Clemson University

Tigers' coach comes from long line of positive influences

CLEMSON -- John Thompson II, the former Georgetown coach and industry icon, defines Clemson coach Oliver Purnell by the company he kept.

For years, college basketball's coaches convention has convened at the Final Four.

Because there were so few black assistant coaches among the ranks, Thompson made a habit during the NCAAs of gathering those in attendance for midnight chalk talks in the hotel lobby.

Thompson gave tutorials on topics ranging from schematic X's and O's to the confidence young black coaches must exude in order to overcome stereotypes.

It was there that Thompson was introduced to Purnell, then in his first full-time coaching gig at Old Dominion.

"He always had such a willingness to learn and went to places where teaching was emphasized," Thompson said.

Purnell is now at the stage in his career where he should be doing the teaching.

With Clemson set for an NCAA tournament first-round game Friday against Villanova, the 54-year-old has effectively completed his fourth rebuilding project in as many coaching jobs, having led Dayton and Old Dominion to the NCAAs while previously making a winner out of Radford.

There is a method to his March Madness, and Purnell credits Thompson as one of his three primary influences.

"I often think what made me think I could coach as an African-American, and he was one of the reasons, not only looking at him but being exposed to him and sitting at his knee, if you will," Purnell said.

Sticking to the Webb

There was a time Purnell thought he might not be cut out for coaching.

Say, a whole two months into his first job.

Coincidentally, Purnell turned down a graduate assistant's position at Clemson to stay at his alma mater and serve on new coach Paul Webb's staff at Old Dominion for the 1975-76 season.

Purnell quickly figured out he had to change or he was not going to make it. He worked too many hours and when the time to sleep finally arrived, his mind was too preoccupied to allow relaxation.

Then Webb stepped in.

Purnell got a bulky day-planner and studied how to best use it, making lists large and small in order to improve his organization.

Webb emphasized the importance of delegating tasks, and Purnell soon came to the realization things would get done.

The same patience is required in game management, and Purnell's sideline demeanor has come to mirror Webb's.

Purnell rarely displays emotional highs or lows, and his disagreements with officials seem so temperate that they usually have no effect one way or another.

"A game is a microcosm of a season," Purnell said. "You have to pace your approach with your players, and in doing that, it really helps build your program. It's that same patience that I think you have to have.

"A season is a long time. And in the ebb and flow of a game, it's a long game. It's very easy to get excited at the very beginning and do things that may or may not help you in the long run."

After 10 years with Webb at ODU, Purnell joined Lefty Driesell's staff at Maryland in 1985. With all three of his assistants landing jobs elsewhere, Webb retired as the nation's sixth-winningest coach.

"I like to think I see some of myself in Oliver, but I don't think I'm as good a coach as he is," Webb said. "A lot of today's coaches, in my opinion, are either good coaches or good recruiters. Oliver is one of the rare ones who is both."

A mother's touch

"The greatest secret for eliminating the inferiority complex, which is another term for deep and profound self doubt, is to fill your mind to overflowing with faith." -- Norman Vincent Peale

The quotation comes from the first chapter of Peale's renowned bestseller, "The Power of Positive Thinking," published in 1952.

It is one of Purnell's favorite books, and the excerpt speaks to how he has changed Clemson's losing culture.

Senior forward James Mays contends Purnell's greatest attribute is his subtle motivational skills.

There is a sincerity in his bluntness that comes across more as issuing personal challenges than either threatening or inflating players' egos.

Purnell considers his people skills a hand-me-down from his mom, Phyllis, a positive thinker who likewise made her sons go cut their switches when spankings were imminent.

After dropping out of school as a 10th-grader, Phyllis worked as a hotel maid. Realizing an education might be her kids' best hope for a better life, she went back to school to complete her equivalency degree and later took hotel management courses.

During Purnell's first coaching stint at ODU, Phyllis spotted a photo in a Christian bookstore that reminded her of the oldest of her three sons.

It was an owl clinging to a rope. She bought it, and Purnell still displays the print to this day.

"The owl is hanging in there just enough, and that's what Oliver has been doing all these years," Phyllis said.

The first person Purnell hired on his Clemson staff was Charlotte assistant Kevin Nickleberry, a reputed recruiter who went on to become Hampton's coach two years ago.

Purnell picked up Nickleberry for the job interview, and once they exited Interstate 85 for the 10-mile stretch of Highway 76 leading to campus, Purnell made a passionate pitch that the Tigers were on the verge of putting together something special.

Within weeks, Nickleberry found himself chauffeuring Mays, a high school junior, in from the Greenville-Spartanburg airport.

"I repeated the same things (Purnell) said to me as we were coming down that road, giving them that same spiel that if they believed, they could do something special by the time they were juniors or seniors," Nickleberry said. "It was kind of prophetic.

"It's just funny that Oliver always sees everything half-full instead of half-empty. I never understood that until I became a head coach. I think Oliver could have went to New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina) and handled that."

Hoya paranoia

Purnell's philosophical affinity for defense came from Webb. But the schematic outline by which Clemson forces opponents into a frenetic pace has Thompson's towel print all over it.

When Purnell went to Maryland, Georgetown's D.C. area rival, he nonetheless continued seeking Thompson's guidance.

The Hoyas were known for their stifling fullcourt defense, using the long, lean athletes Purnell prefers to recruit for the Tigers.

Purnell mixed principles from former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" presses with his own few wrinkles to meld the defense Clemson fans see today.

The style served Purnell well at Radford and ODU, but he played a halfcourt power game at Dayton because of the personnel inherited.

For the same reason, Purnell was reluctant to employ his presses with regularity at Clemson until three years ago.

On Monday, Thompson telephoned Purnell for the first time this season, in part to ask his pupil to be a guest on Thompson's D.C.-based radio show.

Thompson watched Clemson's ACC tournament run and wanted to congratulate Purnell on how far the program had come.

"I was pleased and proud of what he accomplished," Thompson said.

"His teams are proactive instead of reactive. They do a lot of things we did as a team."

Sure enough, the apple never falls far from the tree. Clemson is bearing the fruit of three diverse influences rolled into one proven coach.

"You keep hitting that rock, and if you keep doing it over time, it will become apparent you're getting somewhere," Purnell said.

Such as back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.