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WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue's Danny Hope joked amidst a Grim Reaper coaching moment.
He was asked, in an uncomfortable press conference despite the Old Oaken Bucket victory over Indiana, if he thought he would be coaching in the Boilers' upcoming bowl game.
“I haven't given that any thought,” he said. “I'm going to celebrate. I'll take the Bucket, fill it up with some refreshments, and drink it myself.”
Hope will not coach in the bowl. He was fired Sunday night. Receivers coach Patrick Higgins will run the team as the interim head coach.
Hope is a proud man with a lot to be proud of. But he's in a ruthless profession that pays well and demands everything -- lots of wins, strong academics, an exciting style of play, big crowds, great recruiting, best behavior by the 100 or more players in the program, and more.
Hope's four-year record of 22-27, shrinking attendance, growing fan discontent and a potential championship season gone 6-6 wrong wasn't good enough.
“As the season progressed,” athletic director Morgan Burke said, “it became increasingly clear that we were probably going to have to make a change.”
Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller set a high bar. He won a school-record 87 games. His teams went to 10 bowls in 12 years. But his last team went 4-8, the worst of his career. Hope followed with records of 5-7 (five losses by seven or fewer points, mostly because of turnovers) and 4-8 before last year's 7-6 record and Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl suggested a breakthrough.
September was a big month. October was a disaster. Blowout home losses to Michigan and Wisconsin ignited a five-game slide that ruined everything.
Hope seems destined to duplicate former Indiana coach Bill Lynch's fate -- you get fired and your successor gets all the benefits. Current Hoosier coach Kevin Wilson makes about twice as much money a year (around $1.1 million) as Lynch did and had twice as much money for assistant coaches salaries.
Plus, more time to maximize IU's updated facilities.
In the last decade or so Purdue has renovated Ross-Ade Stadium and made significant improvements to its indoor and outdoor practice facilities. Some of the $100 million that was spent on the Mackey Arena project included an improved sports medicine and academic support facilities that benefit football, and all the sports.
But the overall budget for assistant coaches salaries was the lowest in the Big Ten. Hope said it was “$300,000 to $400,000” less than the next lowest program.
Hope made a Big Ten-low $950,000 this season.
That will change. Indications are Purdue is looking at a package of more than $4 million for a new coach and staff.
Welcome, once again, to the cost of big-time college sports. Burke had to up the financing 18 months ago to keep basketball coach Matt Painter from bolting to Missouri.
Thanks to the ever growing Big Ten Network, Burke has money to work with.
As for Hope …
He was always a coach who had his players' backs, even when they sometimes let him down, as former linebacker Dwayne Beckford did. And with his Purdue coaching prospects on the brink, his players had his back.
“He's a very energized guy,” defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “We like that. He's always talking to us. We respect him a lot.
“I've liked him since Day 1. You can call him any time, talk to him about anything. He called me in the off-season some times to see how I was doing.”
Added quarterback Robert Marve: “He's a guy who's helped me get back to where I'm at. He always kept me positive and working hard. He brought the best out of me.”
Short gave Hope an on-field hug after the IU victory before the offensive line hoisted Hope onto their shoulders for a celebration.
“All of us respect him,” Short said. “Whatever the critics say about him … everybody has his opinion … we know what goes on in the meeting room. Hats off to him.”
Hope and the players insisted consecutive bowl games showed progress.
“Each year since I've been here we got better -- on and off the field,” Short said. “This will be two straight bowl games. The years before that, it was progress. We've taken it to the next level and made it to the postseason two straight years.”
In the upbeat aftermath of the Oaken Bucket victory, linebacker Will Lucas focused on Hope's impact on the program and the players.
“He's a straight-forward guy. He tells you like it is. He keeps it real.”
It got too real on Sunday for multiple college coaches. Auburn's Gene Chizik was fired, although his reported $7.5 million buyout will help ease the pain. Hope's was $600,000. Also fired were Boston College's Frank Spaziani and North Carolina State's Tom O'Brien.
All were let go for the same bottom-line reason: they didn't win enough.
“I regret we didn't win more games,” Hope said. “We practiced hard. We believed in our guys. We encouraged them to give all they could give. We played against some great teams at a time of the year where we were a little lean from health standpoint.
“The end result was we found a way. That's what matters.”
Hope will find a new way. That, too, is all that matters.