On September 19, 1987 Fred Akers coached his first home game at Purdue. In an ironic twist to the current day, Purdue’s opponent was Louisville, the first time the Cardinals and Boilers met in football. Current coach Jeff Brohm was two years away from making his debut for the Cardinals as a player, so he was likely being recruited at the time but Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger was likely already recruiting him. The game ended in a 22-22 tie, the last time ever Purdue would tie a non-conference opponent.
It was also the first Purdue game I ever attended.
This morning it was announced that coach Akers passed away at age 82, and that took me back to that first game. My parents had been season tickets holders for a long time at that point, but the 1987 season was the first year in which they decided to let me start coming with them. In the words of my dad at the time, “We’ll get to see a lot of good football, but unfortunately, none of it is Purdue. We’ll get to see Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State...”
That was the era of Purdue football I was introduced to. It was mostly “Win our MAC non-conference game, beat Northwestern, maybe win another game, and hope for the Bucket,” though with Indiana actually good at the time under Bill Mallory even that was rough (and as if we don’t need more parallels to the present day, my son is currently in second grade like I was then). Purdue football wasn’t good, and with Akers coming on board the immortal Jeff George departed quickly, mostly because Akers was going to ask him to runt he option and the idea of Jeff George running the option only sparks hilarity in me.
Akers was a big swing hire for Purdue though. He had coached at Texas for 10 seasons and regularly had the Longhorns in the top 25. He even got them to No. 2 in 1981 with a 10-1-1 record. He only had one season with fewer than seven wins in those 10 years. He was part of the wild Southwest Conference era of Texas, where boosters were swinging big stacks of cash and it eventually lead to the dissolution of the conference. Yes, Akers has a pretty decent cameo in the Pony Express 30 for 30.
Unfortunately, that season was the year before he came to Purdue, and it was Texas’ first losing season in 30 years. He would go 12-31-1 in his four seasons in West Lafayette, including 2-9 in his final one. I guess we needed some of that SWC bagman money. He never beat a team with a winning record at Purdue, with his best win coming 15-14 over and Indiana team that finished 5-6 in 1989. His best year was 4-7 in 1988, beating Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin and... Ohio State. That’s right. Fred Akers coached Purdue to its last win to date in Columbus, a 31-26 win over a Buckeye team that finished 4-6-1. That year also including dual 52-7 losses to eventual national champion Notre Dame and the last great Indiana team before this year.
Coach Akers’ tenure in West Lafayette was not great. He left with a cloud of discipline issues and a 2-9 mark in 1990 that only had wins over Indiana State and a 2-9 Northwestern team. Still, I will fondly remember that he was coach when I truly became a Purdue fan. You can blame him for this blog, for better or worse.