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On Morgan Burke and Purdue February 19, 2016

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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.

Mack Brown’s Possible Replacements November 25, 2013

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texas_coach_mack_brown1Allow me to preface this article in that writing this brings me no joy at all.  For the majority of Mack Brown’s tenure at the University of Texas, he proved to be the perfect organizational fit for the program and the university.  Moreover, he is demonstrably among the most adept coaches in college football at the ‘people’ side of the business.  One can clearly see this in how we carries himself during the impromptu halftime interviews before he heads into the locker room to make halftime adjustments with his team.  Anybody who has observed him during these interviews can vouch that he comes across as a happy gentleman to the sideline reporter for that given game, and he treats said reporter as if he or she is certainly worth his time, despite the more pressing matters that surely weigh on his mind at those given moments.  Reportedly, he treats people with the same class and dignity behind the scenes/off-camera as well.

The problem, however, is that since the 2010 season, the program has clearly headed in the wrong direction.  The mediocre season of 2006 was excusable, given the drop-off a defending national champion normally experiences (Alabama being an exception to the rule).  The fact that they were able to return to the national title game just four years after winning their most recent one showed that the program was still among the strongest nationally.  Yet starting in 2010, a precipitous drop-off in performance occurred, one that made the 2006 season look phenomenal by comparison.

Granted, not all of this is Mack Brown’s fault.  The downside to being one of the sexiest programs in all of college football is that you are constantly a prime target for other programs to lure away your best assistant coaches, either for lateral moves with even higher pay, or for head coaching gigs of their own, such as Bryan Harsin (erstwhile offensive coordinator, now head coach at Arkansas State) or Will Muschamp (formerly defensive coordinator, currently embattled Florida head coach).  This creates a major problem of coaching continuity.  How this translates into the program suffering is simple:  instead of concentrating all of his off-the-field attention on recruiting, Brown and Co. have to divert part of that time and energy into hunting for suitable replacement personnel.  This reduced time for recruiting analysis in turn leads to whiffing on key recruits, which partially explains the Horns’ mediocre-to-weak performances in most of its big games since 2010.

Another issue is institutional arrogance, something Mack Brown could help curtail, but hasn’t.  He once bragged that if he were head coach at Texas in 1997, he would not have overlooked Drew Brees as possible QB for the Horns.  Yet despite this boast, he clearly overlooked Johnny Manziel, and when Texas tried to recruit Robert Griffin III, they tried to recruit him as a defensive back.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Such institutional arrogance can most effectively be curtailed by the head coach himself, and yet the problem has yet to be addressed.

After a couple of embarrassing losses earlier in the year (one to BYU, the other to Ole Miss), we all left the program for dead.  Then the unexpected happened in that instead of getting blown out by Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout (like in 2012), we had our way with the Sooners instead.  Needless to say, this took us all by surprise, albeit pleasantly.  We quickly got the impression that perhaps things had quickly turned out, that all it took was the firing of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and replacing him with the more capable Greg Robinson.  More wins over TCU and Kansas soon followed.  We initially chalked up having to go into OT to beat West Virginia to simple things such as, A) it was on the road, and B) it was West Virginia, and team very unpredictable in terms of whether they will come out flat or with their hair on fire.

But after the undressing the Longhorns had at the hands of Oklahoma State last week, we were all shocked back into reality.  There are still systemic problems in the program that have remained unaddressed.  The positively embarrassing loss to Oklahoma last year left many fans grumbling that it was time for a changing of the guard, including the thoughtful writers at Barking Carnival.  Even after a face-saving win over the Sooners this year, the loss to the Cowboys reminded us that glaring issues remain unaddressed, issues that will only be resolved by a change in direction of the program, which is best accomplished with a new CEO of the company.

So who are the viable replacements?  In truth, more than a few names are bandied about, but for the sake of cutting through the clutter, let us reduce that relatively lengthy list to a couple of already-mentioned names, plus one or two more than people have not mentioned or are reticent to for whatever reason.

I agree with Big(g) Ern at Barking Carnival.  New Texas athletics director Steve Patterson should at least ask Nick Saban and Urban Meyer if they are interested.  Neither are likely to be, given their current situations, but there is no harm in asking, and confirmed “no’s” from both men will put meaningless speculation from fans to rest once and for all, save for the most delusional of meatballs.

Besides, it is unlikely that Saban would leave Alabama for Texas, no matter how much money you offer him.  He is 62 years old, already has a palace of a house, and is not someone who uses all that money to buy expensive toys.  The reason being, he has no interest in expensive toys;  he’s a workaholic, and workaholics are driven by the job, not by toys.  Besides, he has built an almost-bulletproof dynasty at one of the most storied programs in all of college football; how does one top that?

So who could it be?  Let us start with the most obvious of names:

Mike Gundy:  This could work.  He’s one of those coaches who is highly effective if he has tons of resources at his disposal.  That might not be the most flattering of commentaries, but given that he has been back up with T. Boone Pickens’ money, he has managed to do great things at Oklahoma State.  Imagine what he could accomplish with the unlimited monetary back of Texas’ boosters?  If such possibilities stand to reason, it would be enough for us to divert our attention from his teenage-like hairline, despite being a man of 46.

Chris Petersen:  This also could work.  It is at this juncture that I part company with the thoughtful fellows at Barking Carnival.  They seem to think that because the luster of the Boise State program is fading, that Petersen himself is by consequence a less viable candidate for the position.  But the diminished national prestige of the program is not Petersen’s fault.  It is just that the Broncos’ stock has peaked in value.  Boise State has become a victim of its own success.  Given that Idaho is hardly hotbed for top-tier college talent, they have to look elsewhere (mostly California) for good players.  The highest-profile recruits in that region will usually choose USC, UCLA, Oregon or Arizona State over Boise State, so they have to devise a system to root out guys with enough talent to compete, but at the same time, find guys who are “tweeners” that are usually overlooked by the big boys.  Then, Boise State needs to  devise and offensive and defensive system that plays to the strengths of these “tweener” recruits.

At this, they have been remarkably successful until recently.  What has happened is that they have become a victim of their own success.  No team that is viable on a national scale wants to play Boise State anymore because they – the Broncos — could upset them, thus ruining a potential run at a national title.  Worse yet, there is little incentive to play Boise State in their home stadium, since the university has done nothing to expand the stadium’s capacity from its paltry 37,000 despite a solid 8 or 9-year run of success.  A good deal of the team’s recent success was at the hands of Chris Petersen, who would be wise to take a more prestigious job while he can before staying at BSU too long with cause his stock to irreparably dip.  Petersen has proven to be a very adept caretaker CEO, and the Texas program is not in shambles – yet.  Texas has good talent pieces in place, they just lack the coaching – and the A+ QB that would be becoming of such a program – to allow for the team to truly play up to its potential.

Who is a coach that has not been mentioned but has potential?  One name this is always possible – though few seem to want to admit it – Bobby Petrino.

Try not to laugh.  Yes, his, ahem, swordplay at Arkansas was a major black mark (or, er, scarlet letter) on his career and indeed, life, resume, but let that not obfuscate a simple fact.  The guy can coach.  He can also recruit, too.  Yes, much like Urban Meyer at Florida, his Louisville team bordered on an inmate colony, but part of his untouchable skill set was his ability to be a captain running a tightly-run ship, not allowing any sort of wiggle room for would-be thugs to run amok.  An advantage of recruiting in Texas, for Texas, is that he could bring in the highest-caliber of athletes in-state without have to run the degree of risk of bringing in potential off-the-field liabilities like he did at Louisville and at Arkansas.

But again, he can coach.  Few coaches in the business seem to have the keen sense of knowing when it is the right time to pass and when it is the right time to run the ball like Petrino.  Between his ability to acquire talent, manage personnel, and call plays makes him one of the most dangerous coaches in the business.  Placing him with the unlimited resources of the Texas Longhorns program could potentially create a juggernaut that would rival the current dynasty of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Yes, he is currently in his first year at Western Kentucky, but he is also incredibly mercenary.  His loyalty does seem to go to the highest bidder, but by that same token, can anybody think of a better job than the Texas job?  College coaches around the country recognize it without hesitation as one of the three best jobs in the nation.  Translation:  assuming he A) were offered the Texas job, and B) took the Texas job, what could lure him away from it?  As smart as he is, he would surely have the sense to avoid the, er, swordplay that ended the good thing he had going at Arkansas.

So, in summation, Chris Petersen would be my second choice to replace Mack Brown at Texas, but Petrino would be my first.  The program is not exactly down the drain yet, so a turnaround CEO might not be needed, at least not yet.  If brought in soon enough, a good caretaker CEO could still bring the Horns to the level of performance fans rightfully expect.

Addendum, 12-06-13:  Chris Petersen, mentioned as a potential replacement for Mack Brown earlier in this article, has since taken the Washington Huskies job vacated by Steve Sarkisian.  The news was announced this morning.  In truth, he is a good fit for that program.  He loves the Pacific Northwest, has recruited in the Seattle area before, and is a good caretaker CEO.  Sarkisian already turned the Huskies around into a well-function, 9-win-a-year organization; Petersen can now come in and keep the good thing going, just as he did after Dan Hawkins left Boise State for Colorado.  In summation, this is a good hire for the Huskies.

The End of the Danny Hope Era at Purdue: a postmortem and a forward look November 30, 2012

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Over the past few days, the word about Coach Danny Hope’s firing has spread like wildfire.  In four seasons as Purdue’s head football coach, Hope was 22-27, with no appreciable signs of improvement from when he took over from Coach Joe Tiller at the helm.  This particular development had been, according to rumors, that Athletics Director Morgan J. Burke had actually been planned since Purdue’s blowout loss at home to Wisconsin.  Be that as it may, the development having been brought to fruition has opened a floodgate of after-the-fact criticism against the man, something I flat-out refuse to join.

Say what you want about Coach Hope:  he treated those who played under him as well as those who worked under him more than equitably.  He cared for every one of his players as if they were all his sons.  Coach Hope and I go back about 15 years, when I first met him at Coach Tiller’s summer football camp for high school players.  Starting a year later, I was an aide to him while a student manager on the Purdue team, helping him out on the sidelines during games while he was the offensive line coach under Joe Tiller.  In the subsequent years that followed, he went out of his way to make me feel like part of the football family, be it at Eastern Kentucky University – a long story! – or at Purdue as well.  I have awesome articles of athletic-themed attire that I shall forever treasure wearing – stuff that he personally gave me.

But I am not the only one ever grateful, ever true to the man now stepping down as head man of the Purdue football team.  None other than Drew Brees and Matt Light consider Coach Hope “their coach.”  Drew has been quoted as saying that he would run through a brick wall for Hope.  Matt Light, former all-pro offensive tackle, not to mention the man who protected Tom Brady’s blind side for a solid decade, has credited Coach Hope with molding him into an NFL lineman.

Bear Bryant was known to say “[i]f anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it.
If anything goes real good, you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games.”  With every big win – few as there were – Hope always passed the credit along to his players.  When Purdue won in Michigan Stadium for the first time in over four decades, Coach Hope was almost in tears on account of how proud he was of his boys and how well they played.

Moreover, when Hope’s tenure began, on paper, it was a good hire.  He was the perfect organizational/cultural fit, having served under Coach Tiller all those years.  Moreover, anybody who has met the man could not help but love him, what with his high-energy, high-enthusiasm personality that could brighten up any room.  Better yet, he brought in Gary Nord as offensive coordinator.  Both learned the coaching ropes together under the legendary Howard Schnellenberger, so obviously they had the pedigree.  Between Hope’s high-energy approach towards motivating players and Nord’s abilities with the X’s and O’s, it seemed to be an awesome match.  Sadly, things did not turn out that way, as the results clearly show.

The question becomes, why?  One plausible explanation is that Hope’s under-performance is the symptom of a bigger issue within Purdue’s athletics dept.  One of Purdue’s dirty little secrets is, historically they under-compensate their personnel compared to other Big Ten athletics programs.  Anybody with any ambition at all puts in their time, enhances their resumes, then leave for, er, greener pastures, leaving behind good people that stay out of a combination of loyalty (commendable though that may be) and lack of options.

To put things even more bluntly, Purdue is notoriously cheap when it comes to paying its coaches.  That could explain Coach Hope’s woes, to an extent.  A cursory survey will reveal that Purdue has the lowest football coaches’ salaries of any staff in the B1G.  Not good.  Hope himself was the lowest-paid head coach in the conference, making only $950,000 this year.  Yes, I know, to the vast majority of people, that is a tidy sum.  But when you consider that even Tim Beckman of Illinois makes $1.6 million, or even Kevin Wilson of lowly Indiana makes $1.2 million annually, something is dreadfully wrong in Boilerland.

The same problem applies to underpaying assistant coaches.  Therefore, the head coach does what he can to bring in assistants, but once they build up their resume, they then go somewhere else where they can make more money.  Successful football programs depend in part with coaching continuity.  Don’t believe me?  Look at what happened to mighty Texas when the bulk of their assistants left, or the slump Florida found itself in for a while.  Now imagine the havoc that is wrought on a program like Purdue from lack of such continuity.  To quote ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, coaches do not care about your school’s fight song:  pay them!

That brings us to the another major point.  Morgan Burke right now faces the awesome task of finding a new CEO of the football program to take it in a new, better direction.  Certain names have been tossed around here and there, but no matter whom they hire, if Burke does not take a crowbar to the department’s wallet, Purdue will be in the same situation it is in now in three or four years’ time.

Adam Rittenberg, a blogger of espn.com has reported that Burke is putting together a $4.5 million fund for the next coach.  If that is true, then maybe, after all these years, it has sunk in that he needs to pay his football coaches substantially more than in the past, distant and recent.  Yes, Burke deserves credit for ably managing the athletics department’s bottom line, but that bottom line itself is in jeopardy if the team keeps losing games and the fans vote with their feet in the form of lost ticket revenue.  As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money.  Winning games makes money, and to win games, Purdue needs to raise football coaches’ pay (both head coach and assistants) if they want to get anywhere.  Let us hope that the rumored $4.5 million is made available soon for the best coaching talent out there.  But by that same token, assembling those funds should be a sign that Burke et al. have finally figured out that winning in the Big Ten (or any other “Big Six” conference these days) costs money, and they do deserve some credit for figuring that out, even if belatedly.

Another problem for the program was the offensive strategy combined with a stale culture.  Concerning the latter, let us face it:  bringing in Coach Hope to replace Coach Tiller was, in some regards, more of the same.  The head coach is CEO of the football program.  Like a chief executive, his job is to not only set the strategy, but also the culture and tone of the organization.  Bringing in Hope was more of the same in that the Tiller influence was able to linger longer than it should.  Coach Tiller did a wonderful job of bringing Purdue out of the wretched Jim Colletto era doldrums, but after a while, things became stale.  Furthermore, his one-sided “basketball on grass” was becoming less and less effective.  Frankly, Drew Brees and his ability to work the on-field magic that he did made Tiller’s offense look far more effective than it really was.  The best season Purdue had post-Drew was the 2003 season, where we had a tough, veteran defense combined with Coach Tiller “discovering” something called the running game.  Sadly, Coach Tiller never learned from his successes that season, and engaged in a very lengthy panic to where Purdue’s offense continued to dwindle as it became ever-more reliant on the passing game.  The more-of-the-same approach, that which worked before but became less effective as the conference overall changed, in turn caused the organizational culture to go stale as well.

Ultimately, Coach Hope’s on-field woes could most likely be attributed to the ongoing quarterback merry-go-round, combined with a poor choice of offensive strategy that was, again, too reliant on the pass.  In so many games, I observed too many over-engineered plays that were attempted to be executed by under-skilled personnel.  The nature of these plays tended to put the offensive players in too many precarious situations, which could account for why injuries perpetually plagued Hope and his team.

A run-oriented, option-based attack could have rectified this problem.  So many fans argue that the passing game is what puts butts in the seats, but I counter in turn that winning is what truly generates enthusiasm for a program, and thus stimulates greater attendance.  Three yards and a cloud of dust will sell just as well as the passing game, if you win.  The new coach, whoever he may be, will be well-served to heed this advice.  Given our current personnel, we could credibly execute a flexbone option attack much like Georgia Tech and Navy currently use.  It could buy us time until we bring in personnel that could give us more options in a balanced, pro-style attack that is a proven winning approach with teams throughout the country.

But in the meantime, do not pile on Coach Hope.  I will always admire him as a loyal, gracious man.  He stood for everything a place like Purdue should support — values, character, sincerity, and integrity.  The Boiler Nation would be well-served to never forget that.

Kansas State: Shades of 1998 November 18, 2012

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We’ve seen this before.  This is not the first time that Kansas State’s national championship run was ruined late in the season.  The Wildcats made a similar run in 1998, defeating powerful Nebraska for the first time in 30 years, among other things.  But come the Big XII championship game of that year, K-State overlooked a hungry Texas A&M, who snuck up on them and overtook them towards the end of the game.  Although that bumped the Wildcats down to only no. 4 in the rankings, it was too late to get a decent consolation prize.

Everyone seemed to assume that K-State was a lock on the Fiesta Bowl (where the BCS national championship was to be held), so other teams got “locked-in” to other BCS bowl games (Orange, Sugar and Rose).  With the Wildcats’ unexpected loss, they were left out in the proverbial cold, having to settle for the Alamo Bowl, then given the no. 4 pick for both the Big XII and the Big Ten.  One would imagine that they would not be too happy with having to settle for that lesser prize.  Purdue, their opponent for the 1998 Alamo Bowl, was, conversely, quite happy to make a return appearance in San Antonio (a fun town for a bowl game, fyi.), having won that bowl game the previous year.  Though the Boilers were unranked and Kansas State was still the fourth-highest ranked team in the land, Purdue came in, what made the difference was that Purdue was happy to be there for the Dec. 29 game, K-State not so much.

Despite Coach Bill Snyder’s moderately happy-sounding speech at the kickoff luncheon the day before the game (Dec. 28, 1998) in a convention room of the Marriott Hotel in downtown San Antonio, where he assured both the Wildcat and Boilermaker fans in attendance that “we’re very much looking forward to playing the University of Purdue,” they sure did not give that impression on the field of play in the Alamodome the next evening.  After a scoreless first quarter, Purdue drew (if you’ll pardon the expression) first blood in the second with a Drew Brees touchdown pass to Chris Daniels, and we never let up for the rest of the game.  Only in the last few minutes did K-State manage to inch ahead of us with a touchdown of their own, but Purdue answered on the very next possession, marching right down the field and put it away for good.  The Wildcats did have the last possession of the game, but with only less than a minute or so left in the game, they were unable to muster the necessary score.  We triumphed in the end, 37-34.  It was our biggest win in probably 20 years.

I say “we” because I was but a freshman student manager on the Purdue team during that game, witnessing all of this first-hand.  The point in all of this, given recent developments, is that we’ve seen this scenario with K-State play out before.  The Wildcats seem to be on the same path today.  The only saving grace for K-State today is that this sudden, season-derailing loss from last night came earlier than when the Big XII championship game would be (there is no such game for this season, given the recent changes in conference membership). Hence, there is still time to salvage things with earning a more prestigious bowl berth than the booby prize of the Alamo Bowl from 14 years ago.

Yet another reason for K-State getting, well, hosed that year is a manifestation of certain perpetual handicaps against the program.  Unlike traditional powers including, say, Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, or even Notre Dame, all of whom have strong, national fan bases, Kansas State, although a strong program, lacks that advantage.  Strong fan bases equal strong money and clout, something the Wildcats continue to lack.  Kansas State University is located in Manhattan, Kan., nicknamed “The Little Apple.”  It is in the middle of nowhere, in a state that has the same reputation.  It has no major market to tie itself to, unlike the Longhorns, who can not only claim Austin, but also Dallas and Houston.  The Buckeyes claim Columbus, as well as Cincinnati and Cleveland.  Even Notre Dame can claim Chicago, and to an extent, New York itself.  K-State lacks that major market anchor, and that goes a long way towards its overall lack of relative clout.  Even a team like West Virginia can claim Pittsburgh as its anchor market.  Claiming Kansas City is a stretch for KSU, who must also share the area with the Kansas Jayhawks, along with the Missouri Tigers.  Does that leave KSU Wichita?  Geography has conspired to make the lack of clout an unsolvable problem for the Wildcats, as far as one can foresee.

But another key difference in scenarios today is that, in the wake of K-State being kicked down to the no. 4 bowl pick for the Big XII Conference in 1998 —  much less the overall rankings — shortly thereafter the BCS implemented a rule that a team ranked that highly* would get an automatic berth into one of the BCS “big four,” instead of being relegated to a second or third-tier postseason game.  Perhaps the Fiesta Bowl is not out of the question, boys, but you still must pass through the eye of the needle that is Texas in two weeks’ time.

*Although Kansas State was ranked no. 4 in both the AP and Coaches’ Polls, they were actually ranked no. 3 in the BCS.