When Do You Pull the Plug?

When Do You Pull the Plug?

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Like a pet getting on into its golden years, sometimes it’s hard to know when to pull the plug on an expensive coach. Has that time come for Darrell Hazell? Many fans we hear from think so, but we keep coming back to a few things. One, we like the man. He’s someone who you can be proud of representing your university. He doesn’t say doofy things or go on incomprehensible tangents. Two, do we really want this administration deciding on another head coach? And then, of course, there is the matter of Coach Hazell’s buyout and the fact that he has a roughly $6M buyout if he is fired in 2015. It drops by about $2M per year until the end of his six-year deal in 2018. Is this buyout prohibitive for a spendthrift athletic department like Purdue’s? You betcha. But that doesn’t mean that Purdue must remain anchored to Coach Hazell and his rigid loyalty to underperforming assistant coaches. I think we can all agree that to save a couple million dollars, it makes sense to let this season play out. It’s a lost season at this point, anyway (another one), so might as well let him ride it out. Before I get put into the camp as a “Fire Hazell” guy, let me say something here. I’m a firm believer in a coach needing a fair amount of time to show progress, get his guys in there, get his system entrenched, etc. This is “only” year three for Coach Hazell and I’d normally advocate for a fourth, at a minimum (Danny Hope got four, for example), but there is the possibility that this winds up another 1-11 season with zero wins against FBS programs. So while I’m not necessarily calling for him to be replaced right now, if Coach Hazell is 5-31 (2-31 vs FBS) after three years, well, I can unequivocally say I’d have no issue with pulling the plug at that point. He will have made it easy, in fact. Had there been any real “progress” to speak of, I could see making an argument in his favor. But his best moments have been giving Notre Dame a game in 2013 before folding and….what? What else has gone well in 2 ½ seasons of football? Hanging with MSU for a half? A few games where the score wasn’t as embarrassing as we had all anticipated? Wow, fantastic. And not to make it about money, but with Purdue it’s always about money, and Darrell Hazell makes $2.14M. Danny Hope was making $950k in 2012…and winning a whole lot more. The Hopester took Purdue to two bowl games! Sure, he was an adventure in front of a microphone, but the bottom line is he cost well less than half what Hazell costs and he won a hell of a lot more.

I would normally never compare Purdue to Michigan on the football field. However, there are some comparisons I can make here. Michigan was faced with a tough decision last year. They had slipped from relevance and had missed on two consecutive hires. They had to pay to make Rich Rodriguez go away and then last year they decided they needed to do something about Brady Hoke. Now, I remember reading about how even for Michigan, money can eventually be a concern. It’s not completely bottomless. However, they were faced with a choice: Pay to make Hoke go away and then hit a home run with a favorite son who also is a great football coach…or slide further behind Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc., to say nothing of the rest of college football. Several years of irrelevance or visible losses can destroy recruiting, donations, attendance, etc., all of which was beginning to happen in Ann Arbor.

When faced with all of that, the choice – while expensive – was easy. They simply could not miss again. They got their man and are paying through the nose for him. However, they’re back to being good again and their stadium is full and you know the donors are thrilled.

Purdue is obviously on a much smaller scale, but the underlying tenets remain. While Purdue was never going to compete for the 5-stars that Michigan and Ohio State do, the recruits they could get were going to start going to places like Ball State or IU or Toledo or Northern Illinois or CMU. Purdue already missed on the Danny Hope hire; we can all wax nostalgic about how we would happily take 7-win seasons now, but the truth is, we were all pissed with the trajectory of the Purdue football program from about 2004 to Tiller’s retirement in 2008. That was only further exacerbated by Hope’s goofball stewardship from 2009-2012. We all felt like a message had been received by the athletic department when they retained Matt Painter in 2011 and brought in Darrell Hazell at the end of 2012.

But we’ve questioned for a long time about whether Morgan Burke really, truly cares about winning football. Oh, he cares that the coffers are full and the bottom line looks good, but does he truly want to develop a class-of-the-Big-Ten football team? Sure, the recently announced $60M investment in the facilities is, of course, something people will point to as evidence that he does. But we’re not so sure. (More on that in another post.)

We think Morgan does what he feels he needs to do to not entirely lose his alumni, fan base, etc. His hiring has never indicated that he wants to win and built towards greatness. If you don’t believe this, then you’re simply not paying attention. He got lucky with Joe Tiller, an aging cowboy up in Wyoming. He butted heads with Tiller for most of Tiller’s tenure, to the point where Tiller reportedly almost walked away more than once. And then Burke continued to be cheap and misfired on Hope. Finally, he acknowledged that he couldn’t run a Big Ten football program on a shoestring budget and dumped some money into the Darrell Hazell experiment.

Hazell was a largely unproven coach with a history of being an assistant. It looks more and more like he lucked into one good season at a lower-tier program and parlayed that (and why wouldn’t you?) into more money than he’s ever made. $2.14M annually, as I said earlier, with guaranteed raises every year. Not bonuses based on performance, mind you – but guaranteed raises.

Firing him means the university is on the hook for the remainder of his contract….plus, of course, the cost of a new coach. And in that new coach, the third since Tiller’s retirement, Purdue will be in their own version of Michigan’s dilemma – they simply cannot miss on this one.

There are opinions out there that Purdue should shoot the moon and simply bring in a proven coach. I think some people think about Joe Tiller when they say this, but again, remember, Tiller was coming in from Wyoming. He wasn’t “proven” that way, either. He did, however, have at least a few years as a head coach and a track record for winning games in a way that might work at Purdue. Hazell, on the other hand, is a descendant of Tresselball.

I will admit that I was concerned about a few things when Hazell was hired, but put them out of my head because it was such a refreshing move for Purdue. For one, Tressel wasn’t exciting and didn’t sling the ball. He was uber-conservative and used his superior athletes to grind out wins. Purdue football will never have the superior athletes in the Big Ten. The sooner everyone on the coaching staff comes to grips with that, the better off we’ll all be. Darrell Hazell doesn’t seem to have grasped that and seems puzzled as to why his Tresselball tactics aren’t reaping rewards here.

Another thing that concerned me was that Hazell had been an assistant for his whole career. He was 48 and had been a head coach once, for two seasons. And yet he seemed like a competent, sane man. A leader, even. Someone we all wanted to follow and someone we remain to this day proud of as far as a representative of Purdue. He’s an adult and he isn’t a buffoon. Hey, we have to start small at Purdue.

However, one has to begin to wonder why he’d never been a head coach. Were those assistant gigs just too good to give up? Or was he one of those guys just destined to be a great assistant? It’s beginning to look that way.

Back to the money. What do you do when you cannot miss on your next hire, you’re on the hook for tons of cash to the current guy, and you’re frugal and nobody is coming to the stadium?

You get creative.

You find a coach who has a proven track record of some kind. Someone who has led a program, built a program, designed a program, a way of doing things, and had some measure of success doing it. You find a guy like that and you make him richer than he’s ever been…and then you incentivize the hell out of him even further. You’re Purdue, so you admit that you need to do it this way. You tell him you want to pay him even more than the money you’re offering and so if he succeeds and bowl games happen and the stadium is full, he’ll have guaranteed bonus money coming, too.

But who? Well, I’m glad you asked. (Or I asked, rhetorically. You know what I mean.)

So let’s have some fun with salary talk.

People have talked about Dino Babers at Bowling Green. He’s dangerous in that he’s got the same two years of experience as Coach Hazell. But he won 8 games last year and is 5-2 this year. He makes $413K. You could triple his salary and still have almost a million a year to spend on Coach Hazell’s buyout.

You know who else makes $413k/year? Larry Coker, who won a national championship at Miami. Sure, he’s probably dirty and he looks like a member of the undead, but I’m saying, the candidates are out there.

As for other proven guys, if you listened to the last Handsome Hour, you know Aneesh is all in on Bo Pelini to Purdue. A chance to rub Nebraska’s face in it every year and be back in a major conference? Sure seems like something a guy like Pelini could appreciate. As for pay, he’s at Youngstown State right now making $213,894 annually, BUT Nebraska is on the hook for his nearly $7M buyout….and they’re paying him $150,000 per month over 51 months to pay it off. Goodness, that must feel awesome to keep cashing those checks.

Remember Sonny Dykes, who we loved as Hope’s potential replacement? The guy Burke didn’t even interview? The guy who already has Cal back to respectability and a national ranking earlier this year? He makes less than Hazell. But we know he’s not going anywhere. So back to reality… Purdue’s reality.

Others liked Doc Holliday at Marshall. I’m not sure I’m a fan but he did have Marshall complete a 13-1 season last year and went 23-5 from 2013-2014 and is 6-1 so far in 2015. So he does have the track record and also only makes $755k.

And of course, there’s former Tiller assistant Brock Spack, who some have been calling for. Spack reportedly recently signed a deal that pays him $300k at Illinois State. Spack has built himself a program there, which went 13-2 last year and lost in the FCS Championship Game. His Redbirds are 5-1 this year. Quadruple Brock’s salary and you’re still paying him almost a million less than Hazell.

The guy I would probably give a hard look at would be Matt Campbell at Toledo. Campbell has the Rockets at 6-0 and ranked. He’s in his fourth season and will win 9 games (or more) for the third time. Oh, and he makes only $495k currently. Triple his salary and pay him $1.5M and you’re still in a better position than you are right now.

I think it’s important to note that I’m not suggesting Purdue absolutely break the bank on the next coach. I don’t think it’s necessary and I know reality dictates it simply will not happen so wishing for it is the behavior of an insane person. But Purdue right now is tenth in the Big Ten as far as head football coach salary goes. Oh…and one other thing to consider…..

Purdue’s share of BTN revenue in 2015 is…..ready for this?

$32 million.

That’s $12 million more than FSU received from the ACC. And from 2014 to 2015, Purdue’s share reportedly went up by $5M. Wow, $5M, you say…. That’s $1M more than Coach Hazell’s buyout in January. (I know, I know, it’s impossible to know how much goes into the old guy’s sweatervest fund.)

What’s my point in all of this? Well, I know we’re among those who consistently beat the drum that you’d better get used to Coach Hazell because with this cheap athletic department and Morgan Burke not really caring about football, he’s here for the duration. However, the fact is, there is money there… money that Purdue doesn’t have to do anything to receive other than remain in the Big Ten and put their hands out. This can serve as either a motivator to spend more to get it right….OR it can serve as a de-motivator to be more lazy because, hey, the bottom line still looks good to the board of trustees and Mitch Daniels. And now, of course, there is the $60M that the University has pledged to the facilities improvement.

What it comes down to is that Purdue has to want to get better. They have to be afraid of the result of continued bad hires in the same way that Michigan was. But they’re not. Morgan Burke is not afraid. We’ve been talking about Morgan Burke retiring for a decade. If the way he’s been handling things hasn’t made his seat warm yet, there’s no reason to ever think it will.

This can all be fixed, of course, as I’ve begun to lay out here. The question is…does anyone want to fix it?

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