By: Kenny Thompson
For years, Purdue Hall of Famer Gene Keady has told the story of how he knew Matt Painter would be a basketball coach someday.
“Ever since he was a player here, Matt has had one of the sharpest basketball minds I’ve ever been around,” Keady said in 2004, when it was announced that Painter would be his replacement on the Boilermaker bench.
“He eats it, sleeps it and wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about it.”
Similar compliments have been paid by former colleagues of first-year Purdue football head coach Ryan Walters.
“The coaches I had in college would always say you should think about getting into coaching when your playing days are done,” Walters said. “It was natural for me. For whatever reason, as a player the X’s and O’s made sense to me. I don’t know if it was because I had the quarterback background prior to playing defense.
“I’ve always sort of been the youngest guy on the staff and have had a quick rise in this profession because one, I enjoy it. I enjoy the relationships. I enjoy the creativity and I enjoy the challenge and the pressure and the nature of this job. I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
The 37-year-old first-year Purdue coach, the fourth-youngest in major college football entering the 2023 season, worked for six schools in seven years once his playing days at Colorado concluded. Graduate assistant for his alma mater in 2009 and one year later at Arizona. Promoted to defensive backs coach for the Wildcats in 2011, Walters’ journey to Purdue also saw stops at Oklahoma, North Texas, Memphis and Missouri.
Success as defensive coordinator in the SEC with the Tigers brought Walters to Bret Bielema’s attention when he was forming a staff at Illinois in 2021.
“Ryan is a talented coach with a bright future,” Bielema said at the time of Walters’ hire at Purdue. “This is something I had seen coming for a while.”
At Missouri in 2019, Walters’ defense ranked 14th nationally and third in the SEC. The Tigers’ pass defense that season ranked eighth in passing yards allowed (179.3 per game) and 17th in scoring defense (19.4).
At Illinois, Walters groomed cornerback Devon Witherspoon into the school’s first Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back in college football) finalist. The numbers put up by Walters’ defense in 2022, most notably first in the country in scoring defense (12.3) and second in yards allowed per game (263.8), haven’t been approached at Purdue since 1978.
“The Junk Defense” created by Leon Burtnett and featuring Keena Turner, Kevin Motts, Rock Supan and Wayne Smith, gave up 282 yards and 10.8 points a game (including three shutouts) on its way to a 9-2-1 record. That Boilermaker team missed a share of the Big Ten championship by virtue of a 24-24 tie at Wisconsin.
Even the best defense of the Joe Tiller era, the 2003 squad under coordinator Brock Spack, gave up 302 yards per game while allowing an average of 17.4 points. That Boilermaker defense had 11 future NFL players on the roster.
With a nod to Purdue’s tradition of passing offenses, Walters also promises a similar defensive approach when asked what fans should expect to see from his first Boilermaker team.
“You’re going to see a team that is going to be playing fanatically, playing fast, a team that loves to play the game and plays it the right way,” Walters said. “We’re going to be competitive, we’re going to be tough, we’re going to be disciplined.
“Offensively, we’re going to score points. We’re going to throw the football around. (Offensive coordinator) Graham Harrell and his track record with developing quarterbacks and skill players speaks for itself. I’m going to piggyback what the new Colts coach said. We’re going to throw the ball to score points and we’re going to run the ball to win games. He put that in terms that definitely speaks to the way we think about offensive football here.
“Defensively, we’re going to confuse and harass the quarterback. We’re going to generate turnovers and limit explosive plays. We’re going to play smart football. More games are lost than they are won and so we are going to play attention to the things that can potentially get you beat like penalties, mental errors and turnovers.”
On paper, Purdue’s defense returns five starters: safeties Cam Allen and Sanoussi Kane, cornerback Jamari Brown, linebacker O.C. Brothers and defensive end Kydran Jenkins from a defense that gave up 367 yards and 27.3 points a game.
Those statistics are skewed by giving up 63 points and 589 yards to LSU in a Citrus Bowl game played without NFL draft picks Jalen Graham and Cory Trice.
Filling those vacancies, as well as finding a replacement for quarterback Aidan O’Connell (now with the Las Vegas Raiders), was a priority for Walters upon taking the job. The latter problem seems to be filled by signing former Texas quarterback Hudson Card out of the transfer portal. Promising underclassmen such as outside linebacker Nic Scourton (formerly Caraway), inside linebacker Yanni Karlaftis and a handful of transfers may be the solution to the former.
One of the advantages of being a young, first-time head coach is being open to different ideas. One of them is the balance between family life and coaching. Walters leads by example in the time he spends with wife Tara and their sons Aaron and Cason.
“This job requires a lot of your time,” he said. “I think time is the most valuable commodity on this planet. So I’ve got time to get away. I like to spend that time with my family on vacation. We usually go to Hawaii every year for an extended period of time. As a result, we’ve got two dogs whose names are Maui and Kona.”
Walters notes that changing technology makes coaching clichés like spending 12-18 hour days in the office no longer applicable.
“I think sometimes people get stuck in ‘this is how we’ve always done it so this is how we have to do it’ instead of changing with the technology and the times,” Walters said. “Obviously it takes what it takes to get the job done but there are different seasons within the calendar year for the football program. For me it’s important to give myself and my staff time to be fathers and be husbands, be available to your family.
“I think balance keeps you hungry, keeps you energized and can give you a better perspective on what is required and what is conducive to having a healthy environment in your program.”
Walters has yet to coach his first game at Purdue and a few fans on social media are already worrying he will abandon the Boilermakers for a return to Colorado when Deion Sanders leaves for a bigger job or is dismissed. Never mind that Colorado doesn’t hold the same affection for Walters that Louisville does for former coach Jeff Brohm.
“I’m over the moon appreciative over the opportunity to lead this program,” Walters said. “I want my kids, who are 9 and 7, when they grow up I want them to say they’re from West Lafayette. I plan on being here a long time, as long as they’ll have me.
“There will be adversity at times. That is guaranteed in life, right? But I’ll promise you we’ll do everything we can to attack that and overcome that adversity with great attitude and with maximum effort to win championships here.”
– Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Courier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.