WEST LAFAYETTE — Retire? Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke isn't ready to go there yet. There's too much to do after so much has been done. It's time to reap the rewards.
Worry? Burke believes last year's basketball struggles — the 16-18 record snapped a streak of six straight NCAA tourney appearances — were an aberration and not the start of a slide. The Boilers return four starters, including former South Side standout Rapheal Davis, plus bring in a solid recruiting class.
Goals? Of course Burke has them. He sees big things ahead for all the sports, and there's no reason that can't start happening sooner rather than later, even if his $70 million budget is half that of Ohio State and some other Big Ten powers.
Burke talked about that, and more, in a recent wide-ranging interview with The News-Sentinel.
The basketball team struggled last season, but with four returning starters and an impressive group of freshmen, which includes Northrop High School's Bryson Scott, there is reason for optimism. Do you envision a quick turnaround?
I think last year was an aberration. It happens when you have … we love having guys for their fifth and sixth years, like Robbie Hummel and Ryan Smith, but when you have that, it means other people didn't get to play and eventually you're going to pay the piper.
The best of all worlds would be you always have a roster of two or three seniors and three or four guys younger. That's a perfect scenario, but it never happens that way. Last year we probably got what you would have expected.
We were very poor in the beginning of the season. If we had won four or five of those games, it might have been different. The game at Villanova, in my opinion, was stolen. We had Xavier here on the mat and didn't finish. Bucknell was OK, but we should have beaten them. Eastern Michigan, they played very well up there, but we could have beaten them, but we couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. I'm not taking anything away from those teams, but there five to six games we should have won.
If we had won those, then we might have had a bubble NCAA tourney team. There were a couple 8-10 teams (in Big Ten play) that went to the tournament. But we hurt ourselves in the preseason.
I think these kids, particularly (senior guard) Terone Johnson, has a healthy chip on his shoulders. I don't think he enjoyed last year. This is the same kid who had a great game against Kansas (in the 2012 NCAA tourney). I think he wants to play.
I think Rapheal Davis is going to be good. He'll work on his game. If he does it with the same intensity over the summer as he did last season, he has every opportunity to be a Cuonzo Martin-type player. He cares about it. It's important to him. He's a teammate who is unselfish. He probably should be more selfish and shoot more. If he can get more consistent from the perimeter … certain guys have a knack for scoring. He has that knack. He's a leader. You can see it. He's done well in the classroom. I'm glad Fort Wayne sent him over. I hope Bryson Scott can follow in that same mold.
If anything last year we were a little soft. That's not the Purdue team. Normally when you play us, when you leave, you have welts. It's Kramer. It's Grant. It's Hummel. I think you have years like that. We're going through it in baseball. We lost nine starters from last year (when Purdue won its first Big Ten title since 1909). When they're young and you bring them in … one or two you can fit in on a team, but we were playing four, sometimes five, first-year players.
We get Jay Simpson back. Add the three coming in (Scott, Basil Smotherman, Kendall Stephens). The kids already here. Then we picked up a fifth-year kid (Errick Peck) from Indianapolis Cathedral. That will help. We have a couple of old guys and a bunch of young guys, so adding a guy with a little more maturity will help.
I'm not worried about Matt.
As athletic director, what are some of your biggest challenges?
I don't know if it's a challenge, but this is not an easy place to go to school. You have to work at it academically. I'm not saying that's not the case at other institutions, but our coaches really have to find somebody who can compete on the national stage, but who can succeed academically. The academic profile at this institution has moved higher and higher in the last decade. That's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity. If you can convince a kid that if you graduate from Purdue, you have a great opportunity. The academics are a challenge. I don't consider it to be a burden.
Financially it is a challenge. We're in the bottom quartile of revenue in the Big Ten. We're probably in the median when you look at the net.
We're one of seven athletic departments that are self supporting. I'm proud of that, but it also puts a burden on us. I'm trying to compete against people who have budgets double ours. Now we sponsor four less sports. Even if I added the four sports, each sport is roughly $1 million a sport, I still would be way under.
I have to continue to find the revenue streams. I have to work hard with the university to make sure the revenue streams stay. We built a lot of buildings in athletics. We inherited a physical base 20 years ago that was really in very poor shape. We've spent a quarter of a billion dollars. We have debt, certainly with Mackey Arena and Ross-Ade Stadium. We've always tried to make sure we had an adequate savings account so if we have a bad year, we can pay the mortgage.
But it's tempting when you see those reserves to think they might be used for other purposes. I might be the only AD I know of to argue not to spend money. I want to make sure we can ride out the ups and downs. What I don't want to do is put money into a coach's budget and a year later say, I've got to take it back out. I don't want to do that.
How big of a challenge is it to stay competitive with a smaller budget and high academic standards?
I know some people will say I'm cheap. I think I'm just frugal. If anybody has read the book, Money Ball, that's how we try to be. We try to be smart about it. We had a plan on facilities. We kind of plucked them away one at a time. Right now our physical base, with the exception of softball, which we now have board approval and will start construction probably by the end of this year, we're in pretty good shape. Now we have to maintain it. That was a huge barrier for our coaches. Huge. Now that's gone.
Now the expectation is, yes, you have a competitive academic environment, but so does Stanford. So does Duke. You don't have to back up to any of those. You have a better facility base. I look at it like in the next five to 10 years, it's time for Purdue to bust through. We're stuck in the middle in certain respects. If I'm (women's basketball coach) Sharon Versyp I might take offense to that. If I'm (golf coach) Devon Brouse, I might take offense to that. But if you look at an average, we're average.
We're going to spend time in June at a coaches' development meeting to talk about that. What's it take to get out of the middle. We've said our goal is to win championships. We won two last year (women's basketball won the Big Ten tourney, women's golf won the conference championship). That's not terrible. But we also had a lot of 10th and 11th places, too. We have to sit down and think, what's going on? What's holding you back?
There is a part of the Purdue culture, and I am part of it, maybe we're so rational that we never allow the dream to come true. A guy once gave the analogy. He had a big rubber band (like a bow in a bow and arrow). His vision was out here, but current reality was bringing him back. He would always find himself, I can do it, but… Or I can do it, except … We in athletics have to be willing to dream a little bit.
Darrell and I are not afraid to say we're shooting to go back to Pasadena. I don't know if we'll get there. But I'm not going to aim here (he gestures to a low level) and come in here (gestures to a lower level). I'm going to aim for the top. We've been there before. I don't know why we can't go back.
The Big Ten Network has generated significant revenue (projections are $25.7 million per school). How much has that helped you be competitive with schools such as Ohio State and Michigan?
It does help, but the revenue is more than just the Big Ten Network. We should say all the rights the Big Ten has — the football championship, the basketball championship, postseason football, the TV agreements, all of those go into the kitty. We have been successful. We're fortunate that we have alumni bases all over the country.
Part of that money has become a substitute for ticket revenue. Even in the bigger stadiums, they're declaring sellouts, but I see a lot of empty seats. I'm telling you. I don't know how they get to a sellout, but they're calling it that. You see that in the NFL, too. Part of it is we've hit the tipping point where the TV revenue has become a substitute for the gate. It's not all new money.
Do you envision a time when Purdue would add another sport?
We have aspirations to do that, but not until you can level off the cost and make sure you have the reserves. We created, with the board of trustees and the president, a 10-year master plan. I was afraid that every few years decisions were getting made in terms of revenue, and I was afraid what that would mean in (the long run). I was afraid that if we would keep taking resources, that in the fourth quarter of my tenure here, we'd have problems and I'd have somebody say, He was a good businessman, but he took his eye off the ball. I don't want that to ever happen.
We built a very detailed set of assumptions, probably eight or nine pages. We asked what do you think. We built a base case. We updated it each year. In the next two years we likely will run a deficit. Now, we knew that so we put the money away. It's not a huge shortfall, but it's there. It's the result of getting the physical base done. It was one-time kinds of things. We can see, as we get into 2015 and 2016, that we start to move up.
I want a savings account for scholarships and for maintenance and refurbishment and for the debt. Then leave the stuff alone until you have the rainy day and then you have that. (New Purdue president Mitch Daniels) understands that in spades. He ran his governorship to make sure he had reserves to handle unintended consequences.
Once you have that, then the university needs to have that discussion — should we add a sport or two. The median number in the Big Ten is 24. We're at 20, if you count men's and women's indoor and outdoor track separately. I look at high school sports and the most obvious one to add is men's soccer. It should be in the mix. There will come a time, with the next round of television negotiations, from 2016 to '18, that we might be in that position to make a decision on that.
The athletic department is self-supporting. Can that continue?
I think we should pay for every service and scholarship. I don't think we should be considered a revenue stream (for the university). I have to get approval for all our facilities and major coaching hires. There are controls in place.
I was told when I came in at 1993 that you're on an island and there are no bridges back to the mainland. You've got to make it on your own. We've done that. Now because of tight times, we have bridges coming from the mainland. I want to make sure our staff and faculty and programs are in good shape. I'm not a revenue stream.
You go back to the median of the College Football Group (the 120 programs eligible for bowl games), and the medium budget is $48 million. We're at about $70 million, and it's not coming from student fees or other university sources. We're also giving $3.5 million for other university sources.
I can't spend on a dime. I've built on an assumption that we're supposed to be self supporting. And we are.
Can you elaborate on the facility upgrades?
There are a couple of things. We have the new baseball stadium with Alexander Field and then the soccer complex. The final piece is the softball. We should be ready to go there by spring of 2015 provided the bids come in satisfactory.
That makes sure that every one of our 18 sports is in a pretty good spot. Now, you're never done, but that's a pretty good spot.
We intend to do some major maintenance on Akerman Hills (the Pete Dye-designed golf course) greens, trees, tees. It's a beautiful course. It just hasn't had as much attention. It won't change the playability. It will still have the topography. I envision that beginning some time later this year. We'll take Akerman Hills out of service in 2014 and bring it back in for 2015. That ought to give our staff, faculty, community and student athletes the preeminent collegiate golf complex in the country between the indoor facility and a links course. Pete Dye is doing this one for free.
The next thing, you need to have always have one or two projects on the drawing board. They're not all Mackey Arena $100 million projects, but if you don't, all of a sudden it's like your house, you put off the kitchen, the driveway, the bathroom, roof. Before you know it you have a big expense.
As far as the south end of Ross-Ade Stadium, I'm not sure bigger is better, particularly if bigger means poor seats. The poorest seats are in the south and north end zones. We'll look at the options and likely bring the stadium down to 56,500 from 62,500. We have plenty of inventory in the north end zone to make sure we have family friendly seating. That's the first thing people worry about. I consider that to be an intermediate step.
I don't know if we'll get to it on my tenure, but the east side deck at Ross-Ade Stadium needs to happen if you really want to compete for a national championship. That wold bring you back up to 62,500. It would be a much better arrangement. I wanted to do that in one fell swoop with the south end zone and the deck, but we ran into the economy and then a dip with the team.
We're not just talking about seating. We want to put a new video board in. We were the first college stadium to put in a video board in 1995. We're on our second generation board and we're about ready to get another one. I can see one more rectangular board. Then we landscape it and make it with a very attractive view back to the campus. A lot of people talk about closing the stadium, but you're just adding more end zone seats. We've had those and haven't been able to sell them.
We want to improve the sound system. Right now the sound blares out of the south horseshoe. Maybe get a smaller video board on the north end zone. We have club seating in the end zone and give them a video board. The big one would be in the south. And then a ribbon board along the north horse shoe to scroll scores. You have to entertain the fans.
We'll add a DJ to the mix. It doesn't mean we're not happy with the band. Think of the DJ working with the band. I watched that at Notre Dame last year. They did a lot more piped in music along with the band. We want to find the right blend. We have to do things different in the venue because the world around us has changed.
Any other points that you would like to make?
We're proud of the fact that for 31 consecutive semesters we've been better than the student body in the classroom. We walk the talk there.
Athletically, we're in the middle (of the Big Ten). We've got to get better. We're not sitting in LaLa land saying we're doing everything perfect. We know we're not. I've been fortunate to work with some great people. This is my fourth president. Mitch and this board view athletics as the front porch of the university. If we do our work right, they want to work with us and help us be the best we can be. They can see the positive impact on the mission and fund raising. It's fun when you sense that.
Mitch is willing to help coaches with prospects when it's permissible for him to do that. He's happy to do it. He's good. We had a circumstance where he was part of that process. Those are little things, but it's important because it sets a tone that helps you bust you out of the middle.
This job seems to invigorate you. How long do you plan on staying?
We're not there yet. We set out to be a nationally prominent program, excellent in all respects. We've done a lot of things. I've always gone with five-year periods, five-year challenges. Mitch's coming has given me a little bounce in my step. He's shown me tremendous respect. We've done the hard work. We have good coaches. It's time to go (and win). I'd hate to jump off the wagon now. When I think it's time to get back in the stands, or the president thinks it's time, I'll go. My self worth isn't tied into this job. If it was, I'd go crazy. You're up and down every day. I don't know.
That's a good question for my wife, Kate. Probably when she says she's had enough. We love Purdue.
We're so close (to winning big) in so many areas. If we have a year where 75 percent of the things pop … We've done it the old-fashioned way, brick by brick. We took our time. As long as I have that fire in my belly… I have a great staff. We have great coaches. That makes it fun. Not having some prima donna coach always trying to one up me in the media.
So we'll see. It's not next year, that's for sure.