Seven straight road games representing the roughest part of Chicago State's Great Westward Ho of a schedule had taken the Cougars' men's basketball team from Oregon to Texas to Ohio to Las Vegas and, finally, New Jersey.
On the bumpy flight home after a triple-overtime loss to New Jersey Institute of Technology — which also belongs to America's most geographically confused conference, the Great West — Chicago State guard Nate Duhon discovered one teammate's different kind of range.
"Jamere Dismukes hit a high note I never heard,'' Duhon recalled. "Everybody on the plane was scared for their life. People were screaming. I don't think anybody ever experienced that. That was the worst, but we got through it.''
If Chicago State players have learned anything under coach Tracy Dildy, it is how to deal with turbulence.
"When coaches recruited me, they told me, 'We have a chance to change tradition,''' said Duhon, one of Chicago State's nine junior-college transfers who was the league's newcomer of the year. "The whole team bought into that. People didn't expect much from us because of the past, but we talked all season about bringing Chicago State a championship like our (athletic director Dan Schumacher) said from day one. It's a great feeling."
Has there ever been a team happier to play in the CollegeInsider.com tournament? Try telling the Cougars that their first-round matchup Wednesday against Illinois-Chicago at the UIC Pavilion matters less than the 68-team tourney with the theme song. Chicago State (11-21) achieved something greater than an automatic CIT berth by beating Houston Baptist on Saturday for the Great West tournament title. It reclaimed respectability for a Division I program rocked by NCAA sanctions and often overlooked on its campus 10 miles south of the Loop.
As controversy plagues the university's administration and crime poisons the area around the school, incremental progress by Chicago State's basketball team feels like monumental success.
"We had our moments wondering how we are going to get this done and I've had people say, 'Why did you take that dead-end job?''' said Dildy, in his third season after establishing a reputation as an elite recruiter at DePaul and elsewhere. "At the moment we beat Houston Baptist, to see tears in guys' eyes, the happiness of our players and relief of our staff, that told me everything we've been through was worth it."
When Schumacher left Lewis University last May after a successful turnaround to take over as Chicago State's athletic director, residue of negligence remained. In May 2011, the NCAA imposed a one-year postseason ban, cut two scholarships and limited practice time for having low Academic Progress Rate scores over the previous six years. Priorities had been misplaced, direction lost. Chicago State allocated only $10,668 on men's basketball recruiting in 2011-12, according to figures in the Gender Equity Disclosure report.
"I inherited a mess," said Schumacher, who's from Beverly and likes a challenge.
At his first coaches meeting, Schumacher established new recruiting standards: Chicago State no longer would consider prospects unless they scored at least 20 on the ACT and achieved a 2.5 grade-point average. Heads shook. Eyes rolled. Skeptics filled the room.
"I said, 'When you go to your AAU tournaments, I want you to (complain) to fellow coaches about your AD not letting you recruit anybody unless he has a 20 ACT and 2.5 GPA. Then come back and tell me what the rumor is on the street,'' Schumacher said. "That's a better rumor than saying we have a bunch of academically ineligible kids. I believe you can win with smart kids. … That's the paradigm shift here."
To make his point, Schumacher wrote "75-25" on a blackboard.
"I asked, 'Which side are you on? Are you spending 75 percent of your time chasing kids to class and making sure they're doing homework and only 25 percent coaching?''' Schumacher said. "We can flip that so you spend 75 percent of your time doing what you love. Over time, coaches are buying into this."
Winning something tangible like a conference tournament helps. So does committing $2.5 million to a new baseball stadium and joining the Western Athletic Conference, which CSU will do July 1. Besides enhanced exposure and prestige, the move will increase Schumacher's athletic budget from $5.2 million to nearly $7 million — and dangle the carrot of the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth.
"Now Tracy Dildy can sit in his office with a recruit and sell the same thing as Oliver Purnell (at DePaul),'' Schumacher said. "Before December we couldn't answer that question well enough to get into those living rooms. Now, our conversation's different."
Now, people are talking about Chicago State for the right reasons.