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Chicago icon Lance Irvin prepares to tackle daunting rebuild at Chicago State

The newly-minted coach remembers the good times on the South Side. His connections could help bring them back.

NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Notre Dame
Anthony Harris will likely be a leader for Irvin in his first season.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

When most people look at Chicago State, they probably wouldn’t get past some unavoidable numbers. There’s the fact CSU has had just one winning season since 1985, or that it has lost roughly 75 percent of its games over 34 years as a Div. I program. There are also the 107 losses that piled up over the past four seasons.

Those aren’t what Lance Irvin sees.

“You know how people like stocks?” he said. “I thought it was a stock that had really good potential.”

Last week Irvin was announced as the Cougars’ new head coach, filling the final remaining vacancy in the country. CSU waited a long time to make the decision, but got someone long on experience. Irvin’s career has included stops as an assistant at DePaul, Loyola University Chicago, Iowa State, Illinois State, Texas A&M, Missouri, SMU and Southern Illinois.

Most recently, Irvin had been serving as an assistant for his brother Nick at Chicago’s Morgan Park High School. He said he’d been eyeing a return to Div. I for some time, but the timing and situation wasn’t right until CSU called. And while the job comes with a massive rebuilding effort, it’s familiar territory for Irvin.

The Chicago native grew up four miles from the university, and as an eight or nine-year-old, Irvin’s dad Mac took him to his first college basketball game. It was at CSU, and the then-NAIA Cougars were playing rival Central State.

He remembers it vividly.

“It was jam-packed, the band was rocking. The crowd was into it and they were winning,” Irvin said. “Back in those days they were really good and exciting. It was a destination.”

Home games like that may seem like an impossibility on the South Side. The Cougars averaged under 500 fans per game last year, and have won just two Div. I games at the Jones Convocation Center since 2015. But distant as it may seem, it wasn’t that long ago that CSU was a factor, both at home and in the WAC.

The Cougars were solidly competitive in 2013-14, their debut season in the league. They went 9-5 at home, in part fueling an 8-8 league record and fourth place regular season finish. That team, which was led by Scottie Pippen’s nephew Quinton Pippen and Chicagoland-native Clarke Rosenberg, picked up one of the best wins in program history when it beat New Mexico State at home in January. The Aggies were a bona fide NCAA Tournament team that year, ultimately winning 26 games and giving San Diego State all it could handle in a first round game.

That kind of win seems like a dream after CSU’s slide in recent years, but Irvin sees a path forward from the Div. I abyss, starting with the university’s leadership. He cited newly-hired school president Zaldwaynaka Scott and athletic director Chris Zorich — a former Chicago Bear — as main reasons why he felt the opportunity was right.

It’s not hard to see why Scott and Zorich felt the same way about Irvin.

He’s faced challenges that put the CSU rebuild in perspective. He was diagnosed with leukemia in May 2010 while an assistant at Southern Illinois. By August, and after 40 days in a St. Louis hospital, the cancer was in remission. While that puts basketball in perspective, like any coach, Irvin plans to use his two decades as an assistant to his advantage.

“A good coach is always stealing some stuff from coaches they’ve been around and tweaking it,” he said. “Larry Eustachy was tough and physical, and about rebounding the basketball. Quin Snyder was heavy on the offensive end. But I’m easy to play for, you control your playing time. I used to hear when Larry Bird was coaching he’d say, ‘you do good and I’ll let you know, you’ll be in there.’ Simple as that.”

Infusing the program with local talent is one of Irvin’s other obvious draws.

He’s the son of Mac Irvin, the founder of local AAU powerhouse Mac Irvin Fire, which is currently coached by his brother Nick. The program has had players sign with Illinois, Iowa State, Missouri, Eastern Illinois and UAB over the past recruiting cycle, and currently features five-star wing Kahlil Whitney.

Leveraging the Chicago connection may be the key to whether Irvin can engineer a South Side revival, but he said it’s not the only place he’s searching for talent. Part of his pitch to recruits involves addressing the budgetary concerns the university has faced in recent years.

“I’m working the phones, just calling — I need some help. Chicago State is on the right path; it’s always been a good academic institution. If you ask people about the perception of Chicago State we have a great educational program, great school of pharmacy,” he said. “Those are the type of conversations I’m having with people all over the country, from California to Canada. It’s going in the right direction, we just have to keep moving and find the right fit. It’s a process and might take a little time since we’re growing and it still is a learning curve. Hopefully relationships will pay off.”

When talking about rebuilds, he points to what happened on the other end of the city last March as an example. Irvin said that Loyola University Chicago’s run to the Final Four didn’t happen overnight.

“Porter [Moser] built that thing. He re-energized the thing,” he said. “I told him the other day, I remember watching them start off by getting kids that were the right fit for the program. That was a process. He started winning more and people started jumping on board.”

Last year’s historic Ramblers team was built with Chicago area players, like Donte Ingram, Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson. While the Final Four may be a fever dream, at the very least CSU hopes it has a coach that will be a factor recruiting those same type of players going forward.

If that happens, the Cougars may be able to revisit those happier times their new coach so vividly remembers.