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Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Bluff or not, Matt Painter's gambit pays off

By Eamonn Brennan



If that was a bluff, it was one of the more impressive bluffs in coaching contract history.

After two days of gradually increased uncertainty about Matt Painter's future at Purdue, ESPN's own Andy Katz is reporting, per a source, that Painter will remain at the school. (Update: The school later announced that Painter has indeed signed a new eight-year contract that runs through the 2018-19 season.)

In the big picture, this might seem like an expected outcome. But as anyone who followed this story throughout the week knows, Painter left little room for expectation. Early Wednesday, the coach's tenure at Purdue looked all but over. The reports of his decision to leave West Lafayette, Ind., for Columbia, Mo., for a seven-year, $14 million contract to become the newest head coach of the Missouri Tigers were leaking quickly and enthusiastically in St. Louis and elsewhere. The text messages were flying. The uncertainty was rampant.

Matt Painter
Reports claiming Purdue coach Matt Painter was headed to Missouri were false.
Would Painter -- Purdue alum, Gene Keady disciple, and the best thing to happen to Purdue's title-starved fan base since Keady himself -- really make a seemingly lateral move to Missouri? Why?

The answer, basically, boiled down (sorry) to money. And not necessarily Painter's money, either.

Sure, his base salary of $1.3 million was the eighth-highest in the Big Ten this season, a figure too low for a coach with three of the last four Big Ten Coach of the Year awards and five straight NCAA tournament appearances. The desire to boost that figure might have played into Painter's thinking, as it would any coach or athlete who demands to be paid commensurate to the market value of his success.

More than anything, though, Painter's decision to listen long and hard to Missouri's offer had to do with money outside his salary. Keady, the defining coach of Purdue hoops history, told the Indianapolis Star that Painter wanted to know that the Purdue athletic department was financially committed to national title aspirations, that he could have "the opportunity to win a national title with the backing of everyone," that "if an assistant coach needs a car, he can get it." Keady's comments created a perception that Purdue's athletic department frequently nickel-and-dimed the coach on minor issues, and it didn't take long for Mizzou to see that weakness and attempt to exploit it.

That notion led to a hasty and rather poorly handled response from Purdue athletics, in which the school made clear it was "proactive" in offering Painter a larger contract and a greater overall financial commitment. (Unfortunately, Purdue also deemed it necessary to point blame at its fans in a letter to the John Purdue Club, a needless finger-pointing for which Nancy Cross, senior associate athletics director, later apologized.)

All this posturing gave Purdue fans a bad feeling, and for good reason: By Wednesday morning, Painter had taken the Boilermakers all the way to the brink of devastation. Purdue students even rallied on campus. For some reason -- Purdue fans are usually great! -- that rally garnered exactly 11 poor souls. But make no mistake: The pixelated wailing and gnashing of teeth stretched far and wide.

In the end, whatever Purdue offered was good enough. Someone ponied up the cash. Someone made sure Painter's assistant coaches would always have the cars they needed. Someone made sure Painter knew the financial commitment that so attracted him to Missouri was also available at Purdue, and that he didn't even need to go house-hunting to find it.

Matt Painter will be back at Purdue for the foreseeable future. If you're a Purdue fan, today was a good news day.

Of course, the coach himself is the biggest winner in all of this. Not only did he get a chance to see what was out there -- a luxury most employees can only dream of -- he got to leverage that offer into a much better deal at his current job.

It's possible no one knows what Painter was thinking throughout all this, whether he ever really planned to leave Purdue or not. But it doesn't matter. Painter seemed ready.

In other words, remind me never to play poker with the head men's basketball coach at Purdue. It's hard to tell if this was a bluff. But if it was, it was masterfully executed, and Matt Painter just raked the pot.