WEST LAFAYETTE — Construction swirled around Jeff Brohm a year ago at this time, as the coach opened his first fall camp at Purdue.
Machines beeped and buzzed. Men in hard hats and neon vests pounded nails. Forklifts zipped up and down. The Boilermakers were set to move into their brand new $65 million football performance complex … just as soon as it was finished.
The noise surrounding practice created an apt metaphor for a football team under major construction.
The program Brohm inherited was one with a disgruntled and disheartened fan base, turned away by years of football futility. Purdue was a punchline in many college football circles. Even legendary Boilermakers football coach Joe Tiller said in an interview with CNHI the program had hit "rock bottom" in the season before Brohm arrived.
But the end of the year, that shiny new facility was complete. The windows were shined up. The weight room was immaculate. Even the so-called "closing room" where architects envisioned Brohm sealing the deal with new recruits was finished.
What the architects did not plan for were the customized pieces Brohm would add in his first year. Up on the second floor, just outside his office sits the Foster Farms Bowl trophy the Boilers won in thrilling fashion with a quarterback playing on a torn ACL. And then, just at the top of the stairs overlooking the entry way, sits the Old Oaken Bucket from the Boilermakers' first victory over arch-rival IU since 2012, a win that sent a packed house storming onto the field.
What was supposed to be a rebuilding season turned into a winning one, as Brohm exceeded virtually every expectation. He led the Boilermakers to their first bowl game since 2012 and their first winning season since 2011.
“It’s been a long-time coming,” senior quarterback David Blough said at Big Ten Media Days. “Being a leader of the program for the last few years, the culture has finally started to shift in the direction of people believing in themselves, believing they can win games and compete on our side of the Big Ten West.
"Coach Brohm instilled that confidence in us, saying we can hang with Louisville. We can hang with Michigan. We can hang with Wisconsin, Ohio State and those guys."
The turnaround was remarkable. More than just the wins, Brohm breathed new life into the program in his first season in West Lafayette with his own unique flair.
He endeared himself to the fan base with his chair-throwing pregame speeches, his aggressive trick plays and his “Let’s Play Football” catch phrase. Fans bought it all. A school that was for years considered a basketball school in a basketball state returned to Ross-Ade Stadium to the tune of the largest home attendance increase in college football.
“I’m thrilled with the way our folks have responded,” Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski said in an interview just after the season. “This year has provided our fan base and the community with a renewed sense of hope about our football program.”
Hope. And expectation.
The positive vibes that were planted last year grew in the offseason and sprouted into sprawling anticipation for this year. Brohm raised the bar considerably in Year 1. Now, with the infrastructure and new coaching staff in place, it seems everyone is expecting more out of Purdue.
Vegas predicted three wins last year. This year, that total has doubled to six. It seems fans won't be happy unless they can cash tickets on the over. Win seven games last year and they are talking about eight and nine wins. A popular fan blog "Boiled Sports" wrote a story predicting a 10-win year. Even the Boilermakers themselves broke each huddle in the spring with “Big Ten Champs.”
“Yes, we went to a bowl game, but 7-6 is literally an average season,” center and team captain Kirk Barron said. “It really is.”
Blough said it’s not just the football program that’s raised the bar. He pointed out in the past two years, 11 of Purdue's 18 programs have finished the season ranked inside the top 25. Now, he said, it's time for the football program to do the same.
"Athletic director Mike Bobinski has done an incredible job raising the expectations of Purdue Athletics," Brohm said. "We can compete to win the Big Ten West. That’s got to be the standard."
However, progress isn’t always linear, especially in the college football world.
The schedule is tougher with brutal crossovers against Ohio State and Michigan State. Highly respected college sports prognosticator Phil Steele ranks it as the second-most challenging in college football. The Big Ten West Division is getting better, with new coaches like P.J. Fleck and Scott Frost, new facilities like Northwestern's new $280-million lake front complex and new-found success like Purdue enjoyed.
But the biggest challenge is the Boilermakers lost nearly their entire defense. Just four starters return from a unit that finished in the top 25 in scoring defense last year.
To avoid a step back, the Boilers will need the offense to carry the team the same way the defense did in Year 1. At a minimum, it will need to take a bigger step forward than the step the defense could take backwards. If it is ready to do that, the Boilermakers could start a bowl game trend.
“The big thing for us is we want to work our tail off to start the season the way we finished," Brohm said. "I was happy with the way we finished. We showed progress. We found a way to win. For us to win early on, we’re going to have to start at that point."
It seems like a tough challenge. But then again, no one expected Purdue to finish last year with a bowl game, either. With the construction complete on the new facility, only time will tell what Brohm can build at Purdue.