By DOUG GRIFFITHS
ISL Assistant Editor
Purdue’s football program has a ton of uncertainty surrounding it entering the final weekend of the regular season.
Boilermaker fans know if the Old Gold and Black beats IU in the Old Oaken Bucket battle Saturday in Ross-Ade Stadium, they’ll go to their second straight bowl game.
However, Purdue fans are more focused on whether Danny Hope’s days are numbered or not.
Will athletic director Morgan Burke choose to stay the course and let Hope return for a fifth season in West Lafayette or will Hope, who has a 21-27 record (12-19 in the Big Ten), be shown the door.
At least one person close to the Purdue program doesn’t believe the outcome of Saturday’s Bucket game will decide Hope’s fate.
Tim Newton, the radio Voice of the Boilermakers, believes the decision on whether or not to keep Hope has already been made.
Earlier this week IndySportsLegends.com interviewed Newton. Following he weighs in on the state of the Boilermaker program.
IndySportsLegends.com: What do you make of all the talk about Hope being on the hot seat?
Newton: I think in some aspects it’s understandable because of the expectations coming in. There was some momentum built up in this program late last year when you had the wins, three out of the last four, including the bowl game. They beat Ohio State and brought the Bucket back.
With the fact that Penn State and Ohio State were not going to be able to play for the conference championship, there certainly were expectations.
Looking back in retrospect, I wonder if we, and by we I don’t necessarily mean people in the media, but rather people close to the program, might have been better to have those goals, but to keep those goals more private.
They were talking about winning a division championship, but how about winning a Big Ten game. That turned the fan base a little bit.
I’m not sure the fan base was a 100 percent sold coming into the year. I think we saw that because early on we had fairly small crowds for the nonconference games.
Danny brought this point out in the press conference (Tuesday), you’re 3-1 and almost beat Notre Dame, and you come back for what a lot of people are calling one of the biggest games in Ross-Ade Stadium and you barely get 50,000 (for the Michigan game) announced and a lot of them were wearing Maize and Blue.
There’s a little bit of blame to go around for everybody, but I think certainly the fans have been disappointed, the players and coaches have been disappointed. I think Danny understands the position he’s in right now.
IndySportsLegends.com: Is the Bucket game a must win for Hope?
Newton: The only one I would say it’s a must win for is the seniors because this is their last opportunity. If they don’t win it, this will be their last game. We know the last three senior days haven’t gone very well.
I have to believe, and I’m not privy to any more information than a lot of people are, that whatever decision is going to be made has probably already been made. I don’t think the future of anything is going to hinge on what happens Saturday. I think whatever is going to happen at the end of the season, my guess is and strong thought is, that decision has already been made.
What that is, I guess we’ll all find out. I don’t think it is, ˜If he wins, we’re going to keep everybody,’ or if you lose, you boot everybody or this guy or that guy.’ I would hate to think that’s the case. I don’t think that’s a very long range of thinking. You make your decision based on a lot of factors and I don’t think one game should impact the future of a coach. I think that decision should be made in advance.
IndySportsLegends.com: Hope’s comments about the program being way down when he inherited it from Joe Tiller haven’t gone over too well with Purdue backers. Hope just seems to be full of excuses saying he needs more time to turn things around and even this week alluded to how difficult the Purdue job is when talking openly about how Boilermaker assistant coaches’ salaries are at the bottom of the Big Ten. What’s your take on that?
Newton: Well, it’s hard to argue with some of the numbers.
Being a graduate and being involved in Purdue athletics, I’m real reluctant to criticize the fan base because I don’t like to tell people how to spend their money. I don’t believe that I should be telling people what they should be doing on a Saturday or on an evening when basketball is going on.
But let’s look at basketball here the last couple years. You had a pretty entertaining men’s basketball team, a team that two years ago I think everybody thought had a chance to go to the Final Four and then Robbie (Hummel) got hurt and Robbie plays last year and we’re not selling out our basketball games in a fairly small arena.
I’ve got to wonder overall if maybe the economy is putting more of a hit on the fan base than we understand.
I also wonder what effect the Big Ten Network has. I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with people over in Purdue athletics.
If you’re in Michigan, Ohio State or Wisconsin, you’re going to have thousands of people at your games no matter what because they have waiting lists forever of people who want to get in and see those games. If you’re at Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana or Illinois where people are not used to coming to football games week in and week out, year in and year out, and now they can watch all of those games on TV, I think it’s had a real impact. That impact is still going to be felt going forward regardless of whether they make a coaching change or not.
While the Big Ten Network has been a real positive in some aspects and certainly the exposure and money are the two biggest ones, I think it has had a real drag on the bottom half of the teams in the conference in terms of bringing people in the stands. We’re starting to see that not only with football, but we’re seeing it with other sports, and I think it’s going to continue.
IndySportsLegends.com: Purdue’s attendance is way down and there seems to be a lower interest in the program than even in the Fred Akers or Jim Colletto days.
Newton: Saturday is a perfect example. I want to see how many people are actually here for the Bucket game. I haven’t heard what the ticket sales are, but my guess is they’re not real high. If it’s a cold day like it’s supposed to be, how many people are going to get in their cars and come out and watch the team play rather than sit back and say, ˜You know what, let’s just can it today. Let’s just stay at home and watch it on the tube.’
When you’re not winning, that become and tougher and tougher sell. It really becomes a spiral. You don’t win and the fans don’t come. The fans don’t come and maybe the recruits don’t come. When does that cycle stop? What do you have to do to stop that cycle?
IndySportsLegends.com: How do you solve it? It seems like the only choice would be to make a change and go out and hire a big-name coach, but then you get into the issue of whether or not Purdue can afford that.
Newton: You get into can you afford it, and I think that would bump things a little bit, but I don’t think people are going to come back in big numbers until you put consistent winning seasons together.
The Purdue fan base is kind of a funny one. If you go back to the Joe Tiller years, which I think people would have to agree are some of the best if not the best era in Purdue football, we sold out for a few games and for a few years, but there were a lot of empty seats, especially toward the end of that regime when we were still going to bowl games.
I’ve been going to Big Ten stadiums for 30-plus years and I think I hear as much booing if not more booing at Purdue sporting events as any college venue. I had a bowl scout talk to me about that. It might have been right after the Rose Bowl (the 2000 season). We were playing a home game and not playing well in the first half and the fans were booing. A bowl scout from the Alamo Bowl came up to me at halftime and said, ˜What are the fans booing about?’ He couldn’t believe that they had kind of turned on the team. That year the Alamo Bowl passed over Purdue and went to the next team down. I always wondered how much that game and that day played an effect.
I don’t know how many recruits will be there this Saturday, but if you’re a recruit and you’re sitting in Ross-Ade Stadium in a half empty stadium and the fans that are there are booing, are you running out to get your pen and sign on the dotted line?
I’m not blaming the fans because I don’t tell them what to do and I can’t tell them how to act, but I think they have to understand that what they do does have an affect on the program. It has an affect on recruits. It may have an affect on the perception in terms of what bowls think of you. Now that we’re nationwide on the Big Ten Network, people turn on the games Saturday and see a half empty stadium, that doesn’t help your cause very much.
IndySportsLegends.com: When Missouri came after Matt Painter and he ended up staying at his alma mater, he talked openly about a change in commitment from the university. Does the same thing now have to happen with the football program?
Newton: I think that’s something that has to be looked at. I’m not privy to all the numbers and I know there are clauses and incentives and you never know at the end of the day what a coach is being paid and what his staff is being paid, but I don’t think there’s any question that the perception out there is that Purdue does not pay what other schools are paying. What do they have to do to make that different? Are they going to have to bump things up and say, ˜OK, we’re going to have to raise it to the next level,’ as they did with basketball? Well, I’m not writing the checks, but that’s something that you certainly have to look at because I don’t think they can continue in the cycle that they’re in right now.
The program has not taken a step this year. If you look at the schedule next year, it’s a pretty tough sled to pull the next couple years when you look at who you’ve got in the nonconference and you bring Nebraska and Michigan State on your schedule. I don’t care who’s coaching and how many people are in the stands, you’re going to have a tough time the next couple years in football getting a lot of wins. That’s just being honest.
Next year you’ll probably have Rob Henry at quarterback and maybe a freshman (behind him) so you’re going to be looking at breaking in some new quarterbacks the next couple of years against a pretty tough schedule.
Whether there is a change made or whether there is no change made, fans are going to have to understand that this could be a tough sled coming up.
IndySportsLegends.com: At a place like Purdue, does a coach’s fate pretty much all come down to attendance? Yes, you’ve got to win, but if they’re not bodies in the seats that pretty much seals a coach’s fate does it not?
Newton: I think the combination of not winning and not drawing people is a lethal combination.
You can make the argument that if you go 7-5 and draw 45,000 a game is that acceptable? Well, that’s not my decision.
You have to either be really entertaining with a bad team and put people in the seats or you have to win and live with a little lower attendance.
But if you’re not winning and you’re not drawing people, you can’t have that because that becomes a self-perpetuating prophecy were, ˜Well they didn’t win last year and they’re not going to win this year and I’m not going to buy season tickets. What’s the point? If I want to watch them, I’ll watch them on TV.’ That becomes a very easy reaction for a fan.
I hope I’m not coming off as overly critical of people. I understand that we’re going through some tough economic times in the last decade. I certainly appreciate that. I also don’t like to tell people how they should spend their money. They have a lot of options right now. There are more entertainment options than there ever have been and more reasons for people to stay at home.
IndySportsLegends.com: With that said, Iowa isn’t bowl bound yet, it was expected to be pretty full for the finale against Nebraska.
Newton: And it was two weeks ago (against Purdue). The Iowa fans get it. They understand that you’re going to have some ups and downs, but they’re behind that football team.
Two weeks ago I didn’t hear a lot of booing. That place was pretty loud at the end of the game.
Purdue went to a Rose Bowl and played in a couple New Year’s Day bowls, but I think Iowa has had more recent success and a little bit higher success. I understand they have a bigger base. Going back to Hayden Fry that success goes back 20 years. At Purdue Joe came here about 15 years ago and they had their best success early and in the middle of his tenure and it fell off a little bit after that.
We haven’t gotten that mojo back that we had those Rose Bowl years and the years we were going to the New Year’s Day bowls.
You look at a team like the Chicago Cubs and think, ˜Why can’t they be better?’ Just by the luck of the draw they should be better.
You have such a gap in the Big Ten between the teams that are and the teams that aren’t. The teams that aren’t and right now Purdue is in that category, you’ve got to have something special.
I think you’ve got to have one of two things (to be successful at Purdue). You’ve either got to have some sort of gimmick, which frankly we had when Joe came in. The other thing that you need to have at a place like Purdue is you have to have a special guy playing quarterback.
If you go back in the history of this program, when has Purdue had its best teams and when has Purdue gone to its best bowl games and when has it won the most games? When it has had an NFL-caliber quarterback. We haven’t had that for a while.
You’re going to need a Brees, Orton, Herrmann, Griese, Phipps, you name it. Those are the equalizers. You can overcome a little bit of a talent deficit if you have a really talented guy under center. When you don’t we can’t out-Ohio State Ohio State. You can’t line up and play the same style as they do year in and year out and beat them because they’re going to get better athletes because they’re Ohio State. All they have to do is close the borders on their state and they’re going to have better athletes than you are.
You’ve got to do something different than they do or you have to have a really special guy at the quarterback spot.
Danny made the point earlier this week, you can beat Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State, but you can’t beat them over the long haul unless you do something different.
IndySportsLegends.com: If Purdue beats IU Saturday, it would accept a bowl bid, correct?
Newton: Absolutely. Even if there was a coaching change, they wouldn’t turn a bowl down. You just don’t do that.
Follow Doug Griffiths on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ISLgriffiths.