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Remembering Morgan Burke

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Purdue lost a big one yesterday.

Wisconsin v Purdue
There’s that grin we all know.

Purdue lost a giant yesterday. Morgan Burke, former Athletics Director, passed away at the age of 68. Before working at Purdue Burke was a student in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Burke came to Purdue and studied Industrial Management while also joining the swim team. By his senior year he had become a captain. I’ve always felt this was an underappreciated aspect of Burke’s career. Burke knew what it took to go to school and to compete as an athlete. As an aside, as someone who loves to run and is a terrible swimmer I’ve always had a special place of respect for swimmers.

Burke would go on to get a master’s degree from Purdue and then a law degree from the John Marshall Law School. He then worked in the steel industry before being courted to return to Purdue and replace the outgoing AD George King. That’s really where most of us know the story to begin, but for me I always go back to his time as an athlete at Purdue.

I can’t pretend to have known Burke intimately but during my time working in the Athletics Department at Purdue I was able to meet and speak with the man on numerous occasions. Regardless of what you thought of his decisions, and people certainly had opinions, I don’t think I ever heard anyone doubt his commitment to Purdue’s athletes.

Just one quick story to illustrate this point. As a graduate assistant in the department I oversaw women’s soccer. That often meant that I would have to work home soccer games while the football team was on the road. No offense to the women’s soccer team but I would personally prefer to watch the football team. On November 7, 2009 Purdue football was playing at Michigan while the Purdue women’s soccer team was playing at home against Iowa. The football game started at noon and the soccer game started at 1:00. There was no good way that I could watch the football game while I was in charge of soccer. Remember this is 2009 when smart phones were not ubiquitous. Morgan Burke was at the soccer game with me. He was there the entire time. He was yelling and screaming and hollering for that soccer team just as hard as any fan you’ll ever see. All the while he was getting updates on the football game from his fellow employees. I recall vividly the women’s soccer team winning the game 3-2 in OT and Burke pumping his fist, high fiving, and having that big grin on his face. Then he turned his direction to football as we all listened to the end of the game. Purdue football had won at Michigan for seemingly the first time since the Adams’ administration and Burke seemed no happier for that victory than he was for the soccer victory.

To some that story illustrates all the fault with Morgan Burke’s time at Purdue. They will say he cared too much about soccer, or swimming and diving, or tennis while ignoring football. I don’t think he saw it that way. He of course understood the financial factors at play in all the decisions that he made but ultimately to him I think it was about the athletes. What made a football player any better than a soccer player? Why was a diver’s time at Purdue any less important than a men’s basketball player? To him it wasn’t. So he fought to improve facilities for all athletes. He spread the money around. He saw women’s golf and women’s basketball win national titles. He saw the men’s diving team grow into national prominence and ultimately have Olympic medal winners on the team. These things were important to him. They showed what Purdue was capable of and that Purdue could win by doing things the right way.

Whatever your quibbles or issues with Morgan Burke as an Athletics Director at Purdue let’s not fight about the spirit of the man we lost yesterday. He was a man with a big heart, a big grin, and some of the finest short-sleeved dress shirts you’ve ever seen. There were mistakes along the way, sure, I won’t deny that. I’m looking at the new Purdue Pete fiasco, hiring Hazell, and the near loss of Matt Painter to name a few. But to me, the bigger picture is one that shows thousands of athletes leaving Purdue with degrees, Purdue winning numerous conference titles, two national titles, and countless individual awards. And, that’s to say nothing of the improvement in the facilities at Purdue during Burke’s tenure, or of the hiring of Joe Tiller and Matt Painter during his time. What matters most to me, and what I truly believe mattered most to Morgan Burke was the academic and personal success of the athletes both at Purdue and beyond.

Ultimately, you and I enjoy the games associated with the various teams but college sports are about more than that, they are about the men and women who come through those doors as young scared 18 year-olds and walk out of the door as men and women and proud symbols of what a Purdue education can do for you. Morgan Burke excelled there. Upon leaving his position the cumulative athlete GPA at Purdue was over 3.0 for the 15th consecutive semester. That’s a legacy one can be proud of.