Painter’s realistic approach turns Purdue into power

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You won’t catch Purdue basketball Coach Matt Painter looking too far to the future. And you won’t find him flying high on his own success.

At this morning’s IBJ Power Breakfast, Painter spoke openly about the successes, failures and uncertainty of being a big-time college hoops coach.

An audience member at today’s event asked Painter if he sees himself as a 25-year Purdue man, in the mold of his predecessor, Gene Keady. Painter, who must be watching his weight and didn’t eat any of the flavorful French toast (No, I’m not trying to take Lou Harry’s job), didn’t bite on the question either.

“Looking forward 25 years is crazy,” Painter said. “We’re focused on this year. We’re focused on what we need to do today to win.”

Good answer, coach.

Painter, in addition to becoming a proven winner, is proving to be a grounded realist. He has the type of characteristics that would make him a solid CEO in any sector.

Painter pointed out that things change; university athletic department and academic leaders change—and basketball coaches, win or lose—change and move on.

Don’t get me wrong, Painter, a Muncie native and Purdue grad, bleeds black and gold. And the Boilermaker faithful bleed for him—at least for now. He’s taken the team from the Big Ten cellar to the upper echelon in five short years.

Painter has succeeded by being realistic.

“I know Purdue isn’t sexy,” he said after fielding more than a few IU-related questions. “Our brand is blue collar. That’s good. That means we’re getting recruits who want to come here for the right reasons.”

Another point scored for Painter.

He too understands that while Purdue is improving its athletics facilities, it’s losing the arms race to the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and yes, even Indiana. He pointed out that Purdue lacks some of the practice and workout facilities that its nemesis to the south now has.

He isn’t lamenting or focusing on that. But again, he is a realist.

If it was up to the parents, the decision on where a prospect goes would always come down to academics and people in the program, Painter said. I’m not sure about that. But point taken.

Most of us in business depend on co-workers—be they bosses, peers or minions—to get our jobs done. Painter’s livelihood hinges largely on the decisions and actions of teen-age and 20-something kids. That sort of thing can keep a man (or a woman) up nights. Painter’s realism again serves him well.

“We have to focus on getting our message out, and staying true to what we are,” Painter said. If Painter hears footsteps coming from Bloomington (or from the Butler campus), he’s not letting on.

He knows the rise of those programs will make his recruitment of the best Indiana and Midwest basketball players that much more difficult. He said he’s looking forward to being pushed harder.

Always gracious, Painter has nothing but praise for IU Coach Tom Crean, calling what he’s done “unprecedented.”

“He had one walk-on player on his roster in November and was expected to put a competitive team on the floor in November,” Painter said. “There’s no manual for that. What he did was unbelievable, and they’ll get better.”

But clearly Painter isn’t thinking too much about Crean or IU. He’s focused on today—and what he can do to make his team better.

At the end of today’s IBJ Power Breakfast, he was clearly thinking about getting back to West Lafayette. Maybe that’s why Purdue is one of the Big 10 favorites this year.

Maybe his relentless pursuit of excellence and uncommon sense of what’s real is why Painter could some day stand alongside Keady and Ward “Piggy” Lambert as one of the best coaches Purdue has ever known.

Even though Painter isn’t willing to look 25 years down the road, many Purdue fans are. And the former Purdue player turned coach is making black and gold faithful believe what they imagine could well become real.

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