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On Morgan Burke and Purdue February 19, 2016

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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MJB_Purdue1Morgan J. Burke has been the Athletics Director at Purdue University for more than 20 years.  On Thursday, Feb. 11, he announced that he would retire from this position, effective June of next year.  During his lengthy tenure, he has garnered a reputation amongst his peers as one of the most competent AD’s in major college athletics, especially in terms of finances.  With so many AD’s spending money as if their budgets were bottomless pits, Burke has been very fiscally sound, and has enjoyed the deserved reputation as a prudent business manager as a result.

When he took over as the top athletics administrator in 1993, Purdue had the absolute worst athletics program in the Big Ten.  Hammer and Rails has an article that puts this in perspective, including that fact that the football program only had five (yes, five) bowl appearances total in its history, and was in year eight of a 12-year bowl game drought.  The schools’ baseball, ahem, “stadium” would have been considered poor by high school standards.  The swimming and diving teams’ home pool was in some hidden location underground at Lambert Fieldhouse.  Ross-Ade Stadium was practically falling apart.  In short, the department itself was operating on a shoestring budget with awful facilities and teams badly-performing as a result.

In the span of Burke’s tenure, Ross-Ade received much-needed renovations, including leading the way in building an aircraft carrier-sized press box on the side of one’s football stadium.  The football team has enjoyed 12 bowl appearances between 1997 and 2012, including an elusive and prestigious Rose Bowl berth.  Mackey Arena has also enjoyed major upgrades, along with being home to a men’s team that has delivered four men’s basketball Big Ten titles and a women’s national championship.  For what it’s worth, women’s golf brought home the national title in 2010. A nice, more comprehensive list of all that Burke has done well can be found here.

Moreover, (again, for what it’s worth), women’s soccer, softball, baseball, and tennis all have new facilities.  The new swimming and diving pool, opened up ca. 2000, is considered one of the finest college natatoria in the whole country.  While not exactly on most people’s radar screens, Purdue has become a diving powerhouse (e.g., David Boudia, 2012 Olympic gold medalist).

And yet, to speak with the Purdue University faithful these days, the firm impression is that the athletics department is in an absolute shambles.  Sure, it’s all well and good that the softball, baseball and soccer teams have wonderful facilities, and a fine reflection on the university that the swim teams have a jewel of a pool to call their own.  But there are problems afoot with the two highest-profile programs, those being football and men’s basketball.

The latter has been performing very inconsistently as of late, what with promising recruiting classes that fail to live up to their potential.  But even worse and more urgent is the absolute disgrace of the football team.  Coach Joe Tiller’s teams’ performances started waning during his last few years, especially since the 2005 season.  When former assistant coach to Tiller in Danny Hope took over (he had been the head coach at Eastern Kentucky University from 2003 through 2007), things kept declining further (5-7 in 2009, 4-8 in 2010).  Coach Hope enjoyed only two bowl appearances after going 7-6 in 2011 and 6-6 in 2012.  Ironically, he was fired despite a bowl berth in 2012.

Herein lies a symptom of a systemic problem.  Purdue has been NOTORIOUS for not paying its coaches even average market value.  Coach Tiller was one of the lowest-paid football coaches in the conference for one, and that did not change when the torch was passed to Coach Hope.  In college football, it’s all about the coach and the kind of playing talent that coach is able to recruit.  Just see what Brian Kelly has achieved at Notre Dame, in this era’s Sunbelt-dominated era of college football, or how Jim Harbaugh has been turning things around at Michigan to illustrate this crucial point.

Basically, Burke tried to make things work with Coach Hope while giving him a shoestring budget.  Coach Hope in turn did what he could with such a dearth of resources, but his performance on the field reflected the fact that he was not getting the type of support he needed to compete effectively in major college football.  Firing him became tantamount to killing the messenger.

But there are other dimensions to this problem.  Before and during the Coach Hope era, Purdue’s reputation for under-paying its athletic personnel was well-founded and deserved.  Even competent, ambitious people who worked on the administrative side of the department would leave for better pay at other schools, even to the intra-conference competition.  That especially went for assistant coaches who were worth a thing in the sport; after a few years of building a reputation at Purdue, they would soon leave for greener pastures.  As Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd often reminds us, “[C]oaches do not care about your fight song:  PAY them!”

Burke seemed to have gotten that memo when searching for a new football coach in the wake of Coach Hope’s departure.  He announced that he was raising additional funds to try to attract a better coaching talent.  Eventually, the searched settled on Darrell Hazell, then the head coach at Kent State who had a good year with the Golden Flashes (as an aside, snapping up a MAC coach who has had only one or two good years there into a Power Five Conference team is always a risky roll of the dice).  Case in point:  while Coach Hope’s base salary was $925,000 a year, Coach Hazell’s base salary was $1,750,000.  Better, but still not enough to attract talent on par with, say, James Franklin of Penn State or Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, let alone Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh.

Moreover, when the bigger players in the B1G are searching for their new coach, they never seem to have to announce some fundraising effort to be able to offer a big-name, proven winner of a coach a competitive salary.  Yet Purdue had to announce such an effort just to be able to pay its coach $1.75 million, which is still sub-average among the Power Five.

Before drilling even deeper to the root problem, let us keep things in perspective for now.  Burke has been proven that he is among the best AD’s in the country in terms of two things.  One is operations.  Having attended the Big Ten wrestling championships, hosted in Mackey Arena on March 3, 2012, I can personally attest that they were carried out flawlessly.

The other is financials.  The Big Ten is home to some gigantic athletics departments that include both Michigan and Ohio State, both of whom have a figurative license to print money.  Purdue, meanwhile is at a systemic disadvantage in that its athletic department receives ZERO money from the university.  Despite that handicap, Burke has led a very financially sound department, with each fiscal year ending in the black.

But Burke’s weakness has been talent acquisition, which, frankly, is 90 percent of his job in the public’s eye.  He lucked out with Coach Tiller, who in hindsight had a limited shelf life of effectiveness without Drew Brees.  He tried going cheap with Coach Hope after Tiller, and that ended up crippling the program.  Although he doubled the head football coach’s salary at Purdue, he has wasted it on Darrell Hazell.  Granted, Hazell is a fine man who has raised outstanding kids and has done everything beyond reproach.  Moreover, he has done wonderful, marvelous things in reaching out to football alums.

Yet despite being a fine gentleman off the field, Coach Hazell’s on-the-field record has been only 6-30 in three seasons.  This dismal performance has led to a damaging effect on Purdue’s athletic and thus academic reputation to average people.  It has in turn led to major frustrations on the part of the Purdue alumni and related faithful.  Since Burke hired Hazell, a good bulk of this frustration has understandably been laid at the feet of the AD.

Thus, the initial reaction to the announcement of Burke’s eventual retirement:  why wait so long when a changing of the guard appears to be in order?  Sixteen months seems like a long time to wait to take the program into a new direction.  More to the point, is the change desperately in order?  Answer:  yes and no.  A two-decade tenure for an athletics director is long enough.  After that lengthy span of time, new blood is needed, with new leadership to take the department in new directions.  Given the current, disgraceful abyss of the football program and the inconsistent performance of men’s basketball, that new direction is obviously, desperately needed.

But will a changing of the guard at AD really help beget that?  After extensive deliberation and searching of perspectives, I am led to conclude that a new AD alone might not help bring about  the change Purdue desperately needs.  Perhaps Burke’s ineptitude at hiring a proven, big-name coach was a symptom of his being hamstrung by the Board of Trustees.

Most universities “get it.”  That is, they understand that college athletics, and football in particular, are front porches to their universities.  Meaning, the trustees of most major universities understand that football is the primary marketing tool, and they thus see the football team as a way of leveraging and building the schools’ entire reputation in the eyes of the general public.  Purdue, in contrast, sees athletics as a secondary mission, and has historically chosen to put academics first.  While this is noble, it is also short-sighted, given the context of today’s society, where we accept the use of a school’s football team as the primary promotion tool as normal and indeed, expected.

When podunk Appalachian State was vying for three consecutive national titles as the FCS level in football last decade, it was a huge shot in the arm for that school.  During a home game in the playoffs in 2007, the university’s president was on the sidelines wearing an ASU football jersey, joyously telling the sideline reporter for ESPN that applications for potential students to attend that university had skyrocketed.  Enough said.

Thus we are led to the core problem at hand:  why do the members of Purdue’s Board of Trustees fail to grasp this?  As long as they fail to understand this basic, modern tenet of university promotion, it might not matter how capable Burke’s replacement at AD will be.


What Caused the Progressive Plague? February 14, 2016

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Politics.
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When we look back at the ravages of a plague that has swept through a region or even a continent, it is many a person’s impulse to, once the dust has settled, do a little detective work and ascertain its origin.   Where did it begin?  What was its root cause?  What was the impetus that caused it to spread across an area so relatively quickly, leaving havoc in its wake?

George Will succinctly observed that for there to be an epidemic, one needs two things; a microbe, and an enabling social context.  For example, the enabling social context for the infamous Black Plague of the 14th Century was increased international trade.  The bacteria causing the deadly disease were found in the saliva of fleas laced with rodent blood.  They hitchhiked on the rats (or, gerbils, as a recent scientific study suggests) as whole colonies of them moved westward through Asia along with merchants traveling along the Silk Road, eventually reaching the ports at Crimea.  The rats wasted no time climbing the mooring ropes of merchant ships bound for ports in Europe, and the rest, as they say was history.  If one were to view a map of the number of dead per square mile (or kilometer) in Europe, it becomes clear that Italy, with its bevy of Mediterranean ports, was the hardest-hit area of Europe during the time of the Black Death almost 700 years ago.

 While media hype may have overblown the occasional Ebola outbreak in west Africa, nothing like the Black Plague has ravaged society like it did Europe so long ago.

 That said, another infectious plague, this time of the ideological persuasion, has been ravaging America for the past century:  that of Progressivism.  But what caused its spread at the outset of the Twentieth Century?  Sure, the microbe of the authoritarian ideology had germinated amongst some of the intelligentsia during the last couple of decades of the 19th Century (e.g, John Dewey and his idea that we should be “free” from poverty).  At that same time, Woodrow Wilson found out how to rationalize his knowing what was best for his fellow man.   He did so while studying for his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, a school that imported the collectivist, bureaucratic German thinking of the age in the attempt to infect the American-nurtured concept of a freeborn citizenry.

 But while the ideological microbe had grown into a potent colony of cells by the 1900s, what was the social context that unleashed its destruction?  Blame the progress of that time, indirectly.  Joel Mokyr of the Manhattan Institute explains the context.  The hallmark of the 20th Century, he says, in terms of human progress, was large-scale technology.  Some examples include:  massive shipping containers; manned spacecraft (or just communication satellites) launched into space on huge rockets; oil-drilling platforms; massive power stations; steel mills and car assembly plants that take up many acres, not to mention huge airplanes (from Howard Hughes’ Hercules to the recently-retired Boeing 747).

 While these are familiar sights today, a century ago, such large-scale things would be absolutely awe-inspiring.  At that time, titans of industry were opening up production facilities at scales undreamed of then.  For example, Henry Ford opened up his Highland Park plant in 1910, and implemented the first auto assembly line there four years later.  By 1917, Ford already started building his even-larger Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich.  The size of this plant is mind-boggling even by today’s standards, what with its covering 960 acres (that is one-and-a-half square miles), and had 100 miles of internal railroad track.  At its peak, 100,000 men earned their livings in that gargantuan facility.

 At the same time, giant steel mills sprang up along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, and even more so along the Allegheny and Monongahela of Pittsburgh.  As political scientist Michael Barone speculated, these had to have been breathtaking to people in the 1910s, since most of those folks grew up on farms where the tallest structure they had ever seen was the steeple of their local town’s church.

 Also during this time, immigrants came to America through New York harbor.  They travelled on ocean liners that were the largest ever built, and once in the Big Apple, they witnessed skyscrapers continuing to arise, one higher than the other.  Some of them held offices for the titan industrialists and financiers, like that of John D. Rockefeller at 26 Broadway and J.P. Morgan at 23 Wall Street.  Behind them was the 60-story Woolworth Building, which was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1913, and would maintain that distinction until the Chrysler Building was built in 1930

All this was amazing progress by the standards of any age, before or after.  But it came with a major side effect.  “Large” technology had the tendency to encourage large bureaucracies and large government.  To be sure, you needed this sort of large, military-style bureaucracy and centralized control in the private sector to manage those 100,000 workers at Ford’s factory complex in Dearborn, and eventually, to manage the big unions that grew with it and other plants.

It thus became an easy sell to the voting public that that with so much wealth and such gigantic means of production concentrated in the hands of so relatively few, that both (a bigger) government and (growing) labor unions should be a counterweight of power in society, lest we somehow become a Plutocracy (or so the Progressive narrative went as part of their sales pitch to the people).

Of course, that was 100 years ago:  this is now.  And now, the potentially new American Century is defined by small-scale technology.  Television is a good example:  they used to take up whole consoles in a living room.  Now, you can watch network and cable TV shows alike on your portable, lightweight smartphone on demand.  Henry Ford’s plants were an icon of that industrial age, while the smartphone is an icon of ours.

Another contrast between the ages, technologically-speaking, is the military.  Large technology begat large armies, as is evident in both World Wars.  Historian Niall Ferguson estimates that total casualties of the First World War alone to be about 9.5 million deaths and 15 million wounded.  Almost three decades later, military tactics evolved along with the technology.  Gone were the Napoleonic approaches of trench warfare; in was General Patton’s mechanized warfare doctrine, which, according to military historian Robert Shales, culminated in the march to Baghdad in 2003.  But the enemies adapted, and the mass armies that were of Patton’s time have given way to special operations forces who are more adept at dealing with asymmetrical warfare.

The reason that large-scale technology became the breeding ground for Progressivism to infect the public like the Plagues of yore was that it required the standardization of masses of people; it required centralized command-and-control, along with conformity to social norms (the latter of which might ironically appeal to social conservatives today, contingent on the social benefit of said norms).

Yet it is “small” technology of the current day and age that enables more individuals to make individual choices, to fashion our world in our own dimensions, and to apply our talents and pursue interests in ways that we choose.  In short, what has happened over the past 100 years, at least in terms of options in the market, is that standardization has given way to customization.

The B. Hussein Obama Progressives of today do not understand this at all.  They – the President included – see history as a progress from minimal government to ever-larger, ever-growing government.  This is only logical, since government is the false god they worship.  Indeed, such religious zeal blinds Progressives to the fact that history does not proceed in a straight line.  One only needs to see the decline of Rome, and the technological and economic stagnation of the Dark Ages that succeeded it, to understand this fact.

More to the point, that fact is on display today.  The Progessives’ religious fixation on big government has thus led to a major disconnect in our society.  Sure, it was an easy sell to the public 100 years ago given the afore-explained context of large-scale technology.  But the “small” technology of today requires a different approach; that is, more adaptability and responsiveness to constituents.  One does not get that from the bloated bureaucracies of a big government that is a disastrous holdover from yesteryear.