Our next year in the countdown of the best in Purdue sports history is one that is slightly a generation ahead of many of you readers. I know it is for me. I don't have many memories of 1980-81 considering that I was a year old during that academic year. Still, it was a very good year for Purdue. The football team made its third of three straight bowl appearances under Jim Young. The men's basketball team had a respectable debut under new head coach Gene Keady. It was also the final year of major season success for one of Purdue's historically strong programs.
Football highlights - Jim Young only lasted five years in West Lafayette before leaving to take the head job at Army after the 1981 season. His success was nearly unmatched until coach Joe Tiller came along. To this day, only he and Tiller have taken Purdue to more than one bowl game. The pair has combined for 13 of Purdue's 15 bowl appearances overall.
A huge reason for his success was quarterback Mark Herrmann. 1980 was Herrmann's senior season, and it was a season that very nearly ended in Pasadena as he came up a game short of taking the Boilers to the Rose Bowl. Herrmann was named a first-team All-American at quarterback for the 1980 season, while tight end Dave Young joined him on the first team. Many of Herrmann's records still stand from the 1980 season.
Purdue did not have a promising start to the season. Purdue lost 31-10 at Notre Dame in the season opener, meaning Herrmann would be yet another member of the Cradle of quarterbacks to finish his career 0-for-Notre Dame Stadium. Purdue stayed on the road the next week for its conference opener at Wisconsin and squeezed out a 12-6 win.
The Boilers' home opener went about as well as the season opener, as UCLA came to Ross-Ade Stadium and walked away with a 23-14 win. After finishing 10-2 the previous season (Purdue's only 10 win season to date) all the promise for Herrmann's senior year was quickly falling away. That's when the senior got hot, and Purdue followed. The Boilermakers reeled off wins against Miami (OH), Minnesota, at Illinois, Michigan State, at Northwestern, and Iowa to set up a battle for the Big Ten championship in the Big House. During the last two games of the streak Purdue scored 110 points. It was a high-octane attack that would go dormant until 1997.
At that point, Purdue was 7-2 overall, but a spotless 6-0 in the Big Ten. Michigan had an identical record and for once had a tough game before their annual grudge match to decide the Big Ten title the next week against Ohio State. Purdue had also beaten the Wolverines in West Lafayette the year before, which was one of just four losses to a Big Ten team other than Ohio State that Michigan had in the entire decade of the 70's (Side note: Purdue was responsible for a second loss in the 70's, as it got them in 1976 as well). A win against the Wolverines would have meant the Bucket game the following week would be played for Roses.
If you're wondering what happened, you don't know Purdue football well. Herrmann and company was shutout in Ann Arbor 26-0, following the same path every Purdue team has taken in the Big House since 1966. The Wolverines went on to beat Ohio State for yet another 8-0 Big Ten title. A deflated Purdue team eeked out a 24-23 win over Indiana and had to settle for a second place tie with Ohio State with a 7-1 conference record. Purdue's 9-3 final record was a bit tempered, as a 6-5 Indiana team and Missouri were the only teams Purdue defeated that finished with a winning record.
Purdue's reward for the season was a trip to Memphis to play Missouri in the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers were the favorite, but Herrmann threw four touchdown passes and earned his third straight bowl MVP award in a 28-25 win over the Tigers. At the time, Purdue stayed a perfect 4-0 in bowl games. Herrmann remains the only Purdue quarterback that has won more than one bowl game in his career (though Drew Brees was the backup QB for the 1997 Alamo Bowl).
As mentioned above, Herrmann's name is still all over Purdue's record book. His 368 passing attempts that season was a school record at the time, as was his 1,309 career attempts. The career mark is still fourth in school history behind Brees, Orton, and Painter. He completed 242 passes (for a still-season best 65.7%) for 3,212 yards. His career yardage mark of 9,946 yards is third only to Brees and Painter. His 23 touchdown passes that year was also a school record for a time, and his 71 for a career is second only to Brees' 90. On an auspicious note, Herrmann still holds the career interceptions mark of 75 by a wide margin (30) over Brees. With Herrmann, he was a feast or famine guy. He threw 17 picks in 1980.
Dave Young was his main receiver that year, catching 70 passes for 959 yards and 9 touchdowns. If there had been a Mackey award back then, Young would have won it hands down.
Basketball highlights - The important thing to remember is that 1980-81 was still the era in which only 48 teams made the NCAA Tournament. With 16 fewer bids, some very good teams were left to head to the NIT. That was Purdue's fate. Gene Keady took over a Purdue team that played in the 1980 Final Four and provided some memorable moments in his first year. Purdue wont he Gator Bowl Tournament over Georgia Tech and Florida just after Christmas and went into the conference season with a 7-2 record.
The Boilers began conference play by upsetting #12 Michigan, but was ultimately undone by only getting one other win over a ranked team. That win came over eventual national champion Indiana on February 7th. It was the first ever game played in Mackey Arena during the Gene Keady-Bob Knight rivalry, and Purdue walked away with a tight 68-66 win.
Unfortunately, Purdue was swept by Iowa and Illinois, then lost games to Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State, and Indiana. Eight conference losses was too much to overcome for an NIT bid, so Purdue took a 17-10 record to the NIT. The Boilers were award with three straight home games, and Purdue beat Rhode Island, Dayton, and Duke in succession before losing to Syracuse in the semifinals of that tournament. The season ended with a 75-72 overtime win over West Virginia in the third place game.
Brian Walker ended up being a 6th round NBA draft pick after the season, but since the draft now goes only two rounds with more teams that doesn't mean a whole lot. He never even played in the league. Junior center Keith Edmondson eventually was named an honorable mention All-American the following season.
Men's Golf - Nationally, Purdue has never had much success. The men's golf team is a little different, however. They own one of Purdue's two officially NCAA national championship, having won in 1961. They went on a bit of a slide in the late 60's and early 70's, but won the Big Ten title in 1981 after a 10 year break. It ended up being Purdue's only NCAA championships appearance from 1972 to 2000 on the men's side.
Women's basketball - The only other program to win an NCAA National title at Purdue passed its own milestone in the 1980-81 season. That year was the final year the women's program was deemed a non-revenue sport, and therefore did not have a full compliment of scholarships. Women's basketball was still in its infancy at the times, so the dreams of a national title were still very far away. Still, the seeds were being planted. Purdue won a then-school record 14 games and finished 14-18 on the year. They would not win as many games again until the program's first winning season in 1985-86 (the program's 11th year overall).
Baseball - 1981 was almost a banner season for our usually anemic baseball program. Purdue finished with three all-Big Ten selections. Second baseman Mike Ledna, shortstop Rick Thomspon, and third baseman Steve Urbanski all made at least the third team. Ledna, first baseman Greg Beno, and pitcher Bob Hallas were all-Big Ten tournament team members as well.
The season itself was one of Purdue's better ones, but that isn't saying much. Purdue finished with a 30-30-1 overall record, but qualified for the Big Ten Tournament. The Boilers won their opening game in the tournament 9-0 over Minnesota, but was eliminated 7-6 by Michigan and 8-3 by Minnesota. The Wolverines made the College World Series that season, and Purdue was able to beat them in one game out of four late in the season. To my knowledge, it is the last time Purdue has beaten a CWS participant in baseball.