Matt Painter wanders over during a break in a Purdue practice with a confession. For the last few minutes, as his Boilermakers ran through drills, he was not thinking about their next opponent.
Now in his defense, he’s already devoted plenty of brain matter to the Penn State cause. Sitting in a hotel ballroom an hour or so earlier, he pulled out a stack of legal-sized papers, some attached to the pad and some not, all filled with longhand notes. He’d also reviewed game film, relentlessly harping on defending Nittany Lions star guard Jalen Pickett.
Just now, though, as his Boilers started the actual business of prepping for Penn State, Painter has been fixated on the Phillies – the mid-to-late 1970s Phillies lineup to be exact. Which only makes sense if you understand how Matt Painter’s mind works. It is a cyclone, simultaneously spinning and hoovering everything in its orbit. He does not simply meander down rabbit holes; he burrows deep into them, creating off-shooting tunnels that zig and zag so far from the core it takes some unspooling to remember what it was he was intrigued about in the first place.
Case in point: His arrival at the virtual Phillies baseball diamond began with a conversation about a slow-footed basketball diehard in Indiana who fell in love with high-flying Julius Erving and the Sixers. That became relevant only because the Boilermakers are playing Penn State in Philly, and happen to be using the Sixers’ training facility in Camden, N.J., for practice. And on the walls of said facility hang banners commemorating the 76ers’ retired jerseys, including, of course, Erving. That hall of honor also includes Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Bobby Jones, Wilt Chamberlain, Maurice Cheeks, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Dolph Schayes, Moses Malone and announcer Dave Zinkoff. And because he can, Painter runs through each, reciting the hometown, high school and college for each. “Except Moses,’’ he says. “Moses Malone. College: none.”
Those great Sixers got Painter to thinking about his other love, baseball, and how good the Phillies were in the late 1970s. So naturally, his mind starts churning and he’s trying to remember the Phillies’ manager. “Danny something,’’ he says. Painter remains stumped long enough that communications director Chris Forman comes to his aid, searching on his phone for the answer – “Danny Ozark,’’ he says.
“Right, Danny Ozark,’’ Painter says, and then he meanders onto the court and practice begins.
Figuring out Ozark does not close the shut-off valve in Painter’s head. Instead, it opens the floodgates, and as the Boilermakers ran through drills Painter could only think about Ozark, and by extension, who was on those Phillies teams. Now that he has it, he has to share it. “Luzinski, Bowa, Boone, Carlton,’’ he starts rattling off before smiling at his own inanity. “I’m like a little kid. I get caught up in trivial things,’’ he says. “I remember weird stuff, and I’m curious about stuff that doesn’t matter. Like how do you hit a baseball? I don’t play golf, but how can you hit a golf ball that far? I’m just naturally curious, but I’m especially curious about things that are hard.’’
College basketball is hard right now. Not merely the traditional chore of being good at it. Solving the riddle of the current state of affairs is tricky: NIL, the transfer portal, conference realignment, NCAA Tournament expansion, cheating, agents, rules, enforcement, leadership, Power 5, mid majors, low majors, parity, equity and governance.
People are pleased that a committee has pitched and the NCAA has approved a restructuring that will allow each sport to run its own little fiefdom under the overarching NCAA umbrella. They remain understandably skeptical, though, about how it will actually work and more importantly, who will be in charge. The dysfunction did not entirely run off Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jay Wright and now Mike Brey, but it’s a contributor. Yet their absence has left college basketball in a four-corners stall, searching for new leaders. The 78-year-old Jim Boeheim cannot, in theory, coach forever, and Tom Izzo, at 67, is on the backside of his career.
Which is where the beautiful mind of Matt Painter comes in.
Painter, 52, isn’t the obvious name as a possible heir to the college leadership throne. He does not have the gravitas of some of his more high-profile peers. He hasn’t won a championship. Hasn’t even made a Final Four, as desperate Purdue fans know all too well. He’s not a carnival barker or a media darling.
Yet it’s that very steadiness that makes him so appealing. He’s in the weeds already, on the men’s basketball oversight committee, the one-time transfer committee, the NABC board of directors, USA Basketball’s selection committee for the U18 team and more subcommittees than he can remember. Consensus in a sport that includes 368 teams, many of which have little in common save the 94 feet of court, seems like a fairy tale, and trying to push the NCAA, which rolls on square wheels, is beyond Sisyphean. Plenty have tried – Brey served as the NABC president; Krzyzewski used his final Final Four news conferences as a pulpit to express his exasperation; Izzo has vented to the point of near combustion. Painter quietly plugs away. “Matt has the personality, the temperament, and the sense of humor you need in these positions,’’ says Craig Robinson, the NABC executive director. “Most of all, he has the willingness to stick with it. There are a lot of people who are fed up with the way things are run, but you’ve got to be persistent and you’ve got to be resilient. Matt’s not going to pick up his ball and go home.’’
Nor is he, despite his friendly Midwestern ways, a pushover. He has his peers’ trust because they believe he’s on the straight and narrow; he has their respect because they know he’s not afraid to fight for what he views as lopsided, if not downright foolish. Painter questioned the new NCAA siloing system, agreeing with it in principle, but worrying about Olympic sports budgets if the moneymakers of basketball and football get to essentially govern themselves. As a member of the one-time transfer committee, he’s zinged his colleagues about perhaps renaming it the three-time transfer committee. He has no problem with the NIL, but can’t believe the NCAA drug its feet so long that it failed to establish rules around it that has allowed for bedlam. Asked to consider things from his Power 5 perspective, he’s always quick to push back about what will happen to the low and mid majors.
“In terms of the NCAA, our system is broken,’’ he says bluntly. “There’s a lot of good, quality people there, but the fact that they’ve let it get to this point, where we’re making decisions on what’s best for student-athletes because of court costs and fear of litigation, how did we let it get to this? “
Painter will be the first to admit he’s not quite sure how he got here, to this sort of guardian of the game position. Even after 18 years on the job at Purdue, he sometimes still feels like he’s babysitting Gene Keady’s program. The passage of time has something to do with that. Stick around long enough and people inevitably listen to what you have to say. But just because a clock moves and years pass doesn’t mean a person grows. Years ago Painter read a book by Bill Bradley and one line stuck with him. Asked how he could hit a bank shot without seeing the goal, the Princeton star turned NBA player turned senator replied, “you have to have a sense of where you are.”
Fifteen, even 10 years ago, Matt Painter was more like the guy throwing the metaphorical ball blindly at the backboard and hoping it went in. Now he’s more like his star player, Zach Edey. When he throws the ball up, it’s more than likely going in the right direction. “We all hope to grow and evolve, right?” says Purdue assistant coach Paul Lusk, who worked alongside Painter in his first six years at Purdue, and then returned to the staff last season. “That’s Matt. He’s just figured out who he is.’’
Painter is not exactly an enigma. He likes basketball. He likes baseball. He enjoys a good book, but finds self-help books repetitive and boring. A good day includes a nap, a Cubs game and maybe some grilling. He owns a lake house and all of the toys, but he has no clue how to drive the two Jet Skis that sit at his dock. He prefers legal-sized paper because his dad, an attorney, always had the pads around the house, but he doesn’t have a filing system, and his wallet is from the George Costanza collection.
He grew up in Indiana, where loving basketball is a genetic trait. His dad, Mike, put a full-size court, complete with floodlights, in the backyard, Muncie’s own field of dreams minus the cornfields. Painter recognized early that his intellect was his athletic ticket, and he learned to think the game as much as play it. He also was a “but why” kid, constantly thirsting for answers.
Painter figures much of the need to know that has served him so well as an adult came from being the byproduct of the “because I told you so” generation of parenting. Painter’s dad was not what you would call an oversharer. It wasn’t until just recently, when he went to his father’s high school alma mater in Fort Wayne to recruit Keion Brooks, that Painter learned the full extent of his dad’s sports achievements. Killing time, Painter wandered the hallways and checked out the trophy cases at North Side High. Sitting front and center in a picture of the 1962 state championship-winning track team and holding the trophy – Mike Painter. Painter called his dad, curious as to why he hadn’t ever mentioned it. “You never asked,’’ Mike said. Painter laughs as he shares the story. “Sounds just like me, doesn’t it? If I won a state championship, I would have been at the mall handing out flyers.’’
As a young coach, Painter didn’t initially understand how to package his own curiosity for the betterment of his team. He took over at Purdue at age 35, named the coach-in-waiting the year prior to smooth what otherwise could have been a messy exodus with Gene Keady. Painter had paid his dues. His first job was as a D3 assistant at Washington and Jefferson College, where he worked the offseason as a forklift operator at a Coca-Cola plant and in season sold ads for the game programs to supplement his income, and as Bruce Weber’s assistant at Southern Illinois, shared a one-bedroom apartment with fellow assistant, Alan Major.
But he also had but one year of head coaching experience when he took over a Big Ten program that had deteriorated in Keady’s final years. It takes time to carve – and trust – your own coaching identity. Early on Painter mimicked Keady’s way. In the preseason, the Boilermakers would follow Keady’s old-school conditioning drills: timed mile runs, two and two-and-a-half-mile runs through campus, two weeks of alternating days running the football stadium steps and 220-yard sprints at the indoor track facility, followed by timed sprints up and down the basketball court. “It was absolutely archaic,’’ says Big Ten analyst Robbie Hummel, who played for Painter from 2007 to 2012. “I’d look at E’Twaun Moore and we’d be like, ‘What are we doing?’ But that’s just what he knew. That’s how he did things as a player. He was still trying to find himself.’’
For years, Painter followed that plan – doing what he thought he was supposed to do, rather than what he wanted to do. He coached hard and chased the players he thought elite programs were meant to chase, fit be damned. It worked until it didn’t. The Boilermakers made the NCAA Tournament in six of Painter’s first seven years, and then skidded to back-to-back sub-.500 seasons in 2013 and 2014.
Much has been written about Painter’s sort of epiphany – how he stopped targeting who he thought he should recruit and instead went after who he wanted; his decision to bring personality testing into his program to better understand players’ motivations and to help them better understand him – but the real pivot was an internal reconciliation. Painter finally found the confidence to be the coach he wanted to be. “You have winning and you have misery,’’ he says. “There’s an element of misery that comes from losing. There just is. When people talk about all of these criteria to evaluate in recruiting, well I want to be able to enjoy ourselves, too. I want to have some fun.’’
Purdue is now made in his likeness – offensive-minded, with players who are passionate, hard-working and above all else, cerebral. Painter tells them what they’re doing, but also why they’re doing it. He’s directness can still be cutting, but he tells his players that what he says to their face is what he would say behind their back.
In Hummel’s playing days, a furious Painter would almost daily throw the ball as hard as he could at the backboard. Granted it didn’t always work – “half the time, it would bounce off the side and ricochet, and we’d have to try not to laugh,’’ Hummel says – but the message was delivered. Practice was not meant to be enjoyable. Now when he comes to practice, Hummel watches the coaching staff explain and explain some more and laughs. “Are you guys gonna start?” he yells.
That doesn’t fly everywhere. Some players get bored talking about basketball and just want to go, less interested in the nuances of schemes and preferring to just improvise. That was never Painter, and thereby it is not Purdue. It is no accident that since Painter found himself, found his sense of where he is, Purdue has played in the last seven NCAA Tournaments, reaching four Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight. “You go through some struggles and you just need players,’’ Lusk says. “You wind up going against your instinct. Now with Matt, that’s never going to happen. He’s so secure in who he is, and so established.”
This particular version of the Boilermakers might be the most like Painter. No five stars, not even any obvious NBA players (for all his skills, the 7-4 Edey does not fit the current NBA system). Per CBB Analytics, Purdue’s offense ranks in the 98th percentile, its assist rate is in the 87th percentile and turnover rate in the 91st. Last year’s squad, with Trevion Williams and Jaden Ivey, had more talent; this one feels more connected – to each other and to Painter.
After the Boilers dropped their only game this season, to Rutgers, Painter debated between going hard at them or being patient. Hummel remembers after a disappointing loss to Oklahoma in 2008, Painter shocked everybody in the locker room by applauding their effort, only to return to practice the day after and lose his mind. “He went back and watched the film, and he was furious,’’ Hummel says. “One of the hardest practices we had. We were all like, ‘what the hell just happened?”
This time, he chose patience. “You know you don’t always have to deliver the message,’’ Painter says. “Not everything needs to be said to the whole group. You need to talk to Fletcher Loyer about Fletcher Loyer sometimes. Not everyone has to hear it. I think you can be direct with them without crushing them.’’
No. 1 Purdue hasn’t lost since.
Every summer, former Florida assistant coach Larry Shyatt hosts a clinic in Gainesville. For three days, coaches open their playbooks, following Shyatt’s simple edict: “If you’re not willing to share, this isn’t for you.’’ Painter, who first attended as a young assistant looking to network and learn the business, returns every year. It suits his nerdy fixation on college basketball and helps satiate his endless quest for knowledge.
Yet every summer some established coach, a former regular when he was on the come, stops showing up. “That amazes me,’’ Painter says. “Like you’ve won a little, and now you’ve got it all figured out? You never complete the puzzle.’’
Painter can’t imagine having it all figured out. He wants solutions for college basketball and perfection for Purdue, but he also knows that neither is necessarily attainable. And so Matt Painter searches, constantly and feverishly, his mind spinning with the childhood facts he memorized, and the adult information he still craves.
It is a beautiful thing.
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Ben Solomon, Stacy Revere / Getty Images)