Painter, Missouri leave everyone guessing

The notion that Purdue coach Matt Painter would leave the school started as a seemingly silly rumor. Purdue is Painter's alma mater. The school has experienced some of its best basketball years in history under Painter, who revitalized a proud-but-stalled program after legendary coach Gene Keady's eventual retirement. Purdue is a big-time job in a big-time hoops state filled with big-time talent. Would Painter really turn away from what, at least to outsiders, looks like a dream gig?

Slowly but surely, the answer has turned into "well ... maybe."

The rumors became full-fledged when legendary New York Daily News writer Dick "Hoops" Weiss tweeted the following Monday night:

matt painter to missouri 7 yrs 14 mill' tigers got a great coach will purdue make a pitch for brad stevens

Was Painter-to-Missouri, which seemed so unlikely before, suddenly a done deal?

It turns out Weiss, as he later admitted, was a bit too enthusiastic. The Indianapolis Star's Jeff Rabjohns soon reported that no such deal was in place, and Weiss himself backtracked on the story, but this once-unlikely story's floodgates were officially opened. As Missouri soon confirmed to the Kansas City Star, the school is in hot pursuit of Painter. The two sides are meeting today in Florida, where Painter is vacationing. Whatever the details of that meeting, one thing is clear: Painter-to-Mizzou is no longer just a rumor. It's a real possibility.

Still, the question of why -- why would Painter leave his alma mater? -- lingers. Is he merely flirting with Missouri to get a bigger contract from Purdue? Is he fielding offers to gauge his place in the coaching hierarchy? To that end, Purdue "hastily arranged" a teleconference this morning to get in front of the story. On that teleconference, Purdue assistant athletic director Tom Schott said the school was "proactive" in its attempts to "encourage Matt to stay through our words and action."

According to Keady, that means Purdue offered Painter more money. Also according to Keady, Painter's Mizzou flirtation has less to do with money and more to do with Purdue's commitment to the program. From the Indianapolis Star:

"Proactive means they gave him more money," former Purdue coach Gene Keady said this morning. "But money's not keeping him from thinking about Missouri.

"It's about having the opportunity to win a national title with the backing of everyone. He wants to know if an assistant coach needs a car, he can get it. If something needs to be done, they'll do it, so he doesn't have to worry about all the nickel and dime stuff.

"It isn't about money. I want him to stay and [athletic director] Morgan [Burke] wants him to stay."

One could argue that reasoning is not good news for Purdue fans. After all, if it's just about money, Purdue should be able to afford to boost Painter's contract. The coach's base salary was $1.3 million this season, but Painter pulled down almost $1.9 million after various performance bonuses. If Missouri's offer is seven years and $14 million, then Purdue should have no problem making their own offer competitive. (Get the boosters on the phone! It's donation time, fellas!)

Money is easier to change than a school's overall approach. If Painter is unhappy with the way his program is run from the top down -- if he thinks he'd have a better chance to win a title in Columbia, Mo. -- then there might not be much Purdue can do to dissuade him.

And there are potentially systemic explanations for Painter's interest in leaving Purdue. For one, a large portion of Painter's best and most successful class (stars JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore among them) is graduating this spring, and the return of Robbie Hummel in 2011-12 is the only real bright personnel spot for the Boilermakers. What's worse is what's happening in Bloomington, where Indiana coach Tom Crean, with a new, gleaming practice facility behind him, has lately boosted his recruiting efforts into the stratosphere. This fall, marquee recruit Cody Zeller arrives on campus, and Crean's 2012 class -- which is chock-full of top Indiana players -- has a chance to be the best in the country. If you're Painter, maybe you look at the future and wonder if the in-state tables have turned. Maybe you look at 2012, 2013 and beyond and wonder if Indiana's supposed rise won't increase the pressure to win in West Lafayette, Ind.

Either way, Purdue fans are officially worried. If Painter does leave, expect to see more than a few pitchforks surrounding the Boilermakers athletic offices in the days and weeks to come. (Hammer and Rails is already planning a "Rally to Restore Sanity" on campus today.) The Boilermakers coach is the best thing to happen to Purdue basketball since Gene Keady, and his loss would be a potentially devastating blow to a fan base desperate for a consistent winner.

It's hard to imagine Painter leaving Purdue to take a job at Missouri. To the outside world, a coach leaving his alma mater to make a seemingly lateral program move -- well, that's almost inexplicable.

But rest assured Painter knows his situation better than anyone, and rest assured he'll approach his future with the same shrewd focus he's brought back to the Mackey Arena sideline. If I'm a Purdue fan, I'm more than a little freaked out.

(Update: If I'm a Purdue fan, I'm also a little peeved that the university chose this time to emphasize a lack of donations from members of its John Purdue Club in a letter to those members by senior associate athletics director Nancy Cross. The guys at Midwest Sports Fans have the letter and some reaction here.)