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Purdue: Re-Earning Its Place in the Big Ten

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In the last few years Purdue has re-gained it self respect.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

About three and a half years ago it was a dark time for Purdue athletics. Our beloved school has never run roughshod over the conference across all sports, but back then it was an especially bad time. Men’s basketball was coming off of a last place finish in the conference. Football was two years away from firing Darrell Hazell. That meant we were still somewhat high on him before the dismal and uninspiring 2015 season would be rock bottom. Baseball was in the middle of a four-year run at the bottom of the league that would hit a nadir with the 10-win 2016 season. Other sports weren’t doing great, as the school went from 2013 (women’s golf) until 2017 (men’s basketball) without a single conference championship in any team sport.

It was so bad that I wrote one of the most infamous articles ever posted here when I said that Purdue should leave the conference that it helped found more than a century ago. That caused quite a stir in Purdue circles. Indiana fans loved it and mocked us. The crowd on the Knucklehead board that already hates everything involved with this site still excoriates me for it. There was a premise behind it, however. The premise was that if Purdue wasn’t going to bother competing, why should we even still be in the conference when it was clear we were there only there for the giant revenue checks?

As a member of the Big Ten you either have to be competing, innovating, or you’re going to get left behind. Right now, Purdue is getting left behind by everyone. The attitude of complacency continues because we’re supposed to be satisfied that the athletic department is running in the black. Well, that’s great, except the only reason we’re running in the black is because the Big Ten hands us an eight figure check courtesy of BTN and ESPN every year. Where, then, is the incentive to improve?

It was meant to be a challenge to the administration to change course because all we were hearing at the time was how wonderful it was to be in the black as an athletic department. We were getting this as crowds were dwindling, even in Mackey Arena. As you know, I was long a vocal critic of Morgan Burke, but that post was my opus against him. I agree that it did not come off well and that is one (of many) mistakes I have made in running this site.

So let’s fast forward to today. That post was written in late September of 2014. It’s been almost 40 months since then and, as our friends at Boiled Sports pointed out yesterday, we owe a thank you to the athletic department for turning the ship around:

I think it’s fair to say that just one season into the Jeff Brohm era, Purdue fans are almost unanimously excited (in a rarity within the contrarian world of sports opinions, I cannot recall seeing a ho-hum opinion on the job Brohm did in 2017) for the future of Purdue football, largely because that future seems imminent. And I also don’t know how many of those programs Purdue would trade spots with now. That’s progress.

The swagger is indeed back and yet it can also get more sizable. The excitement is back – in both sports – and there appear to be no more excuses. The effort, preparation and creativity are also all there in spade and, as predicted, the fans are showing their throaty support. In short, It’s a super fun time to be a Purdue Boilermaker. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d be saying that when I wrote those posts.

So again, kudos to the architects of all of this: Mike Bobinski, Mike Berghoff, Jeff Brohm and Matt Painter. And, of course, to people like Chris Forman, Kylann Scheidt, Charles Jischke, Paul Sadler and the many other hard workers (seriously, there are many with fan experience job descriptions – too many to list) who are doing a fantastic job in telling the Boilermaker stories and pumping up Purdue fans all at once. I’m sure it’s nice to have products that are fun to promote.

As J money alludes to here, it is a complete change of culture that has occurred. That’s what I was calling for in my post back in September 2014, and what they were calling for with their original post from around the same time. It is more than just a Big Ten title in basketball and a bowl win in football. Everything when it comes to Purdue sports just feels different. It has been led by people like Forman, who has been at the forefront of using social media to improve basketball coverage when it felt like the previous regime was ignorant as to what to do with it. We see it in the slick video productions that Purdue football was able to put forth this year. We see it in a commitment to find new ways to market the brand (and even create a brand) when for too long marketing was ignored at best. You may not like the Boiler Gold beer as a beer, but there were tons of $8 cans sold this year at Ross-Ade stadium and that generated revenue.

If September 2014 was the low point, Purdue was mired in it for nearly two years. It was not fun to be a Purdue fan up to the fall of 2016. In our group chat yesterday I commented that the April to September stretch of 2016 for Purdue sports was definitely not fun because whenever I would post a story here our photo library either started with Indiana raising the Bucket in Ross-Ade stadium (the last football game we had pictures from at the time) or Vince Edwards and Co. slinking off the court following the collapse against Little Rock (our last basketball game at the time). It was a near daily reminder of how bad things were, and the sour taste of the Little Rock collapse lingered to the point I just didn’t enjoy thinking about basketball.

The fall of 2016 is when things really began to change though, because that brought Mike Bobinski on board. For as much hellfire as I have spat at Morgan Burke, I cannot praise Bobinski enough for being the lead person behind the complete culture change mentioned above. He has, as the title of this piece states, pushed Purdue to re-earn its place in the Big Ten. He has done it by implementing many of the changes fans have screamed about for years (but were ignored by those previously in charge).

The first thing Bobinski did was convince the Board of Trustees and President Daniels that football would be the engine that drives things, and investment in it from the start would be the beginning. He needed only six games to drop the dead weight of Darrell Hazell and even though we lost all six games under interim coach Gerad Parker, it was clearly a team that looked different and put forth a much stronger effort. Bobinski finished what Burke started by guiding us through the construction of the $65 million performance facility. He then invested further with the addition of lights to Ross-Ade and increased marketing and branding (such as the Boiler Gold).

The marketing and branding across all sports has been so important that one of the first things Bobinski did was create the new position of deputy athletic director in Jason Butikofer. His job, as mentioned in his bio, is to “coordinate all external relations functions for the Boilermakers - communications, creative services, licensing and marketing - as well as the department’s relationships with Learfield (Purdue Sports Properties) and Nike”. This is a very big deal, and it has been instrumental in the image that Purdue now projects across all platforms.

The result this season, Bobinski’s first full football season in charge, went beyond just an improved win-loss record. He made an excellent hire in Brohm for sure, but he also went all in on promoting the product. As a result, Purdue had the largest attendance increase in the nation. We don’t have the complete financial numbers yet, but with one fewer home game Purdue almost certainly made back millions more thanks to more tickets sold, more merchandise sold, more concessions sold, and yes, more beer sold.

The new culture is starting to show up across the board, too. After four years of not a single Big Ten team championship, Purdue won two last year in men’s basketball and women’s outdoor track & field. Other sports have shown improvement across the board. Baseball made a 19 game improvement, the largest in the country. Burke gets some credit in that because he did hire Mark Wasikowski (who was a very good hire there), but Bobinski helped by showing that even baseball as a “cold weather” school can be a fun event. That was shown when Purdue shattered its program record for attendance during the April 8th game against Indiana. How did he do that? He put the spring football game on the same day, staggered the times so fans could go to both, and boom! 2,312 people showed up, breaking the stadium attendance record by more than 750 people. Yes, it wasn’t the NCAA record 15,586 that Mississippi State has done, but it is a modest achievement for a program without much history. Oh, and at $5 a head or so for a “Non-revenue” sport a $10,000 single-day windfall is a big deal.

And this is all from football being the engine that drives things.

What I like best about Bobinski and company is that they are not satisfied. They are coming up with new idea every day it seems. An example is the first ever (by what I can remember) baseball fan fest coming up on February 11th. We see it in the increased ticket sales because Bobinski looked at this past year’s improvement and saw there was still room to grow. We see it as the basketball program pushes for heights not seen in decades and how that can be a way to elevate the program even higher as coach Painter pushes for a strong 2019 class and beyond. We see it as he pushes for more imporvemnts to Ross-Ade in the form of a new video board and the long-term completion of the South End zone project. The South End Zone is going to be a huge undertaking, but it is one Bobinski has not forgotten about and with increased football revenues, it will be here sooner than we think.

There is still work to do. We now have a taste of not just winning, but how following Purdue can be fun again. This past football season I attended 8 of the 13 football games and it was a damn lot of fun each time (yes, even at Rutgers it was kind of fun). I knew when I wrote my original piece back in 2014 that there was very little chance at Purdue actually leaving the Big Ten, but it was written out of frustration. It was written because for too long we were met with apathy from those in charge. They had their bottom line. They were fielding teams. We were told to donate more and be damned grateful for what we did get (right, Nancy Cross?).

In January of 2018 it is clear that the culture of the entire department has changed, and that is a very welcomed sight. Thank you for all who have pushed for this and for how a different vision has trickled down and been accepted. I never seriously thought we were leaving the Big Ten, but I am grateful that we’re once again an athletic department worthy of being in the conference.