Last night's National Championship game (unless you consider TCU as part of this nation) was the culmination for the Oregon football program. To listen to some in the media, a National Championship is not a true National Championship unless it involves an SEC team, Oklahoma, USC, Ohio State, and other traditional powers. To them, Oregon was an outlier. The Ducks were passed over in 2001 by a less deserving Nebraska squad for a shot at the title even though the Cornhuskers weren't even the best team in their division.
The Ducks are a Cinderella story. For much of the 70's and 80's they were an afterthought. The Civil War between them and Oregon State was a lot like the Old Oaken Bucket in that winner earned state pride, and that's it. When the Ducks reached the Independence Bowl at the end of the 1989 season it was their first bowl game since the 1963 Sun Bowl. Purdue had a similar run where, aside from the Jim Young years and one bowl under Leon Burtnett, they went 30 years while being a college football afterthought.
In looking at SBNation's Addicted to Quack (Who was wonderful during our two-game football series) I saw a six part FanPost Series entitled The Way We Were. It was an interesting series that talked about the irrelevance of football until athletic director Bill Byrne turned things around, culminating in a Rose Bowl appearance after winning the Pac-10 in 1994. Since then, the Ducks have appeared in three additional BCS bowls and have had a legitimate claim at being in the National game twice, which is twice more than Purdue has.
I say this because it is possible for Purdue football to reach these heights if Oregon did so. In 1983 Oregon played the infamous Toilet Bowl, a 0-0 tie with Oregon State that even the 2008 Apple Cup between Washington (0-10) and Washington State (1-10) couldn't top because the current rule state that someone eventually has to score and win the game now. Oregon fans view this as the bottom, with an 0-33 stretch viewed as higher.
Purdue fans cannot boast such a stretch of football. As bad as we looked in coughing up the Bucket at home this year, our worst record by far is the 1-10 1993 season when Purdue defeated only Western Michigan and somehow managed to lose a game in which it scored 56 points.
So what can Purdue do to get to the level of Oregon? We already have an advantage over a lot of teams in that we play in a major conference. If we're ever blessed with an unlikely undefeated season we will probably play for the National title based on the strength of eight conference games and a conference championship game. We also have the advantage of playing Notre Dame each year, which is a "name" win any time a team beats them. That means in any perceived championship season we have the advantage that 10 of or 13 games (taking a Big Ten title game into account) will come against major conference teams. What other steps can be taken?
1. Continued Stadium improvements - The Rose Bowl run of a decade ago brought about massive changes to Ross-Ade Stadium. Say what you will about Morgan Burke, but he saw a need and has commited himself to the improvement of Purdue's athletic facilities. The current Mackey arena Project is part of that, but the Ross-Ade Stadium renovation, begun with the construction of the current pavilion following the 2001 season, was the first major step in this process. After traveling to most of the rest of the Big Ten (and seeing the four venues I haven't visited on TV) it is safe to say that Purdue would have the worst stadium in the conference if not for the Ross-Ade Pavilion. Since finishing the Pavilion, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota have also completed massive new projects.
Strangely, Purdue is finding itself being passed in this area. The next major improvement for Ross-Ade is permanent lights. Burke has come out that he is very much against this, even while he is shopping the 2011 season opener as a Thursday night game. From a fan's perspective, Purdue needs permanent lights if it is going to compete with better programs. Burke has relied on the philosophy of the team earning night games with its play on the field because the networks will pay for any temporary lights. As a fan, I was really annoyed with seven straight noon kickoffs this year. We didn't even have the option of moving a game to a night start like Indiana and Illinois have. For television, it would do the program wonders if they could move MAC/1-AA game A or B to a night start like Illinois and Indiana can.
I mention the Fighting Illini and Hoosiers because they are programs we have been ahead for a long time, but they have quickly caught up to us. The advent of the Big Ten Network gives them the option to have an early season night game or two, while no network in their right mind will move a Purdue-Ball State game to a night start if they have to pay for lights.
Most of the Big Ten will soon have lights too. Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin are already there. It is only a matter of time before the rest of the conference joins them. Unfortunately, that brings me to my next point.
2. Oregon has Phil Knight - Capital improvements need money. The Mackey Project was done to impress the top recruits, as was the Ross-Ade Pavilion. Their final cost is a pittance compared to what Phil Knight has done For Oregon. According to Wikipedia, Knight has donated over half a billion dollars to the University of Oregon's athletic fund. The amount he has donated would have covered the cost of the Ross-Ade renovation and the Mackey Project with money to spare. By comparison, I got a letter in the mail today from the John Purdue Club asking me to donate above my First Team member level of $200 a year in order to help the Mackey Project.
Ross-Ade Stadium will not have lights until 1. Burke is good and ready, or 2. Someone writes him a check specifically to cover the cost. Last night I asked you readers on Twitter who could be the benefactor for Purdue like Phil Knight. Here is a sample of the responses:
"I'm working on it. Might take a while, though!"
"Gregory Wasson, Pres and CEO of Walgreens. At least he could donate meds for all our injuries."
"C-Span guy? Inland container guy? How much do you get for a Nobel ?"
"It's Michael Birck or nothing. Guy's frickin' LOADED."
"I think T-Mill should donate his massive fortune to turn Purdue's football program around."
I hate to disappoint you guys, but unless a sudden and massive spike in the stock market increases my IRA that I have barely touched since leaving Insight in 2005, I am not going to have the mad cash to throw around and make these improvements happen. I don't think we're going to have a Phil knight-esque donor come forward either. Even if one did, it is not a guarantee because of factor #3.
3. Sheer luck - T. Boone Pickens has donated a ton of money to Oklahoma State. We still have more BCS bowl appearances than they do. You still need to get the right combination of talent and coaching to have success. Mike Belotti and Chip Kelly have done a wonderful job at Oregon. Purdue had Joe Tiller, who turned things around instantly and took us to Pasadena once, but even then we needed the weakest Big Ten season in decades and Drew Brees to get there. Tiller elevated the program to the status of solid bowl team and occasional conference title contender, but we have fallen from that now. If not for the The Fumble, who knows where things would have gone.
Admittedly, this is an inexact science. I have no idea what it would take to pull off our own Oregon, but I do know it is possible because the Oregon program was in a position far worse than us at one point. Look what they have achieved.
I mostly did this entry to generate discussion. I know it is possible, but I have no idea how to get there. It has to be more than, "find one insanely wealthy alum and have him donate a crapload of money."