Monday, November 22, 2010

On The Road: Boiler Country

Purdue University was founded in the 1800s as a land grant university with an emphasis on the sciences. Today, its reputation for the sciences and engineering is well known, but the casual observer may only know of the school for its sports. Or perhaps Purdue's academic prowess is simply assumed, as Big Ten membership almost universally equates with high-quality higher education. Oakland University might as well be the antithesis of Purdue or any other Big Ten institution for that matter. Folks barely know where the university is located, so for them to think it could have strong academic programs or athletics would be far-fetched.

In college sports, these differences are magnified. The disparity between financial support is perhaps the biggest issue, but the differences also reflect in fan attitude and approach to the game. And that's where it's also most disheartening.


As an enthusiast of both higher education and sports, my trip to West Lafayette was doubly exciting. I quickly found that the engineering mindset permeates the entire campus. Everything has its place in the wider Master Plan, sidewalks are perfectly symmetrical, and even the buildings themselves look nearly identical in the Engineering Mall area. Mackey Arena is much the same. It's a perfect circle with very little frills. The concourse is well lit and features a beautiful mix of white and light gold-painted walls that give it a homey feel. As one walks around the concourse, a quick glance toward the inward wall reveals very open paths to the inside of the arena, the center scoreboard seemingly always in sight.

Past the ushers one will only find bleachers, wrapped all around the building. It's an old-school approach to seating, but one that maximizes capacity. Oh those engineers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Paint Crew, Purdue's massive student section named after Coach Matt Painter. The students stand tightly together for the duration of the game, their every movement in perfect harmony. They never take a play off, even for an opponent like Oakland who would likely end up as a tiny footnote on a season that is expected to end deep into the NCAA Tournament.

The Purdue students were knowledgeable, perhaps an indication that they - or at least their leaders - did the groundwork necessary to nag at an opponent beyond the "you got swatted" chants. This became clear when they uniformly chanted "JJ's better" in the direction of Keith Benson as a sort of way to offer their own confirmation that Purdue's JaJuan Johnson had a better game than the OU big man. But that was largely an observation of the Box Score Basketball Fan, where point and rebound margins are more telling than the many shots that were contested or the times where a quick post move by our guy led to an easy bucket over their guy. Alas, JJ might have been better on this night, but it's a bit easier to overcome a singular defensive match-up when you have All-Americans passing you the ball and getting you open looks based on their own penetration.

Beyond the student section existed a passionate fanbase which clapped during the fight song, stood during big moments, and consistently cheered their team even when they were down to Oakland during moments in the first half. However, along with the big school benefits comes the big school attitude. At the half, up just 5 on the tiny school, there was no talk of how the Golden Grizzlies were playing them tough. In those long half-time restroom lines where fans dissect the previous twenty-minutes, it was all, "We have to do this better" and "Johnson looked good but the other guys are doing this and that wrong." There was no, "That number 3 kid has veins of ice beyond the arc" or "Those Oakland guys are handling the pressure well." As fans, we all do this, but it's different in this setting. This is a team with all-conference players in the deepest conference in all of college hoops and upper-echelon recruits. They shouldn't be letting a no-name like Oakland stick with them, especially in their house.

But that's what Oakland did. Despite constant pressure and many forced turnovers, the Golden Grizzlies kept it close just up until the half-way point of the second half. As a traveling fan, that was all I could ask for. My travel partner and I never lost hope during the game, even as the lead grew larger in the last five minutes. Even with about four minutes left and down by 12, Oakland forced a turnover which resulted in a great three-point look by Ledrick Eackles. If it went in, the lead would have whittled into single digits, but the shot was bad and ended up with the ball sticking between the rim and the backboard. The deadball was perhaps symbolic of the larger Grizzlies mood which was worn down by the intensity of the Boilermaker defensive attack. Purdue's basketball team was just like its campus; there was a place and purpose for each player, and they filled those purposes expertly, even when it called for relentless and regimented defense. With little production from the Oakland reserves on this evening (if not only from the lack of a chance), that constant pressure sealed the loss for OU.

Post-game comments and blogger interpretations were all glowing of Oakland and Keith Benson. "It was the test that Purdue needed." "Oakland was a good basketball team, and they'll surely be great in their league." Those comments were nice, but a part of me wonders how they would differ if the outcome were different. If Oakland had sprung the unlikely upset, those half-time urinal comments would have been espoused by the fanbase at large. The Sportscenter highlights would have focused on what went wrong for Purdue, and not how little Oakland did X or Y or how Reggie Hamilton clawed his way to the basket or how Keith Benson turned it up a notch in the second half. For us as fans, it would have been the experience of a lifetime, the biggest upset in program history. For them, it's another win over a school that won't completely kill their RPI.

These things most fans of small-time college basketball know. But when you're there wearing your t-shirt, texting your buddies you went to games with in college, and doing your best not to be that fan, the realization of just how different we are truly sets in. It's disheartening, the feeling that no matter what your team does against the big boys, there's little room for respect. Yet despite that feeling, I'm glad to be on this side. We take little for granted over here.


  1. Great post, it made me feel like I was experiencing the atmosphere in Mackey Arena. It is a shame that little schools, such as Oakland buried in the Summit, get no respect even when respect is due. Matt Painter gave some respect and so did Moore in the post-game conference, but not enough.

  2. Excellent thought piece. The massive funding and infrastructure advantages of Big Ten schools are tough to understand fully until you see things up close, and your post does a great job of painting the picture.

    The attitude of many high major fans is obviously irritating (unreflective arrogance, sense of entitlement, etc), but it just makes me appreciate mid-major fandom that much more.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. Appreciate the encouragement. Definitely agree about Painter and the players - that's standard procedure. It's really hard to draw a line between the basketball product/personalities and the overarching mindsets/fan attitude/etc. I love watching high major basketball, appreciate the storylines and the way they play basketball. But as my friend puts it best, it's so easy to be a fan of those schools. There's more to it "down here" I guess.

    You are definitely on with that point, Germane. It's hard talking about that too because my point is not to make out Purdue fans as terribly entitled, but I just used them to make a larger point, and 'they' probably wouldn't understand where we're coming from here.

  4. Great stuff, Whelliston-esque to be sure. Very true and thought provoking.

    Pieces like this always make me irritated with high major fans, but make me proud to be on this side of the line.