Raheem Mostert. Dani Bunch.
The names do not rise readily from the brainpan, unless you are one of those people who bleed black and old gold from every pore. Yet they are a big deal these days in West Lafayette.
They’re a big deal because they’re the Purdue University Athletes of the Year, and neither performed in the glare of the money-sport limelight, although Mostert is on the football roster. T
heir exploits came in track and field, where Bunch finished fifth in the shot put in the women’s NCAAs to earn first-team All-America honors, and Mostert was the Big Ten men’s 100 and 200 champ as a second-team All-American.
It’s a small window into the state of athletics at Purdue, where the struggles of the main acts – football and men’s basketball – might lead you to think the times are dire.
The football team went 1-11 last season, beating only FCS school Indiana State as first-year head coach Darrell Hazell went largely with the kids. The men’s basketball team huffed and puffed to a 15-17 mark, losing its last seven games.
The good news is that, if you’re Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, that was not the rule in 2013-14.
When your two largest revenue producers struggle – and they did, we have to be honest – it does wear on people, Burke said. On the other hand, we had some teams that really had extraordinary years. They don’t pay the bills, I understand that. But you’re trying to create an organization where all your teams excel.
And a number of them did. There were Bunch and Mostert, to start with. There was the men’s cross country team, which had its best finish in the Big Ten meet (sixth) since 1991, and the women’s team, which had its best finish (eighth) in six years.
There were men’s tennis, which reached the NCAAs for the first time in 12 years, and women’s tennis, which had its third straight NCAA appearance. There was men’s golf, which also reached the NCAAs. And there was women’s volleyball, which, under the guidance of Dave Shondell, finished eighth in the final poll, reached the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth straight year and reached the Elite Eight for the second time in that span.
And then there was women’s basketball.
Sharon Versyp’s program went 22-9, its fourth straight 20-win season. For the fourth straight time, it reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. It’s one of the most consistently successful programs at Purdue and, according to Versyp, there’s not really much of a secret to why.
The first thing is the leadership from top to bottom, starting with the administration, said Versyp, whose team returns eight players who all saw action. The administration has always cared about women’s basketball. That’s why it’s stayed consistent. And then it’s the staff I have around me and the young women, the type of character young women we bring into our program.
I think something we do very well in our program is team building. I always say to every single class, seniors, it’s up to you how this goes. It’s your team.
To get back to the main acts, a softer schedule and the simple experience of having lived through last season figures to help Hazell. And men’s basketball coach Matt Painter is banking on much the same with a team that returns five players – A.J. Hammons, Bryson Scott, Rapheal Davis, Basil Smotherman and Kendall Stephens – who saw significant minutes.
I think from a team standpoint we’ll be a better decision-making team, Painter said last week. We lost some games due to our inability just to make some necessary plays late in the game, simple plays. I think we’ll be better in that area.
Burke can’t wait to see that happen.
This is the time of year where you learn, he said. You have all your year-end review meetings, you plot for the future. One thing I can tell you about athletics is, if you’re always looking for the next mistake, you’ll make it.
We’re going to live in a world where we’re mindful of the past, but we’re going to intend to put all these teams in a position to contend for championships. And the sooner we get playing sports again, the better off we’ll feel.