I was there in 1997.
On September 13, 1997, I walked into Ross-Ade Stadium the fan of a dead football team. Purdue had only won 11 games in the previous three seasons, had not had a winning season in 12 years, and in that time never had more than four wins in a year. Their formula was beat a MAC team, lose to Notre Dame, lose to a major conference foe like Washington, beat another bottom feeder Big Ten team or two, then hope we win the Bucket.
That is the way it went, year after year. There was the occasional upset, like shocking West Virginia on the road or beating California at home, but for the most part you could set your watch to Purdue being far worse than the competition. Even 1997 didn't start well, as Purdue lost by 14 points at Toledo and new coach Joe Tiller didn't look like he would be anything special.
Purdue needed a near miracle back then, and it came in the form of a 28-17 win over Notre Dame with the turning play being a fumble caused by Rosevelt Colvin and returned by Adrian Beasley. That single play seemed to change the fortunes of the entire program. Purdue went on to win nine games (two more than it had won the previous two seasons combined) and it set the stage for 10 bowl games and a modest level of success. As Boiled Sports pointed out, Purdue was on par with Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin in terms of bowl appearances and Big Ten record over the 11 year span from 1997-2008. The Boilers weren't winning national titles, but they were at least winning more than they were losing.
More importantly, that single play sparked a euphoria not seen in West Lafayette for some time. The stadium erupted and many Purdue fans, beaten down after years of serial losing, couldn't believe that something good was actually happening. If anything, that single play changed attitudes and pretty much installed the exact opposite of the current atmosphere of gloom and inevitable defeat that currently pervades the program.
As we know, that critical offseason before the 2008 season changed everything. Joe Tiller's final year stumbled to a 4-8 finish with close calls against Oregon, Penn State, and Minnesota, but injuries at the quarterback position prevented Cowboy Joe from appearing in another bowl game.
While that year was disappointing, many point to that infamous moment against Wisconsin in 2004 as the start of the decline. It really was. If Beasley's fumble return was the impetus and started a 6-game winning streak, Orton's fumble and subsequent four game losing streak is certainly another impetus.
We never guessed how far the decline would go. Recruiting, while never ridiculously high, tumbled with classes in the 60s or lower nationally. Team discipline slipped as Purdue was turnover prone and penalty prone by 2009. Those mistakes would cost Purdue at least three wins in Hope's first year, if not five. Eventually, the Boilers slipped even below that 1986-1996 dark period, as now they can't even beat MAC teams. Instead of making hay by beating Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, and Indiana with regularity now Purdue can't beat anyone. Period.
Yes, Purdue is a dead program again. Many people had a hand in killing it, too. Joe Tiller, as much as he is revered, admitted to his faults, but had a hand in it by insisting on picking a successor. Morgan Burke had a hand in it by going cheap with Danny Hope. Danny Hope had a hand in it by not being a very good coach. Darrell Hazell had a hand it in (with an assist from Burke) by fielding some of the worst teams in school history and has many members of the media question if the staff is even trying.
As a sidebar, this issue infuriates me, and I am glad I am not the only one who is writing about it. That offensive gameplan was pretty close to just throwing a game, and it ended up being a winnable game too! It is just one of many decisions that seem to defy logic with this coaching staff, along with the "prevent" cushion defense with a couple of the best corners in the Big Ten and barely using Markell Jones after he ran wild at MSU. Purdue is not just dead right now, it somehow manages to find a new rock bottom every week.
Yes, even during a bye week when coach Darrell Hazell said that there would be no major moves within an offense that just did virtually nothing and only scored (in a winnable game) because of a long interception return, can Purdue find a new rock bottom.
Purdue Football is dead. It seems likely that a second 1-11 season in three years will be completed in a few weeks, and no one with the power to do anything seems to care.
Which brings me to the point of this post: Can anyone save Purdue football, especially when it is in a deeper hole than it was in back in 1997?
I admit that something like 1997 is rare. Joe Tiller changed things so rapidly because he brought a revolutionary offense that few in the conference had ever seen. He won a lot of games early because no one in the Big Ten knew how to defend it. That, and some guy named Drew Brees helped a lot. Because an immediate turnaround like that is rare any true recovery is likely going to take a few years. These were years we thought we were starting in 2013 as Purdue was getting beaten like a drum by everyone not named Illinois in the Big Ten. We are supposed to be down that recovery path, not aggressively digging deeper.
There are so many more variables right now, too, compared to 1997. Now it is no longer enough to have a fancy new offense. Everyone has tape and can watch Wyoming Junior High Football now to spot the next up and coming coach. By the time a new scheme comes to the Big Ten it is not going to be a surprise, as it will come from some innovative FCS coach, MAC coach, or somewhere else.
You also have to have the facilities, and as we have discussed here, Purdue is looking at a nine figure restoration of the Mollenkopf, locker room, weight room, and Ross-Ade before it can even get on par with the schools in the Big Ten. The shiny Ross-Ade Pavillion was built with Joe Tiller's Rose Bowl, but that was 15 years ago now. EVERYONE has something like that now.
That is what makes this situation so dismal. There is not an easy fix and there are so many complex issues with moving parts that even finding the right solution is tough, let alone implementing it. Even if you cleaned house and fired Darrell Hazell right now who do you get to take over? Memories are short. Prospective candidates are going to see that Purdue swung big with Hazell and paid him a ton up front only to have him falter immediately. If you fire him right now you send the message that if you don't fix things in three years you're out. Oh, and don't even talk about what they would do with recruiting, as next year's team would technically still have some of Danny Hope's players on it.
Purdue faces so many challenges right now with the financial limitations from the Board of Trustees, the questionable at best culture from the athletic department, the coaching staff that digs a new hole every week, and a lack of talent compared to everyone else in the conference. Can Purdue even be saved, or is a zombie-like run of being cannon fodder for the rest of the league while getting BTN checks and waiting for basketball season our future (this is known as the Indiana plan, and EVEN THEY ARE BREAKING OUT OF IT!!!!!)
There is at least a chance something can happen, however much of a longshot that is. Baylor is a program that was historically moribund until about 2009. Oregon was once on a level with us before Phil Knight started writing checks to them. Utah, TCU, Michigan State, Memphis, Houston, Oklahoma State, Temple, Duke, and Pittsburgh are all teams that are currently in the top 25, but were equal or below Purdue as recently as 10 years ago.
So who can save Purdue football? Who can provide that next miracle, where people are going crazy because Adrian Beasley has the ball and is running with a convoy?