On January 10th in Frisco, Texas a team guided by a Purdue alum will play for a National Championship. The FCS championship this year is North Dakota State, the three-time defending champion, facing a conference rival in Illinois State, though the two did not play during the regular season. The Redbirds are 13-1 and are in the midst of their best season ever underneath a coach that has steadily built them into an excellent FCS program. That coach's name?
It is a name that should be familiar to all Purdue fans. For much of Joe Tiller's tenure Spack was the heir apparent. It was generally assumed that whenever Tiller stepped down Spack would take his place. Then the last four years of the Tiller era happened. Spack, who had built some pretty good defenses in the early part of the 2000s, fell out of favor as the Boilers gave up more points than it scored in two of Tiller's final four seasons. When it was announced that the 2008 season would be Tiller's last Spack's defenses were in freefall. They gave up 48 points in a bowl game to Central Michigan and generally could not make the key stop when they needed.
Spack hung on for a final season after it was announced that Danny Hope, no Spack, would take over for Tiller. He then left Purdue for the head coaching job at Illinois State. Yes, the Redbirds play at the FCS level, but the Missouri Valley Conference is probably the toughest FCS conference in the country. Not only is it the home to ND State, it has perennially strong programs in Northern Iowa, South Dakota State, and Youngstown State as well as some good teams in Indiana State, Western Illinois, and Southern Illinois. The conference regularly puts multiple teams into the 24-team FCS playoffs. If you can win there you can win virtually anywhere.
Since Spack left Purdue is 26-48. Illinois State is 48-25, has had only one losing season (last year at 5-6), and will play for a national championship in a few weeks. Purdue has had a single winning season in that time, going 7-6 after winning the Big Ten's lowest bowl game in 2011.
So what happens if we had picked Spack over Hope? At the time it made sense. Even then, Spack got a huge boost by gaining Tre Roberson from Indiana, who has been incredible this season for the Redbirds. Spack even wanted the job and likely would have taken it if offered, but his defenses had not played well and Hope, the ace recruiter, was returning to make the transition seamless.
We'll never know what would have happened. It is entirely possible that Spack takes over and there is improvement. Maybe he even keeps things steady at 7-8 wins and a low to decent bowl every year instead of the slow decent into awfulness we have experienced since. I tend to think that things would not have been as bad as they are now. That first season Purdue proved it could compete as it went 5-7, but was a handful of plays from being 10-2. I do know Spack is at least smart enough to not take that idiotic timeout against Notre Dame.
And now Purdue is stuck. Darrell Hazell is getting at least one more year, likely two at minimum. Spack, if he wins a national title, will get a serious look from a number of FBS programs. He has proven that he can grow something at the lower level and the transition from a long time assistant to head coach often works very well. Look what it did at Oregon and Florida State. Yeah, they have a lot more talent than us, but there is something to be said for consistency as opposed to Hope bringing in an entirely new staff of the cheapest guys that would do the job.
I do wish Spack well though in the title game. He is still a great alum and from what I hear a nice guy. We can watch and just wonder what might have been.