On Hitting the Apex
I’ve discussed the “apex Purdue football” before, in the context of how unique it has always seemed to me that Purdue football’s absolute apex can be pinpointed down to a specific moment. The fourth quarter of the game against Wisconsin in October 2004, when the Boilers were ranked 5th in the nation, GameDay was in town and the Boilers were leading the game and going for the kill. Kyle Orton tried to make something happen and put the game away and we learned the fine line between “making something happen” and “trying to do too much.”
Purdue football had been steadily climbing in ranking, stature, respect, quality wins and national consciousness from the moment Joe Tiller arrived in 1997. The quick early success helped alert people to the upstart team developing in West Lafayette and Drew Brees then stubbornly shoved Purdue into the national conversation. Tiller began getting the recruits and it all began to really take shape in 2003, as the Boilers again won nine games and climbed to #11 in the AP poll. They finished the season with four losses – a one-point disappointment at Bowling Green, and then only losses to powerhouses: 13-ranked Michigan, 4-ranked OSU and 11-ranked Georgia in their bowl game.
In 2004, the stars seemed aligned, and the Boilers avoided their typical ,Tiller-era, early season stumble on their way to a 5-0 start and the aforementioned #5 ranking and true feting by the national media. Then Orton fumbled and, quite simply, Purdue football was never the same. Joe Tiller was also never the same, in our opinions (an opinion we’ve held for quite some time). Cowboy Joe lost some of his swagger, began to get tired as old men do, and stopped landing the kinds of recruits that could take Purdue to the longed-for promised land. The star-ratings were still there, but most of them didn’t pan out for one reason or another.
It was a slow decline and one that wasn’t quite as apparent at the time as it is in hindsight (which, obviously) – the Boilers won eight games twice more under Tiller, though both seasons were set up for the easiest of 10-win seasons, something Purdue hadn’t accomplished (and still hasn’t) since 1979.
It was becoming apparent to even the most casual viewers that Joe Tiller would never again land a Drew Brees or a Kyle Orton and bash Notre Dame or contend for a BCS bowl. Motor City bowls weren’t what Purdue fans had become hungry for. His career at Purdue came to a somewhat sad, limping end as the Boilers went 4-8 in 2008.
What am I getting at with this trip down memory lane? I’m getting at something that is concerning to me and that’s the similarities I’m beginning to see with Purdue basketball. We’re not there yet, of course, but I am beginning to worry that we’ll look back and notice that things peaked for the Matt Painter era with a #3 national ranking and a game at Minnesota on February 24, 2010.
The Boilers were a machine at that point, as the Baby Boilers had grown up and were steaming towards a conference title, had gotten into the national discussion as a top five team and had likable stars like E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and, of course, Rob Hummel. Then Rob’s knee buckled and that was that for this group. Sure, they gave inspired performances after that. After losing their next game at home vs MSU (on a day when the #1 and #2 teams both lost, thus meaning that the Boilers likely would have ascended to #1 with any kind of victory), they reeled off three straight wins before falling with the thud in the Big Ten tourney. They then regrouped and made the sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney again, though the goal had obviously been Houston that year.
Rob missed the following season as well, but the Boilers clawed their way back to a top ten ranking, only to be felled by tourney darling VCU in their second game of the tournament. Rob, of course, came back for his final year of eligibility and the Boilermakers gave Kansas all they could handle in the 10-2 seed matchup but it wasn’t enough. The basketball program cratered back to Earth with last year’s 16-18 mark and has now gotten out a respectable-but-also-worrisome 9-3 start this year.
There are signs that this team is soft both mentally and physically. They get easily frustrated. They get lazy on defense and on rotations. They don’t seem to be coachable in the sense that certain weaknesses don’t ever seem to get better. They’re plenty talented but seem to underplay their talent rather than the longtime Purdue tradition of being far better than their talent would suggest.
It’s far from over and I still have very high hopes for this team and this program. For me, next season is actually the money year – big things need to happen then. If they don’t, many will begin to openly wonder if Matt Painter is the coach we all thought he was or if he had his run already and isn’t going to get that close to the mountaintop again. Has Painter already gotten his Drew Brees in Rob Hummel? A diamond in the rough who exceeds all expectations and becomes a Purdue legend, almost single-handedly changing the perception of the program? Did the team then peak with what felt like a chance to be a national player only to fall just short of the goal? Has the recruiting continued to seem promising, only to have players fail to develop the way we’d like? This certainly happened under Tiller; it’s still too early to make that judgment on Painter, but there are some very talented guys on this basketball roster and if their development is significant, Purdue’s star will rise again. If it doesn’t, the similarities will become too obvious to ignore.
Stubbornness and fixation on their own method to success serves many, if not all, successful coaches well. It got Tiller onto his quick rise at Purdue and the same can be said for Matt Painter. However, the ability to also adapt as needed is just as critical. One might argue it’s the next – and ongoing – key to a long-term run of success. Why do certain coaches continue to churn out wins? Because they are doggedly persistent, tireless and committed, yes. But also because when the moment calls for it, they adapt their stubborn ways to make the most of what’s in front of them. This is never more critical than when you’re at a school that can’t “play ball” with the big-money programs.
To quote the movie Moneyball, “Adapt or die.” The next 12-18 months will show us what Coach Painter chooses.