Yes, Ohio State under coach Urban Meyer is making noises that it will supplant Alabama as a national title-winning juggernaut. Sure, the Big Ten, despite its recent slump amid SEC dominance, will be a challenge to win, as the Boilers hope to do.
But Burke, the longtime Purdue athletic director, didn't invest $12 million for six years on new coach Darrell Hazell, plus millions of dollars more on new assistant coaches, to oversee continuing struggles.
The Boilers have had losing records in four of the past five years and Burke has had enough. He conducted a national search after deciding to fire former coach Danny Hope, got a lot of feedback from some very knowledgeable people and found, in Hazell, a guy he believes can do now what Joe Tiller did a decade or so ago:
Return the program to national prominence.
He sees a solid roster for Hazell just as Tiller inherited a solid roster from former coach Jim Colletto. All that was needed was the right coach and staff to maximize that talent.
Burke is aggressive in his dreaming (he wants another Rose Bowl appearance to follow up the Boilers' 2001 opportunity) and in his outside-the-box thinking. Heck, he might be willing to schedule another Big Ten team as a football non-conference opponent.
Burke talked about that, and more, in a recent wide-ranging interview with The News-Sentinel. This is the second in a multi-part Q&A series.
It's early, but what are your thoughts on the direction new football coach Darrell Hazell has the program going?
I'm like everybody else. Until we play the first game, we all look better than we are. He knows that. He's been around the block.
I thought there were five milestones, independent of the first game, that would be interesting to see how well he would do. The first was, how quickly could he get this team behind him? The kids liked Danny Hope. He was a popular guy with most of the players. That was interesting to watch and he did that very quickly. I remember his first meeting with the players. It was very straightforward. He had some simple things to say, but they listened. I'm there enough at practice to know that in a very short period of time, he got them. That was Milepost No. 1.
The second milepost was we put more resources at his disposal to hire a staff. But this is different than hiring a staff at Kent State where your resources are a bit more limited. How well would he do? Would he get the array of talent that would give you the strength in your staff to be successful? I think he did pretty well. (Offensive coordinator) John Shoop and (defensive coordinator) Greg Hudson, you go down the list, and it's a pretty outstanding group. You have some young guys, some older guys. Most of them have got pedigree – (Offensive line coach) Jim Bridge was at Boston College and North Carolina State. Hudson has been around. He's a Cincinnati guy so you have some Midwest roots. With Shoop, when (Hall of Fame quarterback) Bob Griese was back, I asked him about John Shoop. He said he was Brian Griese's quarterback coach with the Bears. I kept getting independent confirmation of things about the staff. That was Milepost No. 2.
The third milepost was, can you finish the recruiting class. Danny had a pretty good nucleus. We certainly didn't want to lose (quarterback Danny) Etling, (tailback David) Yancey and (athlete John) Strauser, and the other players. If anything, Danny Hope did a good job of getting more talent into this program. We're faster. We haven't been as consistent.
When we play at the top of our game, we're pretty salty. When we play at the bottom of our game, we're pretty poor. That tells me the talent base is there. Darrell was able, not just to hold onto those kids, but add to it with kids who had choices among the type of schools you have to beat on Saturday. That was a positive. That was Milepost No. 3.
The fourth milepost was how would the alumni react to him. People got excited about him. We had an event at Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago. There were 400-plus people. Their challenge by Pete Quinn, who was one of the organizers, was to buy 750 tickets for the Indiana State game. They did it like that. There was a genuine excitement. I thought Darrell handled that well. So that was Milepost No. 4 — fan support.
The fifth milestone was with the student body. I thought (basketball coach Matt Painter) has always done a good job, so have (basketball coach Sharon Versyp) and (volleyball coach Dave Shondell), of getting the students out. We needed that with football.
We told Darrell that (senior associate athletic director) Nancy Cross and I would be his gatekeepers for the first 90 days after recruiting. We wanted to get him out in the community, the student body, the whole thing. We choreographed it. The student body reacted very favorably. He's been very active going out in the community. He's been out to Caterpillar. He's been out to Fairfield (Manufacturing Co.). He's been to a lot of the folks in Lafayette.
I still think there are 10,000 fans in Lafayette we need to recruit. If we did that, our variability in attendance would be a lot less. So that was his fifth milestone post. He's done very well in all five.
Now we go in the summer, get the training done, and get ready to play Cincinnati on Aug. 30.
You have a very challenging football schedule that includes Cincinnati, Notre Dame, and Northern Illinois. Overall, what is your approach to non-conference scheduling and how will that change with the increase to nine Big Ten games starting in 2016?
We've always tried, because we had Notre Dame in the mix, to have one marquee home-and-home series. And then, about every four or five years, we've interspersed somebody else, too. We did Wake Forest. We did Arizona. We did Oregon. Some years we've scheduled two BCS-type teams … well, I can't say BCS anymore … College Football Playoff … CFP schools.
Going forward we'll continue that. We've said we'd like to not play I-AA opponents. That's not a knock on them. It's not because we don't think they're talented. They can beat you. They're at a significant disadvantage — 60 scholarships vs. 85. Whether we'll be able to do that every year across the board, all of us are waiting to see.
We don't have the future schedules — 2016, '17, '18, ect. It's hard to know where you're going to plug in. You have 67 schools in your Big Five conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC). There's about 120 football bowl schools, so if those 67 all want seven home games, do you have enough opponents? We're all sorting that out.
If you look at Purdue, our guarantees (the money visiting teams get to play at Ross-Ade Stadium) might be 20 percent of our gate. The 20 percent of our gate for a non-conference game vs. 20 percent of the gate for larger stadiums … there are big differences in the numbers. I have to remind some of those teams you all ought to get in line for those 15 or so slots with the bigger stadiums across the five conferences. When they're gone, come back to me. We'll probably be better than somebody else, but I can't provide 50 to 60 percent of the gate to bring somebody in.
You might get to the point, and there's no rule against it, that you might play another Big Ten team as a non-conference game. You might. You could say, you know what, we want to position our league to play for national championships. To do that, strength of schedule will be a determining factor. If Penn State isn't on the schedule I could call (Nittany Lions athletic director) Dave Joyner and say, Hey Dave, do you want to play? Our fans might react better to that than other alternatives.
One of the goals is to improve football attendance. Winning is crucial to that, but is there anything that can be done from a marketing standpoint to help?
Yes, there are some. I always felt that good marketing might get you an extra 5 percent in attendance, but it won't fill the house. You have to be careful when you get these ideas. The reality is you can spend a lot of money on stuff that doesn't have a payback, so you have to be careful.
(Assistant athletic director for marketing and tickets) Chris Peludat heads up that area and has done a remarkable job. With the Mackey project done, we have a nice area in the plaza where we can put what we call a Boilermaker Crossing together. We have bands there and inflatable stuff for the younger kids.
We're looking to move more programming into Mackey. Last year was a perfect storm. We had a Labor Day game, we had a game on our October break, and then we had Thanksgiving. In between it was cold. A lot of the stuff we put into place last year was hard to measure the effectiveness because of those factors.
We have some things we can do to make it a day-long event. We've held the ticket prices constant for 78 percent of the stadium, while 22 percent will see some legacy funds. So we've been mindful of that. As I pointed out to our ticket holders, we found through reallocation two-thirds of what we needed to invest in the football program. I needed a little help in the other third.
I reached out to the most loyal fans thinking they'd be the ones who would have the most willingness to assist. So far there's been a little bit of (complaining), but when you break it down, for a championship program, would you be willing to pay $10 to $15 more per game. Most of them say yes. They said they hadn't thought of it that way. You will always have some, if you add any cost to a ticket price, they're unhappy.
If you go to a Colts game, see what you have to pay. See what you have to pay for a Pacers game. We're the cheapest deal in town. There aren't many places today where you can get prime seating for about $39 to $40 bucks, and you're going to be here for four hours. That's cheaper than a movie.
What is a realistic goal for attendance?
If we look at the Joe Tiller era, we were pretty consistent on average of 55,000 to 56,000. Some games you'd have 60,000 to 62,000. A lot depends on your schedule.
This year you bring Notre Dame back into the equation (Sept. 14), that's going to be helpful. Indiana State, I don't know, but it's a state school so you might get a little push from their fans. They have some talented returning players. Northern Illinois went to the Orange Bowl so it's not like they won't bring people. You bring Nebraska, Ohio State, Iowa and others in the Big Ten, it's probably the most attractive home schedule we've had here in decades.
It won't be easy for Darrell's first season, but I don't think that bothers him.
There are fan expectations for football, and then there is reality, what are your expectations?
I don't play that game. I know the fans, and maybe the writers, you guys study the rosters more than I do. I don't care what letters are on (the opponent's) jerseys. It doesn't make any difference. I'm more concerned about us. The thing that killed us last year was the variability of our play. The (Purdue) team that played Ohio State and the team that played Notre Dame was a good team. The team that played here against Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State, the team that played at Minnesota, was not very good team. I'm trying to figure out, which team are we? Most of the kids who had to be productive are still here. Certainly (All-Big Ten defensive tackle) Kawann Short is a big loss, but there are other good defensive tackles still in the program.
Kudos to (quarterack) Robert Marve for the way he finished the season on a bum leg, but (quarterback) Rob Henry is healthy now. In the spring we saw an arm on him we've never seen before. And then you've got Etling and Austin Appleby and Bilal Marshall. They have some talent. There's talent at running back. You keep going through the roster and it's not a bad roster.
It wouldn't surprise me if 80 percent of the two-deep roster are guys in their third or fourth year of eligibility or a rising star like (defensive back) Frankie Williams. When you're at 80 percent of your two-deep roster like that, you ought to be pretty competitive. We'll see how it plays out.
I think the second year Danny was here was the hardest. We'd gone in the junior college market late in Joe Tiller's tenure. Danny really had an unfair deal. We agreed we would not go in as heavy in junior colleges, but he had 41 percent of his two-deep roster were first-year players. It's hard. He started to get them better. The problem was we didn't quite get over the hump, and when you don't, the fan base is going negative. That's kind of what happened. Danny Hope did nothing wrong. He did a lot of good things. In some respects maybe he'll have the same set up for Darrell Hazell that Jim Colletto had for Joe Tiller.