I’ve been around Purdue basketball as long as I can remember. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this much hatred and frustration thrown at a coach who is doing so much for the program. Even at the end of the Keady years when it seemed clear to everyone that it was time for good ol’ Gene to hang it up he still had broad support among the fans. Perhaps I only feel that way because there was only the infancy of social media at that point. Maybe if Coach Keady was at the end of his run during the social media age the calls for his head would have been more vicious. The anger at Painter boggles my mind, but I also understand it in some way.
I’m a Tampa Bay Bucs fan. Ever since Alstott got drafted there they became my team. Tony Dungy was a fantastic coach for the Bucs. He built that team from a laughingstock into a defensive power and perennial playoff team in the late 90’s and early 00’s. At a certain point though, he peaked. Winning a Super Bowl is all that really matters in the NFL and with the Bucs it just didn’t seem like Dungy could get it done. His career playoff record with the Bucs was 2-4 and he lost to the Eagles in embarrassing fashion in back to back seasons. The combined score of those two playoff exits was Tampa 12 - Philly 52. Not great. Dungy was fired and Jon Gruden was brought in. The very next year Tampa Bay found themselves back in the playoffs and had to go to Philadelphia for the third straight year. This time things were different and the Bucs defeated their playoff foil 27-10. They then waltzed to a Super Bowl victory. The only Super Bowl in franchise history.
So, why do I tell you all about the Bucs victory other than to relive the glory? To ask if maybe, just maybe, there’s some parallel to be drawn here. Could the Ainters, as we call them, actually be right? Could Matt Painter have plateaued? Is the Sweet 16 and the occasional B1G title all we can ever hope for as long as Painter remains at the helm? The argument seems to assume that no one ever changes approaches or does better in a career as they move forward. Or, it’s just based on the idea that a change is needed. I see a lot of clamoring for someone like Cuonzo Martin to come home to Purdue and take over. Martin currently coaches Mizzou who sits at 18-8 on the season. He’s known as a more dynamic recruiter than Painter, but is he as good of a basketball mind? That remains to be seen. Martin has never stayed at a school long enough to truly build a program. Martin has spent three years at Missouri State, Tennessee, and Cal. That’s not long enough to restock a school and make it your own. While Martin may prove himself to be a great coach and program builder for now the jury is still out.
Painter is in his 13th year at the helm of our beloved Boilermakers and has made three Sweet 16 appearances, won two conference titles, and won a conference tournament title. By his 13th year Coach K had made it to six Final Fours including two national titles. Dean Smith had made it to four Final Fours but had zero titles. In 13 seasons at Kansas Roy Williams made it to two Final Fours but zero titles. Tom Izzo made it to three straight Final Fours and won one national title. Bo Ryan made it to the Final Four for the first time in his 13th year and then went back in his 14th.
Getting to the Final Four isn’t easy. Out of the 347 Division I basketball teams only four make it each year (obviously). That means, all things equal (which I know they aren’t) each team has a 2% chance to make the Final Four. Those aren’t great odds. So much depends on luck, draw, staying healthy, and any number of factors. If Robbie Hummel stays healthy I don’t think this conversation even needs having because Purdue makes a Final Four, and possibly more, in that 2010 season. It’s funny isn’t it? How much in life can change based on the knee of a 21 year old. Had Hummel not hurt himself and Purdue gone to the Final Four or won it all I don’t think anyone would be calling for Painter’s head right now, but because of a freak occurence on the haunted floor of the Barn, Painter finds himself in hot water with a certain subset of the fan base. Was Hummel hurting his knee Painter’s fault? Obviously not. Did Hummel hurting his knee change what you thought of Painter as a coach? I would hope not. But just imagine, if that hadn’t happened to Hummel and that season played out like we all imagined. This entire conversation becomes moot, but alas we will never know because of a stroke of bad luck.
Looking at Painter’s entire body of work I get why people would be disappointed. As fans we always want more, but some of the criticisms I see of Painter are just laughable. I’ve been told on Twitter multiple times that if Painter would just work the refs more Purdue would be more successful, if Painter just got a strategic technical foul here or there the refs would respect him more, that he can’t substitute his way out of a wet paper bag (okay that one might be right at times). What people fail to acknowledge is that Painter took over a team that was flailing in a powerhouse conference. Painter took over a 7-21 team. He went 9-19 his first year and then in his second year won 22 games and got the team to the NCAA tournament. Is that the end all be all? Of course not. Can Painter coast on his B1G titles and Sweet 16s forever? He’d better not. This is a business that demands results, and Painter knows that. I still believe he will deliver. Maybe not this year, but why not this year? Sure, the offense has looked bad these last few games but as long as the team from post WKU shows up I like this team’s chances.
You can root against Painter if you want, I won’t be, but let me just say one thing. If you want to get rid of Painter you’d better have a damn good plan for how to move forward. Let me regale you with another tale of one of my favorite teams. The Cincinnati Reds had been basement dweller for years when they hired Dusty Baker, made some good signings, and suddenly were able to field a team that made it to the playoffs. Because the Reds were unceremoniously out of the playoffs in the first round in 2010, 2012, and 2013 including an embarassing no hitter against the Phillies, the Reds fired him and tried to move forward with a different manager. I hated this move. The Reds haven’t even been close to sniffing the playoffs since. At this point as a Reds fan I’d kill for “mediocrity” like under Dusty Baker. Should Painter fail to reach further than the Sweet 16 this season and he gets fired I wouldn’t support the move and short of a miracle hire you shouldn’t either. There aren’t many current coaches better than Painter so just be careful what you wish for.