Published Friday, October 11, 2013 at 8:54 pm / Updated at 2:20 pm
Shatel: Purdue has a drum — and an atmosphere that should please fan invasion

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Ladies and gentlemen, please stand and remove your hats for the beginning of this column.

Now, let's head down to Roy Johnson, voice of the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band.

“I am an American. That's the way most of us put it, just matter-of-factly.

“They are plain words, those four: You could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them across this bright autumn sky.

“But remember, too, that they are more than just words.

“They are a way of life.

“So whenever you speak them, speak them firmly, speak them proudly, speak them gratefully.

“I am an American.”

The Nebraska football team isn't going to a Big Ten game, it's going to the Paul Harvey show.

With apologies to Tommy Armstrong, Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory, I'm going to be somewhat distracted today. I've never been to a game at Purdue. I'm looking forward to it.

It's been a good Big Ten Tour so far. The atmospheres are as advertised. Penn State. Michigan. Ohio State. Wisconsin. The stadiums are like the Roman Colosseum.

But one of my favorite parts of the Big Eight/12 was going to games at Kansas State, Kansas and Iowa State, and Oklahoma State, before Lewis Field became Boone Pickens Stadium.

There's something — dare I say charming — about going to an understated stadium in a small hamlet on a college football Saturday. Maybe it's being able to use the word “hamlet.”

It's good for the equilibrium in a football season. It provides balance, if not better parking.

Looking at the Big Ten map, it's hard to find a stadium that doesn't have its own ZIP code. Or a fan base that doesn't button the top button.

I think that place is Purdue.

The Boilermakers join the Big Ten West Division next year. This will be an annual grudge match. Can you feel it?

Husker fans will make this trip every other year. Judging by my extensive research, I think they'll like it.

Sure, they took over Northwestern's quaint Ryan Field last fall. That was a cracker box. But Northwestern is in Chicago. Not exactly Manhattan, Kan.

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Purdue is in West Lafayette, population 30,419. Maybe it should say West Lafayette is part of Purdue, population 40,000 students.

The campus sits between Indianapolis (65 miles) and Chicago (106), although a more accurate depiction would be between Notre Dame football and Indiana basketball.

Students come here to study engineering. If that sounds familiar, you're right.

“It's a lot like Ames, Iowa, and Iowa State — that's a good analogy,” says Tom Dienhart, the veteran sportswriter at the Big Ten Network, who traveled the Big Eight and Big 12 for the Sporting News.

Dienhart grew up in West Lafayette and graduated from Purdue in 1987. He provided a picture of what the Purdue fan is all about — and why tickets for today's game are available on for a whopping $2.

“Purdue will always be second fiddle, the little brother, in the state to Indiana,” Dienhart said. “So there's that attitude. They're beaten down, skeptical. You can find IU flags flying at some houses in West Lafayette. That's how it is.

“But it's not just Indiana. Purdue is surrounded by Notre Dame football to the north. A Purdue fan's worst nightmare is someone who is a fan of Notre Dame football and Indiana basketball. We like to say those people wear reversible jackets.”

When I think of Purdue, I think of winning hoops. I think of Gene Keady, the fiery basketball coach who used to look like the Boilermaker mascot.

But there's so much more to Purdue, as Dienhart would explain.

» The “I Am An American” speech, which is read to the crowd during the pregame ceremonies. What a welcome diversion from loud rock music and video boards.

» The “Cradle of Quarterbacks.” Len Dawson. Bob Griese. Mike Phipps. Drew Brees. Gary Danielson. Mark Herrmann. Scott Campbell. Jim Everett. Kyle Orton. While Woody Hayes and the rest of the Big Ten were kicking up three yards of dust, Purdue created a niche and an equalizer through the air. The school was known for a pipeline to the NFL. Smart idea.

» The “Cradle of Astronauts.” There are 23 Purdue grads who became astronauts and flew in space, led by the most famous astronaut of all, Neil A. Armstrong.

» The World's Largest Bass Drum, measuring 10 feet high and eight feet in diameter.

» The “Golden Girl,” the baton twirler and acrobat who leads the band out. This tradition was started in the 1950s, when Len “The Golden Boy” Dawson was the quarterback.

“They said they needed a Golden Girl to go with the Golden Boy,” Dienhart said. “It stuck.”

» Boilermakers. After Purdue beat Wabash County 44-0 in 1891, a writer for the paper in Crawfordsville, Ind., wrote a scathing article under the headline “Slaughter of Innocents.” You wonder what that reporter would have said about some of Urban Meyer's games.

Anyway, Purdue was known for students from blue-collar backgrounds, so the writer called them “Burly Boiler Makers.” Their teams were also called Blacksmiths, Grangers, Pumpkin-Shuckers, Railsplitters and Cornfield Sailors before everyone settled on “Boiler Makers.”

» The official mascot of Purdue is a miniature train, called the “Boilermaker Special.” The idea was spawned back in the 1930s, when trains were still popular, and it fit the school's engineering theme. There's also a human mascot, called “Purdue Pete,” who wears a hard hat and carries a sledgehammer.

Warning to Herbie: Pete has had many famous wrestling matches with rival mascots and muggings from opposing fans through the years. Once, Pete's head was lost at a game at Iowa and was never found again.

Wow. These folks are beaten down. They're hardened, though. And proud enough of their football that they fired their coach despite going to a bowl game last season. Purdue was in the 2001 Rose Bowl, the year before Frank Solich's team went.

“I think Nebraska fans will enjoy their trips to Purdue,” Dienhart said. “There's some good tradition there. And they'll probably be able to get a ticket.”

This is where the Armstrong kid will make his first road start. It's not exactly like the first man on the moon. But with his last name, he should fit right in.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.



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