyer era a week later in St. Louis.
Thirty years later, Molinari is back in Nebraska. He's the coach at Western Illinois (and won his 300th career game last week), which plays UNO at Ralston Arena on Saturday. Tonight, Molinari's old team, DePaul, is in town to play Creighton.
Small world. But the world has changed in 30 years. DePaul is no longer a No. 1 seed. It is no longer a standard of Midwest Hoops that, along with Notre Dame and Marquette, were role models for a program like Creighton.
This is a fun game tonight at the CenturyLink Center for the nostalgic crowd. The name DePaul conjures strong images for a generation that remembers Digger Phelps and Al McGuire and when Ray Meyer, the Godfather of Chicago basketball, took the Demons to the 1979 Final Four. You know, that one with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
But the game changed in the 1980s, took off like an express, but DePaul didn't come along for the ride. The Blue Demons missed the train.
Since Ray Meyer retired in 1984, DePaul has been to nine NCAA tournaments — and only two since 1992 (2000 and '04). There have been five head coaches in the past 30 years, starting with Joey Meyer, who had 11 winning seasons from 1985 to '97, and seven NCAA tourneys from 1985 to '97.
DePaul has had four coaches in the past 16 years, or about every four years. And now current coach Oliver Purnell, who hasn't had a winning season in four years, is hearing the wolves howl at the Chicago moon.
DePaul hasn't hired that guy yet, the difference-maker coach. But it's not all on the coaches, either. Along the way, this became a harder job. It became more than just college basketball, Chicago and push a button.
Rick Velasco remembers when it was like that. Velasco is a Chicago native who has called Omaha home for years. He went to DePaul from 1979 to '83 and was one of the team managers in 1982-83.
He'll be there tonight, and the scene will remind him a little of those days.
“It was like Creighton back then,” Velasco said. “We were getting 17,000 a game at the Horizon. All the games were on WGN. They were always on the Saturday game of the week. DePaul-Notre Dame was the last game of the year and Al McGuire always came in to do the game.”
That was when DePaul dominated the area. And what an area. Back then, a Chicago kid like Derrick Rose or Anthony Davis would have signed up to play for the home team.
But ESPN and the Big East changed the world when they exploded in the 1980s. We all know about the programs that rode the wave. DePaul was one of the programs sucked into the undertow.
“It was like what happened to Nebraska (football),” Velasco said. “Once cable TV picked up, mom and dad could watch their kid on any network.”
And then something else happened. Or, somebody happened.
“When we were on WGN, we were way ahead of everyone else,” said Molinari, who was an assistant at DePaul from 1979 to '89. “We were America's Team. We had rivalries with UCLA and Notre Dame. We could recruit the West Coast or East Coast. ESPN changed that.
“But the other thing that changed was when the Bulls started winning. We were Chicago's Team. Then once Michael Jordan came, that changed. They took over the town, as you would expect.”
DePaul became an example of how much an identity meant to winning. The Demons dropped their independent status in 1991, joining the Great Midwest Conference, then Conference USA until the Big East called in 2005. By then, the Big East spanned half the country and was investing heavily in football. DePaul, once a crown jewel of the Midwest, was just another team in an over-crowded league.
And a sports town crowded with options.
“The Big East provided challenges for DePaul,” Molinari said. “You were playing a lot of schools, like Syracuse and Louisville, who were at the top of their game. I think this new Big East will be better for them. There are more “like” schools in this conference, schools on the same mission. I think DePaul will be able to find its identity again.
“And hopefully the new arena will help them do that, too.”
DePaul is contributing $70 million to a new $173 million, 10,000-seat arena near the south loop. It's designed to jump-start activity in the McCormick Place Convention Center, not to mention interest in DePaul hoops.
“Going to (All-State Arena) is like going to O'Hare (airport), Velasco said. “It's hard to get to. This is going to be uptown and they're building a train stop by it. We'll get the students back.”
The project isn't without controversy, as Chicagoans in 2014 wonder why anyone wants to spend money on DePaul basketball. Thirty years later, they've forgotten what a college basketball team can mean to a city.
Tonight at the CenturyLink Center, when Creighton runs out of the tunnel, they'll get a reminder.