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It has been a decade since I have attended a Purdue basketball banquet, and the first time in attendance for the women's basketball team. While at Purdue, the cost was always too salty for me. When you catch a good sale at Marsh and get ramen for 15 cents a packet, comparatively, Tuesday's banquet meal cost was the equivalent of 56 days of meals my sophomore year.
Yes, I got sick quite a bit my sophomore year.
Now, while I have more "salt" to spread, getting to the 6:00 p.m. start time is hard when you generally do not push away from the desk at work until that time. I have to commend all those making the journey from Chicago and the other far reaching areas outside of God's country. The record crowd was estimated at 700.
So when Bob Koci offered me a seat at the same table as Stacey, bleacher-seat photographer extraordinaire, I pushed away from the desk a little early and headed over to the Purdue Union. Now being in a position to reimburse him for the ticket, I also threw in a two-pound slab of chocolate cake that sat in front of me the entire meal. Before I passed it over, he kept pointing out how sharp his salad fork was. He moaned a lot when he ate it. I knew I made the right decision.
Never get between a Chicagoan and their dessert. I learned that from my wife. I have the scars to prove it.
As I walked down the hallway toward the ballroom, the first person I came upon was Amy from Chicago. She had a fork in her hand. I moved along quickly.
Entering the ballroom I was immediately struck by the number of tables. Must have been 50 tables, maybe 75, in the shape of a big "T". At the top of the "T" was the wedding party. Well, it looked like a reception, just minus the cigars and tipsy polish Catholics. My wife's maiden name was Bogucki. I speak from experience.
I hunted for table 14. During my time at Purdue, I had taken numerous classes with the MA prefix. I was a lab TA and grader for Physics 152. Yet the higher math I was taught in the 90s has somehow been replaced by an even higher form that obviously went into the enumeration of the banquet tables. In front of me, table 23. Just to the left of table 23, table 31.
I tried to apply an old thermodynamic drinking song to crack the table code, since the tables were in a "T" formation and I had experience with delta-T in college. Not as smart as Da Vinci, but I am smarter than Dan Brown. Not nearly as salty. Figuring entropy, the constant might be four ... but of course the second law brought it up a couple more ... then the Carnot law applied and made it seven ... but delta-T would slide and end up back close to zero. It was coming back to me. I was starting to sweat.
Then I hear the voice of Stacey calling my name to table 14, just two tables away from tables 23 and 31. Of course. Two-thirds of delta-sigma equals half of delta-P. I am such a moron!
At the table was Bob Koci, Stacey and her retina-impaired husband (seriously, she takes a LOT of pictures), and two other couples. And the two-pound slab of chocolate cake. In comparison to the seating at my wedding, table 14 was in the area where the crazy uncles are normally seated, a couple tables off the head tables on the left side of the "T". Not bad. Certainly not as bad as being at the bottom of the "T", a spot normally reserved for those distant cousins from Arkansas and the people that can't dance. Generally a bunch of worried people back there, any one of them at risk of getting bumped from the table of exile in the coming years by Rusi Taleyarkhan.
Directly in front of the head tables were the more honored guests such as Nancy Cross, Morgan's wife, Sara White, Jane Schott, the faculty advisors and Dildine's spandex supplier. Tim "Mr. 500" Newton was just off to the left at the same table with some trainers, along with the ever so lovely Beth Jones. Note to Bob Sienicki: basic black, no red shoes.
A couple of tables out and dead center were the parents of Katie and Erin. And scattered throughout the room were the members of the RIP squad. They were scattered in such a manner as to not draw attention from the NCAA, who might decide they provide the banquet with some kind of unfair advantage if seated together as a group. Funny, they did not seem as evil as the NCAA portrays them.
The main tables were stacked, the back higher than the front. Yet the one normally reserved for the bride and groom, contained the movers and shakers of the Purdue athletic department. And Roger Blaylock. He can still move, but just doesn't shake very much anymore. Especially since Linn Dunn left campus.
From memory, the top row consisted of Blaylock, Theresa Kix, Jody Benner, Morgan Burke, Martin Jischke, Sharon Versyp, Nadine Morgan, Martin Clapp, and maybe one or two others. In the table in front and below sat the team. Erin and Katie sat side-by-side in the center of the table, and the players sat outward from those two according to, I think, shoe size. Malone being on the far end, and Garriga on the near side. Either that or those two just have to go to the bathroom more often than the others.
The banquet started off with the meal, a slab of beef, some veggies, a salad and the two-pound chocolate cake. Any good banquet hoping to hold the total runtime under a typical airing of the Academy Awards, should always strive to spike the blood sugar to bring on the insulin reaction and promptly lull the crowd into a light sleep by hour two. It also holds down the applause. The amount of applause on Tuesday fell comfortably somewhere between a State of the Union address and a lecture by Phil Fuchs. Again, two-pound chocolate cake.
Jischke started off the post-feastivities with a solid speech designed to rally the troops. Jischke made several mentions of Purdue having the best women's program in the nation, and gave a shout out to his homies in the John Purdue Club. Woof, woof woof. Jischke also indicated he and his wife would be remaining in the Lafayette area so they could continue to follow the program.
Morgan Burke followed with a speech that was humorous and respectful of the turmoil the two seniors have experienced over the past year. He thanked both Erin and Katie for their loyalty to the program, and commended the coaches and staff on refusing to allow Purdue to have a transition year this past year. He said Purdue served notice on the basketball world that the program was not only resilient, but still moving forward despite the coaching change. This was the one year anniversary of the hiring of Sharon Versyp, and what a year it has been.
There were two mildly uncomfortable moments during the evening. Burke had the first, and Sharon had the second. In trying to make the point that the Purdue program is strong enough to survive five coaching changes in 15 years, he joked that maybe it isn't the coaching after all. Maybe it is all about the program. Later Sharon responded by joking that if Purdue was all about the program and not the coaching, the staff might be back in their Honda minivan interviewing, adding "because there are a lot of open jobs out there." The air got a little thin for a couple seconds as everyone collectively inhaled.
Burke went on to list the accomplishments of the team this past season. Purdue started the year with a Preseason NIT championship, came within one game of winning a Big Ten Conference championship, won the Big Ten Conference tournament, and ran to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. The senior class of Erin Lawless and Katie Gearlds finished their careers with a 103-30 record, good for the fifth-best class record in Purdue history.
To the relief of most, Burke announced Purdue would be hosting two banners in Mackey Arena this year, one for the Big Ten Tournament Championship, and the other honoring AP all-american Katie Gearlds. There had been some doubt Gearlds would get a banner in Mackey due to not having been named first team all-american. She was named third team by the Associated Press.
After a speech by Roger Blaylock, Sharon Versyp was announced and took the podium. She proceeded to talk about some of the things her and her staff did this past season to not only make the players comfortable with the new staff, but also comfortable within their own skin. Some of the highlights of Sharon's speech: The coaches had an exercise where each player had a piece of paper taped to their backs. Players had to go around and write on a person's back one of their best qualities. Another exercise had each player writing down their own best qualities and professing them to the group. The early season exercise was done again late in the season, where Sharon forced the players to verbally be confident in saying the things they wrote down. Danielle Campbell really likes jelly. Danielle had to provide food for the players once this season, and her sandwich of choice was peanut butter and jelly. But Danielle's fondness of jelly left the sandwiches about 90% jelly. Howell's injury was a turning point in the Georgia game. Versyp said when the team saw Jodi go down, "It was over". Seeing Jodi on the sidelines kept the team focused on beating Georgia. Versyp poked fun at the Baylor fans for both being creative and rather -- inventive. She said the crowd was very vocal, and one of the funniest signs was one that said "Got Mulk?" Yet she questioned their knowledge of basketball when a fan shouted "Go back to Illinois!" For a change of pace in Dallas, one of the team practices featured a few minutes of warm-ups, followed by a game of ultimate frisbee. The black eye Gearlds sported in the tournament was a result of frisbee, courtesy of Erin Lawless. Sharon joked some of the girls had never thrown a frisbee in their lives. Sharon brought back to life the Dr. Ruth Jones award, honoring a player who exhibits enthusiasm, academic achievement, toughness, spirit and leadership. Versyp was the first person to win the award, and she awarded the 2007 honor to Lauren Mioton. The Red Mackey award was given to both Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton was also honored with a ball for setting the career blocked shots mark.
Up next, the two graduating seniors were introduced. Erin Lawless took the podium first, thanking a lengthy list of people for their support. The most humorous was when she thanked assistant coach Martin Clapp. Calling him "Clapp Daddy", she referred to him as the best post instructor she has ever had. She then repeated her affection for Katie, saying she was the reason she came to Purdue.
When Katie took the podium, she returned the affection for Erin, saying they had had some ups and downs over the years but she would always be there for her.
Katie had the most touching moment of the evening, and the funniest. When giving her appreciation for Coach Versyp, Katie broke down and it took her a good 30 seconds to regain her composure before she could finish her comments to Versyp. She thanked Sharon for making her the player she has become, calling Sharon "the best thing that ever happened to my game." She thanked Sharon for making her more mentally tough and crediting Sharon for developing her pro game. Katie then, making no secret she wants to coach in the future, made multiple references to returning after her WNBA days to Purdue to coach.
The funniest moment came when Katie thanked FahKara Malone. Gearlds quipped, "What are you going to do without me? Have fun figuring that one out."
The banquet closed with a video tribute about 12 minutes in length, showing highlights of the playground video fans have seen playing on the video boards in Mackey during games, mixed with many of the season's best plays and moments.
The overall experience was wonderful is every aspect. While the expectation is the 2008 banquet will be just as entertaining, the hope is the 2007-08 Boilermakers will have an equal amount of success to celebrate come the second anniversary of Sharon Versyp's Purdue coaching career. There will likely be a need for a bigger room.
And a lot more cake. Especially at my table.