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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.

College Football Week 4 Awards September 29, 2015

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FloridaTennessee2015

Tennessee lost a heartbreaker to Florida this past Saturday. They shall continue to lost more close games until they learn how to close, so to speak. Photo by John Raoux of the AP.

(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 4] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES

Wish I were him: Jim Mora, UCLA

Glad I’m not him: Bret Bielema, Arkansas

Lucky guy: Jim McElwain, Florida

Poor guy: Butch Jones, Tennessee

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Gary Patterson, TCU

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Sonny Dykes, Cal

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Mark Helfrich, Oregon

Desperately seeking … anything:  Darrell Hazell, Purdue

TEAMS

Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Baylor (defeated Rice 70-17)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Oklahoma State (defeated Texas 30-27)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: UMass (lost to No. 6 Notre Dame 62-27(

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Texas (lost to No. 24 Oklahoma State 30-27)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Iowa (defeated North Texas 62-16)

Dang, they’re good: UCLA

Dang, they’re bad:  Purdue

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  BYU

Did the season start? Auburn

Can the season end?  Arkansas State

Can the season never endUtah

GAMES

Play this again:  No. 3 TCU 55, Texas Tech 52

Play this again, too:  Florida 28, Tennessee 27

Never play this again: No. 4 Baylor 70, Rice 17

What? East Carolina 35, Virginia Tech 28

HuhKentucky 21, No. 25 Missouri 13

Are you kidding me?  Michigan 31, No. 22 BYU 0

Oh – my – GodNo. 18 Utah 62, No. 13 Oregon 20

Told you so:  Memphis 53, Cincinnati 46

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 4, pre-week 5)

Ticket to die for:  No. 6 Notre Dame @ No. 12 Clemson

Also:  No. 13 Alabama @ No. 8 Georgia

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five matchup: Miami (Fla.) @ Cincinnati

Best non-Power Five matchup: Air Force @ Navy

Upset alert: No. 24 Oklahoma State @ Texas

Must win: Arkansas @ Tennessee

Offensive explosion: Texas Tech @ No. 5 Baylor

Defensive struggle: South Carolina @ Missouri

Great game no one is talking about:  Louisville @ N.C. State

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech vs. Art Briles of Baylor

Also:  Dabo Swinney of Clemson vs. Brian Kelly of Notre Dame

Who’s bringing the body bags? Purdue @ No. 2 Michigan State

Why are they playing? Eastern Michigan @ No. 9 LSU

Plenty of good seats remaining: FIU @ UMass

They shoot horses, don’t they?  San Jose State @ Auburn

Week 4 Take-aways:

Tennessee lost a heartbreaker on the road to Florida, thus continuing a losing streak to the Gators that started in 2005.  Earlier in the season, they lost another heartbreaker at home to Oklahoma.  What is so heartbreaking about both of these losses is that the Volunteers were in the lead for most of the game, until blowing the lead late in both games.  Butch Jones is continuing to improve the program, gradually bringing it back to its blueblood status in the conference.  But they’re clearly not there yet, and shall not be “there” until they learn to “close the deal,” which is to say, they must learn to finish the games strongly.  It is still early in the season, so still time to salvage things.

Speaking of salvaging, Steve Spurrier seemed to have salvaged things reasonably well when his team beat a deceptively good Central Florida squad.  Next week, though, they travel to a Columbia, Mo., to take on a similarly-ailing Missouri Tigers team, in what one can easily surmise is a must-win game for both.

Why are both aforementioned teams ailing?  They both lost to Kentucky, for goodness sake!

Speaking of UK, given that the Wildcats have W’s over both the Gamecocks and the (Mizzou) Tigers, and they face a relative cupcake in the EKU Colonels this Saturday at home (a quasi-body bag game), the possibility that they could become bowl-eligible in the brutal SEC is not a remote one.  Granted, they face a brutal stretch after the EKU game, facing, in order, Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee, then Georgia, but then have a two-week respite with Vanderbilt and then a gimme with Charlotte before concluding the season against improving Louisville.  It could be a 6-6 year, which, for UK, is an improvement.

Utah and Michigan started the season playing each other.  Though the former beat the latter convincingly, both teams are rolling right now.  Funny how that works out.

TCU beat Texas Tech in a high-scoring game that went down to the wire.  The Horned Frogs are supposed to be a top-five team, so how does one account for this narrow victory in a shootout?  Let us not forget that this TCU team also squeaked by Minnesota at the beginning of the season.  Are the Frogs overrated?  The upcoming home game against a gradually-improving Texas team could be a referendum.

The only regretful thing about this delightfully intriguing matchup between Notre Dame and Clemson is that Brent Musburger will not be calling the game!

College Football Week 2 Awards September 8, 2014

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Yes, we’re back.  After having missed handing out last week’s awards due to travels abroad (having visited two, count ’em, TWO different continents in the Eastern Hemisphere!), we’re back, and as Little Richard would say, we’re ready-ready-ready to rock n’ roll!

(Note: All rankings are current AP [week 2] unless otherwise noted.)

 

COACHES
Wish I were him: Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech

Glad I’m not him: Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Lucky guy: Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Poor guy: David Shaw, Stanford
Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Dan Enos, Central Michigan

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Charlie Strong, Texas
Desperately seeking … anything: Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: No. 9 Texas A&M (defeated Lamar 73-3)
Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: No. 19 Nebraska (defeated McNeese State 31-24)
Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: San Jose State (lost to No. 5 Auburn 59-13)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t: Memphis (lost to No. 11 UCLA 42-35)
Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did: No. 15 Ole Miss (defeated Vanderbilt, 41-3)

Dang, they’re good: Texas A&M
Dang, they’re bad: SMU
Can’t Stand Prosperity: Texas

Did the season start? Ohio State
Can the season end? Miami (Ohio)
Can the season never end? Oregon

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 14 USC 13, No. 13 Stanford 10
Never play this again: No. 23 Clemson 73, South Carolina State 7

What? Eastern Kentucky 17, Miami (Ohio) 10

Huh? No. 16 Notre Dame 31, Michigan 0
Are you kidding me? Virginia Tech 35, No. 8 Ohio State 21
Oh – my – God: BYU 41, Texas 7

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 2, pre-week 3)
Ticket to die for: No. 6 Georgia @ No. 21 South Carolina

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five matchup: Nebraska @ Fresno State
Best non-Power Five matchup: New Mexico State @ UTEP

Upset alert: Tennessee @ No. 4 Oklahoma

Must win: No. 12 UCLA vs Texas

Offensive explosion: Louisiana Tech @ North Texas
Defensive struggle: Penn State @ Rutgers
Great game no one is talking about: No. 21 Louisville @ Virginia

Intriguing coaching matchup: Bret Bielema of Arkansas vs. Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech

Who’s bringing the body bags? Wyoming @ No. 2 Oregon

Why are they playing? No. 8 Baylor @ Buffalo

Plenty of good seats remaining: Eastern Michigan @ Old Dominion

They shoot horses, don’t they?  Boise State @ UConn

 

Week 2 Take-aways:

This week’s results do NOT bode well for the Big Ten! Where to begin?

  • For starters, Illinois had to squeak by Western Kentucky, 42-34.
  • Then there was Nebraska having to score a last-minute touchdown to beat lowly McNeese State at home, 31-24. Way to live up to that No. 19 ranking, Cornhuskers!
  • Cracks in the proverbial damn truly became evident with Purdue’s ignominious loss at home to Central Michigan – a team that the Boilermakers have historically owned – 38-17.
  • Of course, Wisconsin was supposed to make mincemeat of Western Illinois, so nothing to see there: moving on.
  • Iowa slowly plodded to victory over Ball State, 17-13; hardly an impressive win.
  • Penn State seemed to allow Akron to make a game of it, 21-3.
  • Middle Tennessee seemed to provide some challenge to Minnesota, losing to the Golden Gophers only 35-24.
  • Northern Illinois actually did beat a well-coached Northwestern team, 23-15.

The best part (“best” being used facetiously) was that it got worse as the day progressed.

  • In the evening, Notre Dame undressed Michigan, 31-0
  • Then-unranked Virginia Tech came into the Horseshoe to upset then-No 8 Ohio State in a very embarrassing way, 35-21. Are the Buckeyes that crippled without Braxton Miller?
  • At least then-No. 7 Michigan State had a valid excuse, losing late in the game, on the road, (heck, on the West Coast) to current-No. 2 Oregon. Moreover, in further defense of the Spartans, they made a good game of it for more than half of the match-up. Still, a loss is a loss.

Yes, this will really bolster the conference’s credibility with the selection committee come season’s end.

In other news, it appears as though Charlie Strong truly does have his work cut out for him at Texas. The problem with the flagship program of the Lone Star State was that it lost its intensity, that things had become both stale and too synthetic under previous head coach Mack Brown. Strong had proven that he could restore the intensity of one program already at the University of Louisville: the powers started to think that he could do the same thing at Texas. Well, evidently he has not restored enough intensity to that program. Either that, or BYU just has the Longhorns’ number, but I doubt it.