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The Historically Underappreciated Morgan Burke

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Wait, Hammer & Rails is supporting Morgan Burke now?

We here at Hammer & Rails (namely me, as I am the fearless tinpot Dictator for Life with a mouth much bigger than my mind) are often quick to bash Morgan Burke. The Big Ten's longest serving athletic director has been at Purdue since 1993 has taken a ton of heat. No lights at Ross-Ade Stadium? Blame Burke! Matt Painter might bolt to Missouri? Blame Burke! They are charging to park for football games in the parking garages now? Blame Burke!

Yes, the venerable Morgan Burke has been blamed for everything here from the football team sucking to, and I may be exaggerating here, smuggling in that gift from the Greeks to Troy.

But I am not here to attack Burke. Like our friends at Crimson Quarry stated we should be thankful for him.

No, I have not been abducted by the Purdue athletic department. I do not have a gun to my head and future credential dangling like the sword of Damocles if I don't write this pro-Burke piece. Instead, I am trying to take a different view.

Let's try to remember what Purdue athletics was like when Burke took office in 1993. As I have often written, Purdue has the worst athletic department historically in the Big Ten. When Burke took over on January 1, 1993, that was even more true:

  • Football had just finished year No. 8 of what would be a 12-year bowl-less streak and had been to only five bowls total.
  • Purdue had a single team National championship in any sport: 1961 Men's Golf.
  • Women's softball and soccer simply did not exist yet.
  • Baseball was playing in a stadium most high schools would feel was sub-par.
  • The only thing of note for the entire athletic department was Gene Keady's Big Ten success, and even then he had won only three conference titles.
  • The swimming and diving teams were competing in a dank half pool somewhere in Lambert Fieldhouse.
  • Ross-Ade Stadium and Mackey Arena were serviceable venues that were in need of renovation.

This was also at before the cash cow that is conference television rights. There were no large checks from the Barbasol and Rotel sugar daddies that we get now. Basically Purdue was operating on a shoestring budget compared to today, in awful facilities, and was sucking as a result.

This is where Burke has really shined when you look at things with a more critical eye. Since taking over there has been at least modest success where before there was none aside from the occasional Big Ten basketball title. Some of Burke's highlights:

  • Two National Championships in women's basketball (1999) and women's golf (2010) with a runner-up finish for basketball (2001) and two for golf (2007 and 2011)
  • A total of 12 bowl games in 16 seasons from 1997 to 2012, including a Big Ten title and elusive Rose Bowl.
  • Four men's basketball Big Ten titles, including three in a row from 1994-96.
  • New facilities for the following programs: women's soccer, softball, baseball, swimming & diving, tennis. They are nice facilities too.
  • Major upgrades to Mackey Arena and Ross-Ade Stadium.

Are things perfect? No. It has become more and more apparent that Burke is doing the best that he can while being limited by a Board of Trustees that wants to put academics first over athletics. This is a noble pursuit and wonderful goal, but unfortunately from a sports perspective it puts Purdue at a disadvantage with a ton of schools. When you have gigantic athletic departments like Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten that have a license to print money it makes things very difficult for a department that is maximizing its athletic revenues while getting nothing from the school itself. And that athletic revenue alone is not small, but pales compared to the rest of the conference.

For every Ohio State shirt you see on a non-Ohio State grade that is money the Buckeyes get that Purdue is not. That's what makes it good to be the king.

So what do we really think of Burke? It is hard to say. It is almost like Purdue is trapped between two different worlds when it comes to college sports. It plays in a major conference that offers tons of financial advantages that the Missouri Valley Conferences and Horizon leagues of the world could only dream of. Shoot, Purdue gets $32 million every year just for being in the Big Ten. That alone, without a single other dime, would have Purdue 76th nationally in revenue. so if Purdue finished dead last in every sport, did not sell a single ticket, and did not sell a single t-shirt, it would be 76th in revenue. As it is, Purdue is 45th at $71.3 million.

There is part of the problem though. Purdue operates the smallest athletic department in the Big Ten, gets no money from the school itself, and all other sources of revenue (ticket sales, donations, merchandising, etc.) is only another $44 million. It is the lowest in the Big Ten by a large margin (though Northwestern keeps its books closed). Purdue is making $9 million less than the next lowest school, Illinois. It is not even making half of Michigan's $157.9 million or Ohio State's $145.2 million. Ohio State also has no subsidy from the school, as do Penn State and Nebaska. Wisconsin receives the largest subsidy from their university in the form of $8 million. If Purdue received that exact dollar amount it still would not have the revenue of Illinois.

The more I study this the more I see how handcuffed Burke is. Most universities see athletics as a front porch for the school. Purdue sees it mostly as a secondary mission. The proud Purdue alum in me enjoys this forward thinking. The sports fan in me sees it as another frustration because it is quite clear that there is an athletics arms race and Purdue is line up in the starter's block like a crippled man on a Segway scooter.

It could be worse, I guess. Rutgers was running at 47% subsidy in a similar budget before joining the Big Ten. Maryland was at 24%. There is no easy answer, either. The BoT is not going to suddenly start shelling out a subsidy, not when Purdue has regularly given money back to the school pretty much for the honor of having facilities on campus. We don't get sweat deals on fan apparel that everyone in the country wants like North Carolina, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and others get. We don't have a T. Boone Pickens or a Phil Knight to be our sugar daddy. Burke's biggest mistake might have been going cheap on the Danny Hope hire, which was a crippling move that is going to take several years to fix and hopefully Darrell Hazell is the guy to fix it.

So yes, when you look at financials, Burke is doing the best he can. Right now Purdue needs necessary improvements to the Mollenkopf, the football locker room, and Ross-Ade Stadium that will probably run into nine figures. How do you pay for it is one of his biggest challenges. I certainly don't envy him.