A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from Andrew Billman. If you're familiar with ESPN's excellent 30 for 30 series you may have heard of the name. He is one of the producers of the series, working on 24 episodes as producer including The U Part 2. Andrew is also a big Purdue fan, and his first directorial project in the 30 for 30 series will debut Saturday, May 14th at 9:30pm. Andrew contacted me because there are a lot of similarities between Cleveland sports teams and Purdue, almost like it is a giant college with the three major sports struggling just as much as Purdue has.
First, here is the official release from ESPN Films:
Directed by Ohio native Andy Billman, this evocative documentary will take you on a trip that goes back more than 50 years and captures the seminal ups and downs of the once-thriving metropolis. Despite the economic and athletic misfortunes, and the t-shirt that reads "God Hates Cleveland," the people still believe and worship Jim Thome and Jim Brown, LeBron James and other Cleveland sports heroes. But they also can't forget Edgar Renteria and John Elway and Michael Jordan, the men who extinguished their dreams of a long-awaited championship. Painful as it may be at times, "Believeland" is a celebration of faith, a testament to how much sports mean to Cleveland...and how much Cleveland means to sports.
Doesn't that sound like our Purdue fandom? Andrew sent me an early link to view the documentary and like all of the 30 for 30's, it is very, very good. You also can't help but feel for the true Cleveland fans in the film.
One of the things that stands out early on is how the fans of the three Cleveland teams are devoted, but you don't become one (LeBron's Cavs aside) by getting on a bandwagon. Being a Cleveland fan comes from being born near there. It is a lifelong process of grieving and pain, it seems. You don't see Cleveland fans in California, or Florida, or anywhere else for that matter unless they are transplants.
The same is true for Purdue fans. We're not a sexy team. We're not a bandwagon team. We're ridiculously loyal to our programs, and that loyalty comes from being alums and family with the school. In fact, one of our pet peeves is the legion of Indiana basketball and Notre Dame football fans who never attended the school. You rarely see a Purdue fans anywhere that does not have some sort of connection via family or attendance in West Lafayette.
Second, there is definitely shared pain in coming oh-so-close only to find the banana peel. For example:
The Fumble - Cleveland has Earnest Byner. Purdue has Kyle Orton. In both situations the Browns and Boilers weren't even playing to clinch a championship, but merely to have a chance to play for one and were inches from clinching said chance when the Fumble happened. Both have not come anywhere near those heights since.
LeBron James leaves Cleveland - While it wasn't voluntary, LeBron leaving Cleveland and winning two titles in Miami is like watching Butler go to two Final Fours because Robbie Hummel's knee gave out. Yeah, Hummel didn't play for Butler, but those were supposed to be our Final Fours and they were prevented by the timely, if involuntary, departure of the heart of our team.
The Indians - In 1997 The Indians were two outs away from ending their long championship drought when Jose Mesa blew Game 7 against the Marlins. Basically, they Purdue'd the closing of that game. It hasn't occurred in a title game, but "Purdue'd it" is definitely an apt description to so many painful losses over the years where the Boilers have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. You saw it on Twitter from other Big Ten fans as the Little Rock collapse was happening. It is to the point where I begin to feel it happening. The Kansas game in 2012 is a prime example. Purdue was the better team for 38 minutes, but blew it in the last two. This happens far too often for us.
Inept leadership - Cleveland has had Ted Stepien, Art Modell, and the frugal Dolan family. We have Mitch Daniels, Morgan Burke, and Darrell Hazell. Enough said.
Nothing great has happened for a long, long time - Cleveland has not had a pro sports championship since 1964. Purdue has not won a rose bowl since 1967, hasn't been to a Final Four since 1980, and the lone National Championship in basketball is a claimed one from the Great Depression. We both know pain and droughts.
These are just a few specific examples, but in watching the entire documentary I couldn't help but feel like Purdue is the Cleveland of major college sports. Our teams are in the cushy position of being in a major conference just as the Browns, Cavs, and Indians are all in the major U.S. sports. Just being in the Big Ten means we have it better than 90% of college athletics programs, but, like the Cleveland teams, we are consistently mediocre at best. When we do get a good team that looks like it could break through something cruel always seems to happen. Even with new facilities like Alexander Field and a renovated Mackey Arena there is a small boost, but the overall culture never changes. At least Morgan Burke hasn't tried to pull an Art Modell and move the basketball team to the Big 12 or something.
Still, we hope every year. Heading in basketball 2016-17 I have hope that the high talent level we have returning might make for a breakthrough year, but my guard is still up and will likely be up because of that Little Rock game.
So give Believeland a watch. It is a fascinating show that will make you feel a connection with Cleveland fans. Maybe one day our pain will end.