“What’s your major?”
I only had the TV on for background noise, but it was impossible not to immediately recognize the college basketball icon’s nasal sneer. And while Mike Krzyzewski condescending a nervous student reporter after a frustrating loss isn’t the worst thing in the world, it still made me cringe. He’s accumulated over 1,100 wins and five national tiles; he’s the face of college basketball’s biggest brand and is regarded near-universally as the best to ever do it. Great! Also, he can be kind of a dick!
That attribute is not unique to K among college coaches. After all, here in Indiana, we know a little something about revered coaching savants who are also gigantic assholes. Mr. Coach Robert Montgomery Knight (unlike Kent Harvey, I want to make sure I address his highness properly) is obviously an extreme example, but from annoying (Mike Gundy), to exhausting (Dabo Swinney), to downright slimy (Rick Pitino), it’s hard to find many likable ones who have won at a high level.
There is, however, an accomplished head coach not too far from here who breaks the mold. Since 2010, he has eleven NCAA Tournament wins, six 25-plus win seasons, and three league championships. He doesn’t gloat or take postgame frustrations out on student reporters, and he’s never committed an NCAA infraction. Oh, and did I mention he has spent most of his tenure stuffing the school’s most-hated rival down a garbage disposal?
Purdue’s Matt Painter is a terrific basketball coach. But, most of the time he can’t even take credit for it.
“People always say, ‘You did such a good job with Robbie Hummel’, Painter says, as he shifts credit to some of the great players he’s recruited and coached. “Robbie Hummel would’ve been great anywhere. JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore… those guys would’ve been great anywhere. They were such good dudes and selfless players.”
Painter should know something good dudes and selfless players at Purdue – he was one himself, as a guard from 1989 to 1993. He also knows what star power looks like. Glenn Robinson, the top selection of the 1994 NBA Draft and National Player of the Year, was his teammate for two of those seasons, as were All-Big Ten performers and draft picks, Cuonzo Martin and Steve Scheffler.
“Who couldn’t coach Carsen Edwards hitting ten threes from the parking lot [against Virginia]?”, he continues to quip. “When you get guys like that, just get them on the bus. What do they want on their pizza?”
This isn’t even a false modesty thing. During most of our near hour-long conversation, the Boilermakers head honcho selflessly deflected questions about the consistency and impressive culture he’s built at the program, gushing instead about his players. “I’ve never met a great coach with bad players”, Painter says, as he recounts the contributions of everyone, from role player Keaton Grant to All-American Caleb Swanigan. Try to get him to talk about his dominance over IU – the Boilers have won eight straight in the series and 16 of the last 21 matchups – and he won’t bite, “If you want to sit around, pound your chest and gloat about that, you’re getting ready to get your ass beat.”
The man just doesn’t like bragging. He doesn’t seem to be into himself, in a profession where EVERYONE is into themselves. In the ego-driven world of high-major college sports, that’s incredibly rare.
It’s wild to think that it’s already Painter’s sixteenth year coaching Purdue. He hit the ground running immediately in West Lafayette and has never really looked back. Inheriting a sputtering program that had been declining in the legendary Gene Keady’s final years, it took him just two seasons to take the Boilers from a program-record 21 losses in 2005 (Keady’s final season) to the NCAA Tournament in 2007. In addition to three league titles (2010, 2017, 2019), Painter’s teams have made five Sweet 16s and won the program’s only Big Ten Tournament championship in 2009. Consistent success, not to mention his pedigree as A Purdue Guy, will likely allow him to remain there as long as he wants.
Still, in this a “win a ring or U SUCK!” era of sports, that’s not to say he’s fully escaped criticism. Consistent Big Ten contention and NCAA Tournament berths aren’t fully appreciated against a chorus of never-satisfied detractors pointing out how “Matt Painter hasn’t won a national championship!”
For context, Purdue has never won a national championship in the NCAA Tournament era, and their one Helms title (1932) predates the invention of FM Radio and the microwave oven. Since Painter began his tenure in 2005, only ten coaches have won titles. They’ve all done so for programs with multiple national championships in their trophy case. It’s hard. Kansas has won one in more than thirty years – they’re freaking Kansas.
Another complaint: “Matt Painter has never been to the Final Four!” Great. Neither did the guy the court at Mackey Arena is named after. Regardless, is Matt Painter less of a head coach because of that unrepeatable, one-in-a-million, “did that sh*t really just happen?” final seconds sequence in the 2019 Elite 8 against eventual National Champion Virginia? If Ryan Cline hits a free throw, or freshman Keihei Clark doesn’t make a perfect, 40-foot pass or Mamadi Diakite misses a 12-footer, Purdue wins. It was all the flukiness of Robbie Hummel’s knee and Kyle Orton’s fumble (sorry, Purdue fans!) rolled into a tidy, 5.9 second sequence. Give Virginia credit for making the plays, but that’s about as close as you can get to a Final Four without actually getting there.
There are still going to be those that hold that against Painter, just like they did the same for Keady. But, don’t expect him to pay attention to what Alex From Attica says on the message boards or what @FiveBannersB1tch sends him on Twitter.
“People are ultimately going to judge you on the results, but they don’t set the narrative,” Painter said. “It’ll get written, it’ll be discussed, it’ll be on talk radio – but they’re not going to set our narrative. We’re going to play well together, win, and do things the right way. If we don’t go to a Final Four and win a national championship, so be it. It’s something we strive to do and it’s important to us, but we’re not going to lose our soul in the process.”
“Play together” and “do things the right way” may come off as cheeseball, but we’re talking about a basketball team that literally has “PLAY HARD” written on their shorts. There is nothing about Purdue that is sexy, and that’s why Painter’s attitude is the absolute perfect fit there.
Next year’s squad could write a new narrative for Painter. The Big Ten’s youngest team is set to return its entire roster, in addition to adding the two best basketball prospects in the state of Indiana in National Top 50 recruits Trey Kaufman and Caleb Furst. Maybe *this* is finally the team that gets Purdue over the Final Four, or even national championship, hump. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe a meteor hits Mackey Arena and cancels their entire season (hey, given the historical bad luck of Purdue sports, we can’t rule it out).
Whatever ends up happening, Painter doesn’t need the validation. The validation is in the culture he’s built. The names and faces might change, but you know who Purdue is, and you know how they’ll play. That may not be sexy, but it’s resulted in multiple 25-plus win seasons and consistent Big Ten contention.
Cheeseball or not, it works, and that should be properly appreciated.
“I really believe the greatest thing that we’ll do at Purdue hasn’t happened yet,” Painter says, while discussing the program’s future.
“National Champion head coach” has a nice ring to it. That would finally prove to everyone else what we Hoosiers already know about Matt Painter.