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What Kansas Football can learn from the fall and rise of Purdue Football

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Examining how another school in a similar situation as KU bounced back from college football obscurity.

West Virginia v Kansas Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

With all of the talk about the current state of the Kansas football program, I thought that what we all could use might be a little dose of perspective. In order to hopefully help us with that, I reached out to the Purdue SB Nation site, Hammer and Rails.

Perhaps you are asking, why them?

Well, for several years there, Purdue was alongside Kansas in terms of football futility. From 2013-2016, Purdue went 9-39 (3-30 Big 10) while Kansas was 8-40 (3-33 Big 12). But as we’re all aware, KU’s bad stretch actually goes back to 2010, while Purdue went to bowl games in 2011 and 2012.

Sagarin ratings from 2013-2016:

Purdue: 151, 99, 104, 126

Kansas: 119, 115, 156, 125

So, I reached out to Travis Miller over at Hammer and Rails to see what was going on at Purdue, if we’re seeing anything similar here at Kansas, and what might be done about it.

Travis, let’s just start this off at the beginning. How did Purdue fall off so rapidly? (Purdue was #71 in Sagarin in 2012 and played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.)

Simply put, Darrell Hazell was a hideously bad hire. We had gone to bowl games in 2011 and 2012, but the program had stagnated under Danny Hope. We were good enough for lower tier bowls, but that’s about it. Since Hazell had pulled off a near miracle in nearly getting Kent State to a BCS bowl game he looked like a great hire at the time. The only bowl game Kent State has been to since 1972 was under Hazell in 2012 when they were 11-3 with a double OT loss to NIU in the MAC title game. Win that and they probably play Florida State in the Orange Bowl instead of Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

When Hazell went 1-11 in Year 1 (barely beating soon to be 1-11 FCS member Indiana State on a late interception) we gave him a pass. We thought he was tearing down everything and playing young guys to build for the future. The offense, especially the running game, was horrid. Among the worst in Big Ten history. We went three straight games without even reaching the red zone.

We should have known then, but we were foolish. Purdue got destroyed in almost every game. The next season was an “improvement” to 3-9, but we saw some cracks. After a promising 43-34 win over Western Michigan (coached by P.J. Fleck on their way to 8-5) we lost at home to Central Michigan 38-17. A nice road win at Illinois had as at 3-3 halfway through the season, but the bottom fell out and Purdue lost its last six games.

Things really soured in the 2015 season opening loss at Marshall. Purdue threw a pick-6 on the game’s opening play and a pick-6 late that sealed a 41-31 loss. The team never responded from there in going 2-10, with a fluke win over Nebraska being the highlight (and that took five turnovers from a walk-on QB). In home games against Virginia Tech, Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana, who all went a middling 6-6, Purdue lost by a combined 107 points.

The coaching was terrible too. The immortal John Shoop never ran any kind of coherent offense. First, he tried to turn Rob Henry, an experienced read-option QB, into a pocket passer as a senior in 2012. That didn’t work, especially behind a horrid offensive line. Midway through the season we went to Danny Etling, a 4-star true freshman, who got hit a ton.

Etling started the next season, but lost his job to Austin Appleby before transferring to LSU. Both Etling and Appleby were more pocket passers, but Shoop had Appleby running the read-option to limited success. We won at Illinois, then put a scare into Michigan State and Minnesota. Appleby did okay, but later lost his job to David Blough. Blough was an accurate QB, especially rolling out, but Shoop made him a pocket passer.

Through all this, Purdue’s defenses did well for about a half, but wilted because the offense often did nothing. There was talent on both sides of the ball, too. Jordan Roos made the Seahawks this year as an undrafted free agent. Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert have spent time in the NFL. Ricardo Allen is starting for the Falcons.

Worse yet, he wasn’t recruiting well at all. The best story is the saga of Coy Cronk. Cronk played tackle at Lafayette Central Catholic HS across town from Purdue. They are a small school power in Indiana. We desperately needed a tackle. Cronk was a four-star recruit by some services. We even offered and got his teammate, Jackson Anthrop. Hazell never offered. Instead, he offered Jalen Neal virtually sight unseen as a JuCo solution. Neal barely played in 2016 and when he did, he was awful. He left the program after a year. Cronk went on to be a freshman All-American last season at Indiana.

And we have heard from several sources he would have committed had Purdue offered.

So in short, Hazell couldn’t have a consistent plan from week to week, couldn’t recruit, and struggled to develop the talent he did get.

Uh… wow... all of this should sound pretty familiar to Kansas fans. Forcing scrambling QBs into pocket passers? Gill. Not recruiting high school players? Not having a consistent gameplan? That sounds exactly like Charlie Weis. Fluke wins that take six turnovers to get? Right up David Beaty’s alley. Not developing talent? Horrible offensive lines? Check, check, and check.

Back to your situation. Why is Purdue suddenly playing so well this season?

It is really coaching. Brohm and his staff came over mostly intact from WKU and he is getting the absolutely maximum from a roster that is not nearly as good as who we have played. Ohio arguably has more talent than us in terms of recruiting rankings, but Brohm has worked wonders in a few months.

He sprinkled in a few graduate transfers like Josh Okonye, Dave Steinmetz, Shane Evans, and T.J. McCollum at key positions. He has a defense that is actually being aggressive, especially against the run. He has an offense creating mismatches and he is doing the opposite offensively of what Shoop and Hazell did. They seemed to actively avoid any strength Purdue showed. Purdue exploits what few strengths it has, like its tight ends.

Best of all, Brohm (and new athletic director Mike Bobinski) have created excitement around a moribund program. In August we opened a new $65 million training facility that puts us on par with the rest of the conference. The school has committed itself to football after Morgan Burke, our previous AD, let it die.

Burke was the AD for more than 20 years and there at the height of the Joe Tiller era, but let that momentum fizzle by never investing back into the program. Bobinski has been on board a little more than a year and has already done more than Burke did in the previous 10 combined.

Hypothetical situation: Let’s say your AD was born in Terre Haute, has two degrees from that “school” in Bloomington, and a PhD from Purdue. Seven years ago at his introductory press conference, he pledged to fix football. He’s hired (and fired) two football coaches, his football hires have combined for a 10-54 record, the program has lost 42-straight road games, home game attendance barely cracks 20,000, and fan apathy is at an all-time high. He signs an extension/raise offered to him by an outgoing chancellor, then extends the current football coach’s contract while doubling that coach’s salary, a coach who is now 3-25 in two and a half years and has one (fluke) win over an FBS program. Would you say this hypothetical athletic director is an enemy spy bent on the humiliation and destruction of your football program?

That, or he is Morgan Burke.

Yes, we loathe him that much.

Out of curiosity, how many football coaches has your current AD hired?

Brohm is his first hire and he knocked it out of the park. Burke hired Tiller originally and it went very well, but Tiller took it as far as he could go without more investment in the program. That was actually one of the biggest problems Tiller had with Burke. He regularly said he was “not a football guy” and cried for more resources. From 1997-2004 it worked well. But then the decline began.

Danny Hope was Tiller’s handpicked successor and also wanted more resources, but was flatly denied them. The stadium aged. The training facilities fell further behind. The money for decent assistants wasn’t there. Hope was able to beat some bottom dwellers for two bowl games, but he ended up being the scapegoat for the real problem: Burke.

Morgan then tried to open the checkbook for Hazell with a big contract that he didn’t deserve. Hazell’s contract was huge compared to Hope’s at $2 million a year. It was a bad swing and a miss that crippled the entire program. If Burke had not started the new training facility that, by 2016 was a desperate need, who knows where we would be.

Well that sounds familiar to Kansas fans, too. Turner Gill came to KU after four seasons at Buffalo, in which he compiled at 20-30 (14-18 MAC) overall record with just one winning season. Darrell Hazel came to Purdue after just two seasons at Kent State, a 5-7 campaign his first year and an 11-3 campaign his second year. So both schools hired unproven MAC coaches who clearly weren’t ready for BCS level football programs.

However, Purdue was somehow able to avoid compounding the situation with a second bad hire like KU did. Why did your AD hire Jeff Brohm instead of Charlie Weis? I mean, Weis was available, right? Our AD said he wanted to find the best, and he found Charlie Weis. What is your AD’s excuse?

I have no idea. Hiring Charlie Weis was a terrible decision. I still don’t know how he had the success he did at Notre Dame. Can you imagine if the Bush Push hadn’t worked?

I’m admittedly an infrequent visitor to H&R, but I seem to recall much railing against the athletic department and the athletic director for failing to take football seriously or improve facilities. I know you’ve already talked about that, but is that accurate, and if so, has anything changed in that regard?

Yes. We were constantly against Burke because he was all about making the athletic department run in the black, often to the detriment of football. He ran the smallest budget in the Big Ten, but he dwindled football to the point where we were the welfare queens of the Big Ten and only stayed in the black because our Big Ten checks kept us there.

He thought small. He said last year, before retiring, that football was a “$5 million opportunity.” This was with the program at an all-time low when we had experienced regular crowds of 65,000 just 10 years before.

Thankfully, he retired this summer, and on came Mike Bobinski from Georgia Tech. We’ve already seen a huge difference. The athletic department is no longer run like it is still 1992. Bobinski has realized that a successful football program is the engine that drives everything for the athletic department. He is investing the resources needed to do so.

For example, Burke constantly made excuses to not get permanent lights at Ross-Ade Stadium. Bobinski installed them this summer. He has also convinced the Board of Trustees to get on board.

It is just amazing to have someone actually be forward thinking.

Wow, you guys just recently got lights? That’s… ridiculous. What do you think of the recently announced renovations to KU’s Memorial Stadium?

Looks really good. We have our own coming once we get the funding sorted out. It should even please Jim Harbaugh with a new visitor’s locker room.

Let’s do another hypothetical situation: Your football team has started 1-2. The last two games have been disappointing outings to mediocre-at-best MAC teams, both losses. During the Week 4 press conference, your coach says these exact words: “The good thing is we're 1-2. That's where we're at. There's a bunch of teams out there that are 1-2.”

What is your immediate reaction?

Did you hire Darrell Hazell? If he said something about reviewing the tape you definitely hired Hazell.

::Checks Notes::

Holy crap, Beaty mentioned “film” or “tape” five times in that session! Now what do we do?

Please refer to his contract for his buyout. It cost us about $6 million to make him go away. Also, get in a time machine and retroactively start the Big 12 Network to get a river of cash flowing in each year.

Oh good, just what KU needs, another buyout. Criminy.

From an outsider’s viewpoint, what does Kansas need to do just to be at a point where it is competitive on the football field with teams like mighty Central Michigan and terrifying Ohio (not State)?

I honestly don’t know. I know the financials in the Big 12 are different, but you’re still in a major conference. It really has to begin with leadership at the top. So far, we have been lucky with a good new AD and a coach that has injected some excitement into the program. You may really just have to clean house.

Can we have Jeff Brohm?

No.

Chip Kelly?

Sure, why not? That’s a hell of an idea.

What’s Joe Tiller up to these days? Maybe he would… nevermind.

Joe is retired out in Wyoming and is battling some pretty serious health issues. Some of the rumors we have heard are… not good.

It’s been eight seasons now since I’ve seen anything respectable on the field in terms of wins and losses. I need some advice because this is really wearing on me - even though you only had to do it for four years, how did H&R handle the trainwreck that was Purdue football?

Really, it was longer than that. The downfall began in October 2004. GameDay was in town and undefeated, fifth-ranked Purdue was hosting Wisconsin. When Kyle Orton scored on a bootleg to put us up 10 with about 8 minutes to play we had legitimate national title dreams. Wisconsin went down and scored (as we dropped a sure interception on their drive, too), and with Purdue needing a first down to ice the game “The Fumble” happened. Orton dove for a first down, was hit, fumbled, and Wisconsin returned it for a touchdown.

We haven’t been the same since. It was a slow decline into the four years of Hazell. We went from ranked No. 5 to losing four straight games and falling out of the Top 25. The next year we were a preseason top 15 and looked solid, but a double OT loss at Minnesota started a six-game losing streak where the defense utterly collapsed. We spent a week in the Top 25 in 2007 after a 5-0 start against absolutely no one, but couldn’t beat anyone of note. We went from being in big games, to losing all the time to ranked teams, to losing to everyone in the Big Ten, to losing to MAC teams, to getting blown out by MAC teams.

It has been hard. We aren’t even back yet, but this looks like it finally good be an upward trend after 13 years straight down.

Wow. That’s really depressing. I mean, except for that last part where you’re having success again.

But seriously, what do I do? Do I call for heads? Just drink a lot on Saturdays? Help me, Travis!

Well, drinking does help.

Honestly, it can happen. I mean, you guys were even higher than us 10 years ago playing Missouri for a title shot. That was impressive and, arguably, you were the best team in America during a batshit crazy year. To quote Tiller when he was hired, “We’ve won here before. We can win again.”

You have to hold out that hope that the next hire is the one that turns it around. Admittedly, it is still very early for us. We have had two competitive games against ranked teams, a MAC blowout, and a road win over a Missouri team that has visibly quit. That’s nothing but hope. Hope is a good thing though.

Travis, thanks for stopping by, I definitely appreciate your time.

No problem at all. This was fun!