Morgan Burke's Seven-Year Plan
This is the first in a series of posts that will examine Morgan Burke's tenure at Purdue in some detail. At times, when the football or men's basketball team has struggled, one response has been that Burke has been focusing on improving the athletic program as a whole, rather than just the revenue sports. We're going to try to figure out whether or not that's working. Spoiler: it's not. Morgan Burke is in his 22nd year as Purdue's AD. There is exactly one man who's served longer, and you've all probably seen the building with his name on it. (No, it's not Armstrong.) Twenty-plus years is a long time in any position at Purdue: in that time, Burke has outlasted pretty much everyone in the athletic department, and his tenure will soon exceed even that of Gene Keady. (It could be said that Keady's worthwhile career at Purdue was less than 22 years.)
At some schools, to survive that long, you generally have to win championships, and even though Purdue's history in NCAA competition has not been noteworthy, under Burke, the Boilers have tripled their total NCAA team title count. (Women's basketball, in 1999, and women's golf, in 2010, joined the men's golf trophy earned in 1961.) In case you're wondering, no, that's not last in the conference, at least not now. Thanks, Rutgers! (As you'll see when we look at the conference as a whole, adding Rutgers to "bring in" the NYC TV market is like cutting off your head to spite your face.) I mean, Johns Hopkins only plays in the Big Ten in one sport, and even they have more NCAA titles than the Boilers do.
Perhaps it was the lack of hardware (entering 2014, the Boilers trailed everyone but Nebraska and Penn State in conference titles across all sports, and no prizes if you can figure out those two), perhaps it was just general restlessness, but a few years ago, Burke laid out a plan to improve Purdue athletics. (One wonders why this happened 15 years into his career ... but then looking at the Boilers prior to Burke's arrival, it may have been enough simply to keep Keady and land Tiller.) Quoting from Burke's bio at purduesports.com, the plan for 2008-14 was to create what he called a "25/85" club ... "an intercollegiate athletics organization that achieves an average finish in the top 25 across all sports and has a Graduation Success Rate of 85 percent."
A Story And Some Questions
At one company where I worked, we had a CEO who didn't really understand anything about how business worked. Fortunately, he wasn't the kind to go around breaking things, but year after year, we'd have mediocre growth, he'd sit down with the other executives, and they'd come up with goals for the next year that had absolutely nothing to do with anything we'd ever done in the past. He never really changed how we did things (although he was fond of hiring consultants to come in and tell him what we needed to do to grow; ironically, what they said was often useful, even though he never did any of it), so we'd miss those lofty goals, and the next year, the pattern would repeat itself. Eventually, I ended up at a company that understood the connection between goals and reality, and I no longer got the annual joke in the company-wide email about how next year would be The Year even though we were doing exactly what we did the year before.
If you're going to set aggressive goals, they need to be long-term goals, not short-term goals. It's more realistic to expect long-term change rather than short-term change; after all, there's a reason why you're in the position you're in today, and it's likely not because of something you started doing yesterday. Had Burke introduced this plan in 1993, he'd probably have been laughed out of the room, and with good reason. Among other things, the Boilers simply didn't have the facilities to compete across the board: basketball and football were adequate-but-not-great, and the non-revenue sports were lucky to have anything at all.
To Burke's credit, he spent a lot of time and effort upgrading everything (and in fairness to Burke, some of Purdue's best years, like 1993 (Elite Eight for the men and Final Four for the women) and 1999 (women's basketball title), predated the Directors' Cup or came with scoring systems that watered down other efforts - think F1 scoring as opposed to NASCAR - so the times that could have been better don't seem that way), so that it's actually feasible to talk about across-the-board success, but what kind of success is he talking about here? What does it mean to have a top-25 finish in all sports? What sports are they, anyway? And who is he modeling the program after?
Measuring Top-25 Success
OK, let's answer those questions one at a time. For those of you who don't know, Purdue fields teams in women's and men's cross country, football, women's soccer, women's volleyball, women's and men's basketball, women's and men's swimming, women's and men's track and field (indoor and outdoor), wrestling, baseball, women's and men's golf, softball, and women's and men's tennis. If you're wondering about the order, that's exactly the order they're listed in for the NACDA Directors' Cup standings, which is what I'm going to use to evaluate the program in this post. The Directors' Cup standings aren't perfect, and they've gone through some changes over the years, but they were instituted in 1993-94, the first full year Burke was in charge, and the last major change in scoring was for 2006-07, so all seven seasons of Burke's Plan will be scored the same way,
even though we don't now that we have final 2014 numbers yet.
The DC standings use NCAA tournament results, which means that for some sports, you're using single-elimination play to evaluate an entire season, but that's OK: if we look at a large enough sample of data, "bad luck" will tend to even out, and I'll also look at conference play to get a better idea of which sports might be snakebit and which have the luck of the ... uh, rabbit? Anyway, the nice things about using these standings are that all 20* sports use the same system, where the average scoring team gets 43 points and the 25th-place team gets 49 (in a sport that does not have a bracket) or 50 (in a sport with a bracket, where you're basically talking about teams losing in the second round, because all bracket sports that Purdue plays in are field-of-64 sports).
Those of you who are good at the maths have jumped ahead a bit and said "OK, so we're talking about 980 to 1000 points then, right?" Yes, class, that's very good. Because points are awarded in a mostly linear fashion, an average finish of 25th would get you 980 to 1000 points ... and because you can only count 20 sports for DC standings, 10 women's and 10 men's, there's no need to tweak anything. We can just look at the results themselves. Let's do that.
*Purdue fields teams in 18 sports, but starting in 2006-07, you could get points in both indoor and outdoor track and field, so effectively, they've got 20.
It's a zlionsfan data dump! Help me, I'm melting! OK. The far-left column is simply the total of all points that sport has earned since 2006-07, the last major change to scoring rules that I could detect. It's got standard Excel conditional formatting, where green is best and red is worst. Let's start with those.
Women's golf has been the best so far, which you probably didn't know even if you do follow all sports. In fact, this is the first season that Purdue's missed the tournament in 16 years under Devon Brouse, and the first time they didn't even make it to at least the NCAA regional since 1996. In the eight-season stretch we're looking at, women's golf tallied an impressive 581.5 points, averaging over 72 points per season even with the 0 from this year. That's basically averaging a 7th-place national finish ... definitely within our top-25 goal.
Women's volleyball is next. (Yes, there's a pattern here.) Dave Shondell's team made their second trip to the Elite Eight in four years, falling to Wisconsin in Champaign after sweeping the host Illini in the Sweet 16. (Side note: 10 of the 15 Purdue teams overall who've advanced to the Elite 8 have fallen. Wisconsin is the only school to have knocked out the Boilers twice, taking out the 2000 men's basketball team as well as the 2013 women's volleyball team.) With 7 NCAA trips in 8 years, and with a second-round finish being top-25 for our purposes (with teams 17 through 32 falling out in that round, 25th is pretty much average, anyway), this was easy to establish. 452 points means 56.5 per year, somewhere between 17th and 18th in a non-bracket sport. Not as good, but definitely top-25.
50 points per season in 8 seasons means 400 points, and sure enough, we've got two more sports just in above the cut (men's and women's swimming) and one more sport just below it (women's basketball, with the constant second-round losses - some of which were in West Lafayette, a fact that's got more than a few people expecting more from Sharon Versyp). So there you go! That's ... five. Five teams out of 20 are averaging a top-25 finish each of the last eight seasons, including the seven years of the Burke Plan. (While men's and women's track and field might well get some good points (women's track did get 25.5), they could both
win have won NCAA team titles and still not get their total to 400 points. Men's golf finished 27th, but the DC standings haven't been updated yet, good for 47 points, and again, that won't push them over 400.) Wrestling has been hovering around 40 points per season, not quite top-25 range but not far from it. Men's basketball is a couple of second-round outs away, and that's pretty much it. No other sport is even near 200 points, a top-50 finish. Seven teams, including football, have zero top-25 finishes in this eight-year period. Two don't have any points at all, which means that for every year they do that, you need a couple of 100s to average out to 50. 100? That's an NCAA championship. (Yeah, you could split those "extra" points among other sports, but you know what I mean.)
If you look near the bottom of the table, you can see that in no year has Purdue even got a 49-point finish or higher from half its teams. It's all very well to set top-25 as a goal across the board, but nothing in Purdue's past ever suggested this was possible, and even the across-the-board improvements in facilities aren't going to make a weak team into a strong one ... which brings me to that final question. What kind of program averages 980 to 1000 points per year, anyway?
The Standard For Success
A top-15 program, that's what kind. 980 points would generally put you just outside the top 10; last year, 980 would have placed 12th, right behind Florida State and just ahead of Duke. In the Big Ten, you're talking about Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State ... and they've all missed that range once or twice in the last four years. More importantly, nobody else in the conference has finished as high as 12th since Minnesota in 2003. Not Nebraska (6th in 2000), not Wisconsin (12th in 1994), nobody else. Burke's goal is essentially to make the Boilermakers one of the best all-around athletic programs in the country ... when historically they've been (and continue to be) one of the weakest programs in the conference.
Even if Burke's goal were half of what he stated, posting top-25 finishes in half the sports in which Purdue competes, it would still be something the Boilers are missing as often as they're hitting it ... and even if across-the-board success were something that many Boiler alumni/ae and fans celebrated, there would still be an expectation that the light-green background by men's basketball and the greenish-yellow background behind that awfully small number for football would be growing rather than shrinking in the years to come. (For football, the scoring is pretty simple: they borrow the non-bracket point system for the top 25 teams in the USA Today poll, which means 49 for 25th place, then they give 45 points to an unranked team that wins a bowl and 25 points to an unranked team that loses a bowl. That's why you see 25s and 45s.)
So far, it looks like Purdue's across-the-board performance is better than the current state of football and men's basketball (thank goodness; otherwise we would be Rutgers, although Burke is ten thousand times better than Hermann), but still far short of Burke's goals. It could be possible that one or more sports just perform better during the regular season than in tournament play, so in upcoming posts, I'll take a closer look at Purdue vs. the conference, both in the sports (pretty much) everyone cares about and the non-revenue sports.