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Purdue Fans March Into Madness

Will Purdue finally get that White Whale?

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Ebony Cox / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

I grew up in a small town in Indiana. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t. There were around 15K or so residents of Connersville, Indiana at the time. The vast majority of them were Indiana Basketball fans. I however, grew up a Purdue fan. My dad went to school at Purdue after finishing high school in Crawfordsville. He moved around a lot as a child for his dad’s job, don’t ask it’s still a sore spot, and maybe that’s why he made such a connection to Purdue. He got his undergraduate degree there, he got married while he was there, he began his path to his career in teaching right there in West Lafayette. He’s loved Purdue and Purdue sports my entire life, makes sense I suppose, and so when I began to take an interest in sports it was all Purdue all the time.

My family didn’t have season tickets to either basketball or football but we still found our way to games every now and then. For football season it was generally just a non-conference game here or there (though I was lucky enough to see the upset of Notre Dame in 1997) and for basketball it was generally early season or exhibition games. I remember fondly sitting in the bleachers of Mackey Arena watching Purdue take on Athletes in Action, and for some reason having the old line “I want to be a dentist” from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer animation stuck in my head. Don’t ask, it’s not important.

I recall vividly a ride to a Purdue basketball game with just my dad and me. We were talking about sports in general and somehow the discussion turned to if Purdue would ever win a national title in either football or basketball. I was optimistic that Purdue would win one of each, if not more. My dad, more seasoned as a Purdue fan than I was, wasn’t so sure but didn’t want to break my optimism and said that he hoped I was right. And why shouldn’t I be right? This was in the early 2000s and Purdue has just been to the Rose Bowl, had been to multiple Elite Eights, and I’d seen them Three-Pete with Big Ten Titles. I had every reason to be optimistic.

When the time came to apply to colleges there was only one place I wanted to go. I was a runner in high school so I had some opportunities to be an athlete at some smaller schools but that wasn’t what my future was going to be. Running wasn’t going to pay the bills and I wanted a degree from Purdue. I wanted to be able to join the Gene Pool and watch every basketball game in Mackey. I wanted to crowd into Ross-Ade Stadium and watch my beloved Boilermakers take on the likes of Notre Dame, Penn State, and IU. It was the only application I submitted. I began attending Purdue in 2004.

That year might be familiar to a lot of Purdue fans as the year of “the fumble”, the less said about that the better, and the final season for Gene Keady. The basketball team finished the season 7-21. Not much optimism there. Keady would be retired at the end of my freshman year replaced full-time by Matt Painter. A player I vaguely remembered but who hadn’t really made an impression on me. He was young, very young. Painter was just 34 years old when he returned to Purdue, younger than the 36 I am right now. There was hardly anywhere to go but up for Purdue though, so what could it hurt to gamble?

We now know of course that the gamble paid off. Purdue has been to multiple Sweet 16s, won their first Big Ten Tournament Title, and multiple regular season Big Ten Titles under head coach Matt Painter. But, there are of course two things that remain elusive. If you don’t know what they are just ask the nearest IU fan and they’ll tell you. Purdue has not returned to the Final Four since 1980 and hasn’t won an NCAA Title in Men’s Basketball ever. Sure, we have the Helm’s Athletic Foundation title which I claim as a National Title because if a team like Kansas can claim them why can’t we, but nothing since the NCAA Tournament became THE arbiter of greatness.

Purdue has gotten maddeningly close to a Final Four multiple times in my lifetime but something always gets in the way. The Big Dog’s back injury. Wisconsin. Robbie Hummel’s ACL. Robbie Hummel’s ACL again. Isaac Haas’s elbow. Diakite. There’s always something in our path. But is that destiny? Is that foretold in our stars? Of course not, that’s nonsense. Purdue isn’t cursed. Purdue isn’t jinxed. Purdue has just had some bad luck at the worst possible time. We aren’t the only team to face hardship but it does feel like it happens to Purdue quite a lot. We are Charlie Brown going against Lucy and the football each and every season. We know that we can’t trust that the football won’t be pulled away, but yet Purdue fans find their optimism and run toward that ball anyway.

This season has been no different for Purdue. Purdue faced down a demon of their past already this year when they defeated Texas and head Coach Chris Beard. Beard of course had famously knocked Purdue out of two NCAA Tournaments in years past as the head coach of two different opponents. This time though Purdue destroyed what Travis has anointed as a horcrux and it’s hard to argue against that. For those unfamiliar with Harry Potter a horcrux is an item that must be destroyed before the final battle or else there can be no lasting victory (yes HP fans I’m dumbing it down a bit for the muggles don’t come at me in the comments).

Purdue currently sits in the Sweet 16 with a matchup against this season’s Cinderella awaiting them on Friday. If you take a look at what the oddsmakers say Purdue is in a great position to get to the Elite 8. DraftKings has Purdue as a 12.5 point favorite as of this writing. That’s the biggest point spread of any game in the Sweet 16 according to Draft Kings. So, why is that I still have this queasy feeling in my stomach? Am I starting to believe that this is the Purdue team that can finally kick that elusive football? Will Lucy truly not pull it away this time? Can Purdue head to the Final Four and perhaps even earn the long awaited National Title? It’s impossible to say right now. There are things that I do know for sure though.

For those unaware I’m the one that runs the H&R twitter account, others have access but for the last couple years the vast majority of the tweets have come from me. I took over from Travis at that time since the negativity of the fanbase was getting to him. I’m not talking out of school here, he’s spoke about this before. But here’s the thing I know for sure, Purdue fans have truly been through hell and back in their fandom. All the injuries, all the near misses, and all the could have beens. But at the end of the day the vast majority of Purdue fans remain optimistic about the future. Sure, you get the occasional fan who will come at me for being too optimistic or who was sure we were going to lose to Yale but most fans are just having a really good time with this tournament.

I’m gonna prove that to you. Prior to the game against Texas I asked folks where they were watching the game or what they were wearing since we sports fans are a superstitious lot. It all started when a fan tagged us and said Purdue was 10-1 while he was in attendance and was debating going to the Texas game. My response of course was for this fan to immediately pick up and go to the game. So I responded to someone else’s tweet about the situation. You know what happened after that? Nothing but good fun about everyone’s superstitions for the next few hours. Oh, and everyone imploring him to go the game. We also managed to get a gentleman’s wife to allow him to go to Harry’s to watch the game since the team wins when he is at Harry’s. It’s this kind of interaction that truly shows me that this Purdue fanbase is enjoying themselves. People weren’t calling it stupid to wear the same shirt, eat the same food, watch in the same place, or even change clothes if things aren’t going well for Purdue. Instead, we all had fun. Oh, and that fan who asked if he should go? He went to Milwaukee and Purdue of course won the game. I’ve since asked him on Twitter if he’ll be heading to Philly. Fingers crossed he can make it.

The pressure on the Purdue coaches and players is immense. With each game it builds. For Purdue fans it has often felt the same way. As if we all have something to do with the outcome. Fans have been sniping at each other in our mentions all year but somehow, someway, this NCAA Tournament has been a lot of fun and full of positive vibes. Purdue fans are playing loose. Which is a good sign. Will it be enough come Friday if things start to go poorly for Purdue? Will Purdue fans resort to the madness in March Madness rather than enjoying the ride? Some of them probably will I’m sure but even more of us will revert back to thinking like that teenager in the car with his Dad. Dreaming of the national title that is surely in Purdue’s future.