By CLIFF BRUNT
INDIANAPOLIS — Danny Hope probably could make as much money selling cars as he does coaching football.
The fiery leader can find something positive in the most dismal performance. He’s had to be that way: Purdue has struggled on the field during his three-year tenure, and the injury bug has been awfully busy in West Lafayette.
Finally, everything is in place for the Boilermakers to shift from being potentially good to getting results. Finally, Hope has a chance to make Joe Tiller’s shadow just a little smaller.
For years, Hope has been selling that Purdue is poised to explode.
The future is now.
You see, Purdue’s not the underdog anymore. That’s a strange sentence to read for long-suffering Boilermakers fans, but your team is not Rocky Balboa this year, it’s the big Russian guy. Penn State is in shambles and can’t play in a bowl game. Ohio State is banned from postseason play this year. Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State come to Ross-Ade. Purdue doesn’t play Nebraska or Michigan State.
The quarterback position, once a problem, is Purdue’s deepest position. Caleb TerBush started last season, Rob Henry was the starter before missing last year with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament and Robert Marve is a former starter who has been granted a sixth year of eligibility after an injury-plagued career at Purdue.
TerBush is the most consistent, Marve is a risk taker with the best arm and Henry is the best runner. TerBush heads into fall camp as the top signal caller. Hope said Marve is 100 percent healthy and looks as good as he has at Purdue. He said Henry has healed, too.
If one gets hurt, there’s no excuse for a drop-off in production or wins.
“There’s an opportunity for each one of those guys to be a major contributor this season,” Hope said at Big Ten Media Day. “We have a master plan in place, one we’ve wanted to utilize over the last couple of years, but injuries have not allowed us to go in that direction. So we’re very fortunate to have what we have at the quarterback position.”
The Boilermakers have two of the best defensive players in the country in defensive tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen. It will be fun to see how offenses avoid those two.
The point is, Purdue should be good. Not mediocre. Not inconsistent. Good. The Leaders Division is up for grabs. After I sifted through his Media Day comments, I have concluded that Hope gets it.
“This is an exciting time for all the Boilermaker nation, our fans and our players and our coaches,” he said. “First time since I became the head coach at Purdue we potentially have a very good football team coming back. We have a lot of experience. We have some maturity. We have a lot of team speed. For the first time in a long time experienced accomplished quarterbacks, a lot of good signs for this upcoming season. Our players are really excited.”
For a coach who got a contract extension through 2016 after a 6-6 regular season, anything less than success will rile the fans, many of whom weren’t quite sure he should have gotten the new deal without proof that he can field a better-than-average team. A failure will lie at the feet of both Hope and athletic director Morgan Burke, who has backed Hope from the beginning. Losing to Eastern Michigan, Eastern Kentucky or Marshall won’t work. Debacles like the 28-21 loss to Northern Illinois in 2009 or the 31-20 loss to Toledo in 2010 can’t happen this year. Hope knows his teams have been mistake prone in recent years, and he understands that nothing derails talent more quickly.
“We have to be a much more disciplined football team from top to bottom,” he said. “That was a huge emphasis this past spring. And we have to stay together as a team, and leadership from coaches all the way down to the players will be an important factor in the outcome of the season.”
Through the excitement, Hope offered a reality check, a message with a slightly different tone than usual. Pacers coach Frank Vogel went through the same kind of tone adjustment when the Pacers went from sub-.500 team that was glad to make the playoffs to the No. 3 seed in the East in one year.
“It’s still going to boil down to who wins the most, who plays the best,” Hope said. “So rather than complicate it and assume that it may be an easier road, I think that we certainly have to grasp the idea that you have to win. We have to beat the teams that are eligible for the division championship, and also the teams that aren’t eligible in order to be the team that goes. So I don’t think it changes the big picture all that much.”
Ah, yes. The games have to be played. But, even with the reality check, to his credit, Hope isn’t backing down from the challenge of competing for a division title.
“All of the pieces are there,” he said. “We have to put it all together and make it happen on the field. That’s on the coaches and that’s on the players.”
Most of all, coach Hope, it’s on you. You’ve sold us the car. It had better not break down.