I was there yesterday...sadly, my motives weren't the best.
After watching Northwestern get dismantled by Penn State, I figured, it'd be a fun date with my wife to go visit our alma mater and watched The Forces of Good earn a victory. It was a pretty bad day...even with my girlfriend near by.
A few of our Twitter followers suggested a place for breakfast, so I heeded the loudest suggestion. I'm not going to mention the place in this post, because I don't know the restaurant well...but I won't get to know it any better. We ordered breakfast...waited 40 minutes, never got our food, and left. Perhaps the lethargic kitchen at that establishment was an ominous foreshadowing.
I was hungry for substance...wanted a victory yesterday...wanted something a bit fulfilling...got nothing...for breakfast or from my Boilermakers.
We ended up splitting chicken tenders at Mackey because we wanted to see the tip-off. So we lost big. Twenty bucks for three chicken tenders, a pretzel and two cokes that we ate while standing in the concourse of the once-proud Mackey Arena. No delicious breakfast sandwich and cup of joe while chatting with my wife of 15 years...But I wasn't the biggest loser, my wife was; she had to be with a hungry, grumpy, bald 38 year old for the afternoon.
Purdue was flat. As Aneesh succinctly and brilliantly pointed out, many of the starters failed...point guard play failed...Purdue defense failed...even the Paint Crew failed.
I loved listening to the Seniors heap praise on the Paint Crew after the game...they were called a difference-making force...a fearsome group that was the best in the conference, if not the land...they used to be. That's not the case anymore. When you're a walk away from Mackey Arena...and it's Senior Day...and your tickets are already paid for...GO TO THE FRICKING GAME. Excuses of needing to study are weak...unless you never take breaks, which not even the most-studious of nuclear engineering students can honestly say, Senior Day shouldn't be skipped. Oh well, I'm old...I know...I don't know anything.
But the Paint Crew isn't the problem...the greater athletic department is. But, the students might be the emblem of a growing number of apathetic Purdue fans.
The Big Picture
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to speak to Brian Cardinal on the phone for a few minutes. After J had unleashed a Twitter barrage at the athletic department, Cardinal wanted to control some damage.
He's a good guy. I've talked to him a few times...and have never told him that I would publish the findings of my conversation...so I won't kiss and tell today. What I will say is guys like him, Chris Clopton, Chris Foman, Elliott Bloom, Paul Sadler and a few others are either going to waste or desperately needed within the wall of Purdue's athletic department (depending on your level of optimism).
There are some good people working for our alma mater's athletic department...I just wish they could move the needle.
For years, Morgan Burke made decisions that were budget-minded...and those decisions seemed to work. He lucked into hiring Joe Tiller...and not getting his first two choices turned out to be the best thing that happened to his athletic department's bottom line. Purdue football's ticket sales and bowl revenue drove the train. But as Tiller got tired, his program fell out of the top-third of the conference to the lower middle...fans spoke with their feet and ticket sales fell...so did the levels of bowls that Purdue attended.
As this was happening, Burke invested in non-revenue sports...and surprise, that investment paid off in the form of wins. One of the best golf complexes in the nation yielded a great women's team and an individual national title. The swimming/diving buildings attracted talent, Burke paid the right coach, and Purdue earned national titles there as well.
But without football revenue, there's probably no diving center at Purdue...without Big Ten titles and NCAA tournament teams, the golf course revamp wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic, sweeping and noteworthy.
To follow Purdue's winningest coach, Burke hired a guy who didn't belong directing the golden helm of Purdue athletics. The coach looked confused and bewildered to the media, the alums and ticket holders saw that...then the team showed that it was a bit confused on the biggest stages...and the program fell hard. Ticket sales dropped to levels of the bad ole days of the mid-80s.
Burke made what I thought (and still think) was a good decision in hiring a coach who was worthy of the post in Hazell. But he inherited a program in disarray. Was the program really as bad as what we saw last season? The record speaks loudly...and right-minded people can lay blame at the feet of Hazell as well as his predecessor.
A few years prior to hiring Hope, Burke got really lucky in hiring Matt Painter. One of Purdue's sons was a coach with one-year of head coaching experience...and while his lineage was good, his resume was thin...but his price was exactly right for Burke.
Purdue's coffers, even in the wake of a few bad seasons in the autumn of Keady's coaching years, were full as support was still there for the basketball program and the football team was still doing quite well.
After just one year of growing pains, Purdue's young basketball coach led our Boilers to the NCAA tournament again with bunch of young hustlers and a few rickety knees of some gutsy and talented upper-classmen.
Following that season, attrition made it seem like not all was well within the program, but four cohesive Freshman came in and made immediate impact. As we all know, one of them left, the remaining three defined the program for the next four (five) years.
While they were there though, Painter struggled to land a follow-up recruiting class that would keep the momentum. Toward the end of this class' time in God's country, Matty flirted with leaving...but Burke finally gave Painter the tools and money that (we're told) he had requested a few times before. The money might have helped Painter keep guys like Rick Ray for an extra season...who knows? Keeping Ray might have helped nail down an extra recruit or two. There are stories that surfaced following Painter's contract restructuring of coaches being forced to rent compact cars during regional recruiting trips because budgets were that tight; I'm not sure at how true these stories are or if they were part of the reason Purdue had two-straight near strike-out recruiting classes...but the rumors probably have a kernel of truth within them.
Small Time Thinking
If you've read here for a while, you know that I'm the son of a Purdue grad. A few years ago, he told my brothers and I that Burke wasn't the problem, but instead, this was an intrinsic, deeply-rooted line of thought that went back to before he was on campus in the late-60s.
He said that Purdue has always thought small within the athletic department. He went back to the Mollenkopf and King eras (a truly golden period of time for Purdue athletics) and told us that the athletic department has generally lacked imagination, creativity and big thinking. From marketing the product to coaching contracts, Purdue has made its own luck.
Without saying it, my Dad directed blame away from the feet of Burke or King and placed it on their bosses; the trustees.
So historically, Purdue athletics have always seemed to know their collective place...probably to a fault. Burke often brags about Purdue's founding member status to the Big Ten...yet, the conference always seems more prone to go to bat for programs like Ohio State that skirt the rules or Penn State that broke rules, laws and codes...while quiet Purdue simply hums along with little resistance.
Some Purdue fans complain about academic standards or the lack of a general studies major as the reason that Purdue football and basketball teams aren't among the elite. I'm not going to go that direction. A program like Stanford should quickly remind us that a creative system and solid recruiting can overcome academic hurdles...sure, Vanderbilt might be a more-normal example of what academic restrictions do to a program and greater athletic department, but not having general studies isn't a death sentence. In fact, I agree with Purdue's administration on this issue...and I might even request that student athletes act even more like students at times...but that's just me.
Regardless of if you think Painter, Hope, Hazell, Burke or the trustees are responsible for the current situation of Purdue athletics, it seems the easiest guy to call out is the Athletic Director, for a few reasons. First, I don't even know who the trustees are or how they govern policies and budgets. Based on what I've heard, Purdue takes a greater percentage of B1G TV revenue away from the athletic department than any school other than Northwestern.
Based on what we're seeing with the facilities' wars right now within the conference, that would make sense. But much of that is conjecture.
What I do know is Purdue didn't pay its coaches like they expected them to be atop the conference for a long time. And now, ironically, as both the football and basketball coaches are getting paid in the upper third of the conference, both teams are in the cellar. One could easily argue that the state of these programs (football and basketball) right now are on a three or four year delay due to recruiting shortcomings.
But part of me pictures Morgan Burke in his office, twiddling his fingers like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons saying, "I told you so...paying high salaries does no good!"
The Buck Stops Where?
Aneesh posted Painter's postgame quote yesterday about how the state of the basketball program is his fault. The dumb play, the lack of cohesiveness the lack of heart/drive...all falls on him. Painter's correct here. Aneesh and I argued about this about two weeks ago on an impassioned Handsome Hour following Purdue's dismantling by Nebraska. A few moral victories and a crushing defeat later, I still feel like this season falls on Painter. His recruiting misses, his inability to find the right rotations, and the fact that his team looks completely discombobulated on offense all falls on the 2.3 million dollar man.
"It’s my fault. It’s my job to get guys to play together, it’s my job to get guys to play, it’s my job to get guys to play smart, and we don’t do any of those. And so this is my fault. When you start off, people will always give you a break. But when you’re somewhere for nine years, they shouldn’t. They absolutely shouldn’t."
Painter's self-effacing, critical quote quickly makes an about face about midway through the paragraph when Painter starts blaming the guys on the roster in a round-about way.
"We have to recruit a more unselfish player, we have to recruit a tougher player. We have some of those guys in our program, and some guys who don’t…and that’s my fault."
The last portion is correct...but when he's putting this at the feet of the players for being selfish and not tough enough...Hulk wants to SMASH! I'm going to go ahead and blame the paid people in the locker room rather than the amateurs...you can do as you'd like.
But am I the only one who finds the words a bit hollow? Accepting responsibility is a lost art form; I'm glad Painter did some of that. But there's still really little culpability, right? At least in public, he hasn't vowed to turn it around next year or resign. He hasn't demanded that he receive a paycut...he hasn't requested that the buyout clause of his contract be reduced or removed all-together.
So he's at fault, but Purdue and the fanbase pays? Doesn't seem quite right. But I was one of the people that vociferously defended Painter and wanted him to be signed to a contract of his market value a little over three years ago...so I guess I'm to blame.
Nancy Cross probably still thinks so anyway.
Let's not forget that Purdue's associate athletic director called me, you and every Purdue alum, ticket holder and fan for not doing enough for the program. Some of you probably got pissed and did nothing in response to Cross' letter a few years ago. Others heeded her berating and gave more money, and/or bought more tickets to help make the program and the athletic department better.
Regardless of where you stand or stood on this issue, it's still a tough pill for me to swallow. To say that the true supporters aren't doing enough is not the best tactic. Those people are the core. I'd venture a guess that in a one-third empty Mackey Arena yesterday, many members of that core were present. Furthermore, those people felt just as crappy watching that game as I did. And furthermore still, most will continue to give their time and treasure to what feels like a sinking ship right now.
Another Cross lecture wouldn't change that.
What we can definitely deduce is that alums, donors and fans are not the reason Purdue finished in last place in the conference this year/yesterday. Purdue has superior talent, a more-experienced coach, better facilities and a larger fan base...YET, Northwestern finished higher in the conference and swept the season series. Tough stuff.
The state of the revenue generating sports, and the greater athletic department is as bleak as its been in my lifetime. That didn't stop Purdue and the trustees from giving Burke a little pay bump and fancier title, quietly late last week. As many Purdue fans on message boards and in conversations that don't have digital record, ask if there will be a change at the top, the university sends a signal that "All is well!" As records and conference standings indicate, all is far from well.
Painter's contract restructuring seemed like a bit of a fulcrum point for the basketball program. Orton's fumble might have been another similar point for the football program...but as basketball and football have slid into the abyss of the conference, Purdue's AD gets raises, the coaches are getting paid high salaries and the buyouts are too painful to be activated.
B1G TV revenue has glossed over a lot of the ailments that affect Purdue's athletic department right now...but if our Boilers keep losing at the rate which they are in football and basketball, not even that large TV revenue will be able to prop up this program. Wins and losses still matter at the end of the day. Losses that demoralize the fanbase really matter...and there have been plenty of those the last few seasons.
An impending bounce?
From using two year old cups at football games, to stealing football helmet designs, to forcing a redesigned mascot on the fanbase, to demonizing bloggers and alums for having opinions not approved by leadership, to chastising donors, to transitional coaching plans, to dropping to the cellar of the conference...it feels like we've been sliding for a while and may have finally hit the bottom.
But to merely hope that things turn around won't do any good. It seems that a way of thinking needs to change around Purdue's athletic department. And regardless of whom you blame, there is blame to go around and on-field results only strengthen the argument that something...many things need to change.