Burke: Hitting reset not an option
Morgan Burke said there were two options for Purdue's immediate football future: Hit the reset button or go back to work with what's in place.
In the athletic director's estimation, the only right one was sticking with Darrell Hazell, even though Burke admitted there was no sugarcoating what happened in 2015.
"It was disappointing," Burke said during Wednesday's press conference in Mackey Arena. "We didn't meet the expectations we had for ourselves. We set those expectations for our fans as well. So that makes it particularly bitter at this point in time. There were some bright spots. There were some individual performances that give you a sense of confidence that there's some things in the future, but there weren't enough to overcome the inconsistent play.
"We have a very, very slim margin of error right now with this team."
Hazell will be the man expected to right the ship.
In Hazell's three seasons, the Boilermakers went 6-30 with victories over three FCS schools, Illinois, Western Michigan and Nebraska. They're coming off a 2-10 season that included a third consecutive loss to rival Indiana - the first such streak since the Hoosiers won four straight in the mid-to-late 1940s.
Burke doesn't dispute progress must be made, but he also didn't believe in starting over at this juncture.
"The fact we came out on BTN and the statements we made made it pretty clear he's our guy and we're going to help him be successful," Burke said. "He's done an awful lot of good things. They haven't manifested themselves in the win-loss record. … You can't look through rose-colored glasses - there are deficiencies that we've got to correct. Some of these kids just have to get older and a little more experienced. We have to make sure this (recruiting) pipeline is there.
"But we're not going to hit the reset button. ... I've been around long enough - and maybe for some people too long - I'm going to make that call. That's my call to make. I conferred with the President. I conferred with the Board and shared my logic. They concurred with my recommendation. But it's not popular with people who have already made up their minds, but at the end of the day, hitting the reset button just starts things all over again. Throwing in the towel right now would be really premature, given some of the names of the young people (on the team) and the way they performed this year."
Hazell's contract carries a hefty buyout option - it's sitting at $6.775 million through the end December - but Burke said that played "zero" factor in keeping Hazell.
And there may not be much renegotiating soon.
Not just in terms of the buyout, which gradually decreases each month throughout the length of the contract.
Hazell's deal runs through 2018, which means he has only three seasons remaining. Typically, coaches like to have four seasons left on a contract for recruiting purposes, to pitch the program with the idea of having a head coach locked in for essentially the recruit's entire career.
But when asked if Hazell needed an extension for recruiting, Burke said, "I don't think so."
"My tenure, if people had anything to say about me when they were writing my epilogue, it'll be, 'He waits too long.' So I don't think so," he said.
The hope, clearly, is that Purdue simply gets better.
Its 2015 season was mired by much of the same inconsistency over Hazell's first two seasons.
The Boilermakers showed promise early in 2015 but could never turn "close" into victories. Their chances in the fourth quarter at Marshall, Bowling Green, Northwestern and Iowa - and, to an extent, Michigan State - weren't seized.
Burke thinks that has to do with the roster makeup, the fact that Purdue had what he deemed a "young" team, defining youth by age.
"When you have 18- and 19-year olds competing against 21- and 22-year olds, you're liable to get some inconsistent performance, particularly when adversity strikes," Burke said. "Whether it be the Michigan State game, the Northwestern game, the Iowa game, the Wisconsin game, we had opportunities to make statement plays and we didn't do it. It's our jobs, all of us, to lead them through the process of dealing with and actually getting to the point where they embrace adversity, recognizing when they're in an adverse situation, that's when they have a chance to win, not just compete. Obviously, we're not there. But as young players begin to develop physically and mentally over the next year, you have the opportunity to go forward."
Purdue did have first-year players in two key positions with David Blough at quarterback and running back Markell Jones on offense for a good portion of the season. For the bulk of 2015, eight of Purdue's 11 starters on defense were upperclassmen and eight or nine, depending on the quarterback, were on offense. Yet, in 2016 Purdue will only be replacing four senior starters on offense and three on defense. Sophomore D.J. Knox also saw significant action but was hampered by injuries midway through the year.
On defense, the linebacking corps was expected to be a strength because it had all its starters returning, though two of those were sophomores (Ja'Whaun Bentley and Danny Ezechukwu). Bentley's injury had a role in forcing walk-on sophomore Garrett Hudson to play more but only two other underclassmen played much during the season, sophomore starting end Gelen Robinson and, late in the season, redshirt freshman Brandon Roberts.
"I want to see the ability of these kids to take a step a year from now and then at the same time see the kids we have not seen yet that have been redshirted this year how they perform as they come in. There's clearly more talent," Burke said. "But having more talent and playing as a team, when you've got to get 11 guys performing at a high level, we have a very small, slim margin of error. It shows up in crunch time. You don't get the first down. You play behind the sticks. You can't get off the field on third downs. You can't make kicks. Those were all generally in under-pressure situations, so that tells me we're not playing as well under pressure as we need to do and we're not relishing that pressure."
That'll be a focus in the offseason, the mental development of players as well developing physically, Burke said.
Perhaps that'll be enough to reverse the program's misfortune.
"At the end of the day, we've got to help these kids get over the hump. That's our job to do that," Burke said. "We're down to counting the number of (critical) plays (not made) in a game, and people are tired of it. I'm sure the players are tired of it, coaches are tired of it … but that's where we are."
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