What Two Bad Years Really Begins To Mean
Days Gone Bye-Bye?
The trajectory of this Purdue basketball season has sparked some diverging opinions on where things stand, how much of the blame belongs at Matt Painter’s feet and how much time he deserves to straighten things out. Those topics can really be debated endlessly without any concrete resolution (short of Painter, you know, choking a guy or violating numerous NCAA rules, like coaches exiting IU do). However, there’s something I think we tend to lose sight of and by “we,” I mean anyone over the age of, say, 22 years old. Which is a large chunk of us reading and writing this site.
One of the things we’ve heard pointed out is that Painter is only in his second straight “bad” season and that he deserves more time to figure things out. We’ve also discussed how pivotal next year is and even when talking about if next year was equally bad, there are people saying he still wouldn’t be on thin ice with them. And I guess that’s because 2-3 years doesn’t feel like a long time to those of us who have been watching sports for a lifetime. After all, as a Giants fan, I still bask in the glow of 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl seasons. They feel like yesterday. But they aren’t. And when you transfer these timelines to the college game, they’re even more significant.
Sliding towards irrelevance in pro sports can often be a long decline. Again, drawing from personal experience, I follow the NY Yankees. While they did win a World Series in 2009, for the most part, they’ve been sliding down a slippery slope desperately trying to cling to their dominance since their three-peat from ’98 to ’00. That’s a long time ago, but to me, a 38 year old guy, it doesn’t feel like an eternity. But today’s college freshmen were ages 3 to 5 during that ’98-’00 run by the Yankees.
My point? It’s much easier to slide into irrelevancy in college sports. And it can happen before our very eyes without us even knowing it’s happening. Let’s look at the current state of Purdue basketball once again. Many of you say Matt Painter hasn’t yet lost it (or couldn’t possibly have) and that he’ll turn things around most likely in another year or so. But let’s look at this through the eyes of a youngster, like the kinds Boilerdowd offers candy to from his van.
Let’s say you’re 16 and you’re thinking about Purdue. You’re halfway through your junior year of high school. And this year, the ’13-’14 season, is what it is. It’s almost lost – let’s be honest – and the Boilers are now careening towards what could actually be a worse Big Ten season than last year. And remember how awful last year felt. Well, the 16 year old does. It was just last year! He remembers that his sophomore year of high school, the Boilermakers were nothing. They were terrible. They lost more than they won and ended up getting bounced from the CBI tournament in their own building. Yeesh.
So let’s back it up again. To this hypothetical kid’s freshman year of high school. Well, if he thinks back to then, he remembers that that was Rob Hummel’s super-senior year at Purdue. Ryne Smith and Lewis Jackson were also seniors and they ground out a respectable campaign. But was it a “good” season? Was it one that should be cheered? Look, we admired those guys as much as anybody, but that team lost double-figures and limped their way to a 10-seed in the NCAA tourney. Sure, they had a nice showing….for a 10-seed. But is that what we’re hoping for now? To barely eke into the tourney and then get a pat on the head for a “nice effort”? I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I dream of. And it’s not what impresses that hypothetical 16 year old recruit, either. And remember, this was his freshman year of high school that we’re talking about.
So he reaches back into his memory banks and remembers how Purdue was when he was an eighth grader. He remembers consistently high rankings, the Boilers going undefeated at Mackey and finishing near the top of the conference. (Hey, some of you know teenagers better than I do – maybe he doesn’t even remember this stuff.) And then he remembers the Boilers getting crushed in the NCAA Tournament in their second game (not even reaching the Sweet 16) against 11-seed VCU. Sure, sure, many of us console ourselves with trite statements like “There’s no shame in losing to a Final Four team.” But does anyone really believe that? Does anyone really think that wasn’t one of Purdue’s best teams in years? And they bounced out in their first real test. And kids notice that, especially poundings.
So now you have to go back to this hypothetical kid’s seventh grade year for him to remember a Boilermaker team that didn’t trip over itself in a big spot. That year’s team had a remarkable run and a conference championship, but many felt they never truly recovered from losing Rob in late February that year, and they bowed out in the Sweet 16 to eventual champ Duke.
How much futher back do you think a typical recruiting target remembers these days? Sure, we do because we’re all lunatics who live and die with Purdue sports for some strange reason. But a kid who is in high school now? At kid with multiple offers in front of him? He sees Matt Painter and can’t remember ever seeing Painter barking from the sidelines during a mid-to-late March tourney game. He doesn’t remember Matt Painter at a press conference table talking about their Elite Eight opponent. He barely remembers Matt Painter advancing to the round of 16!
Once again, this isn’t a call for Matt Painter to move along. But when we talk about more time, more rope, more understanding, more waiting for the “right” players… well, it doesn’t take very long to slide into irrelevancy, particularly at Purdue, where the media deck is already stacked against you.