John Shoop, the offensive coordinator for the Purdue football team, was called into the office of Darrell Hazell, the team’s head coach, and fired. It was 12:45 p.m. Sunday.
At first glance, this would appear to be a classic case of a coach firing some assistants — two defensive coaches were also given the boot — to save his own skin. The day before, Purdue ended its season with its 10th loss; indeed, in his three years as head coach, Hazell has gone 6-30, winning only twice against Big Ten opponents. Many Purdue fans believe that Hazell should have been fired, and that the main reason he was allowed to keep his job was that the university did not want to pay him the $6.7 million buyout his contract calls for.
Although Purdue’s longtime athletic director, Morgan Burke, insisted in a news conference on Wednesday that the buyout had nothing to do with his decision to keep Hazell, Burke is known for being the tightfisted leader of an athletic department that is proudly self-sufficient.
But sometimes, even the firing of a football coach is not as simple as it might seem. It appears that the decision to fire Shoop was made not by Hazell, but by Burke. (Tom Schott, Purdue’s senior associate athletic director for communication, vehemently denies this.) The evidence also suggests that the reason had surprisingly little to do with the Boilermakers’ offense, or football at all.
Rather, the problem appears to have been the open advocacy for college athletes’ rights expressed by Shoop and his wife, Marcia W. Mount Shoop, an ordained minister and the author of “Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports.”
After the Missouri football players went on their short strike early last month, the Shoops became an intolerable presence within Burke’s athletic department. Although Schott denies this as well, it appears that their backing of the players in the O’Bannon lawsuit, their view that college athletes deserve due process from the N.C.A.A. and their sympathy with those who thought racism needed to be addressed on college campuses meant that they had to go.
The U.N.C. Years
I first met the Shoops in 2011, not long after John Shoop lost his job as an assistant football coach at the University of North Carolina. He had been something of a coaching prodigy; he was 25 when he became an assistant coach for the Carolina Panthers in 1995. He moved to the college ranks in 2007 to work alongside Butch Davis, the Tar Heels’ new coach. But in 2010, a number of Carolina football players became embroiled in a big N.C.A.A. investigation, which eventually cost Davis his job. (Shoop was let go as well.)
What shocked Shoop and his wife was the willingness of the university to throw the players under the bus to cover its own behind. The coaching staff was never informed of the accusations, and once Shoop found out what had been going on, he was instructed not to speak publicly or talk to the players about the investigation. But an outraged Marcia Shoop began blogging about the injustice of the athletes’ treatment. She and her husband also made their home a place where the embattled athletes could find solace.
“John offered my son stability,” says Sharon Lee, the mother of Devon Ramsay, a North Carolina running back whom the N.C.A.A. accused, wrongly, of academic fraud. (Robert Orr, Ramsay’s lawyer, was later able to persuade the N.C.A.A. to reverse its decision. I should point out that these events took place well before the discovery of the sham classes at U.N.C., a true scandal that reverberates on the campus to this day.)
Lee adds: “The Shoops opened their home to him, and spent holidays with him when he couldn’t get home. John understood that these young people were in his care, and that his actions would impact them for the rest of their lives.”
I told the Shoops recently that I thought their experience in Chapel Hill had radicalized them about the N.C.A.A. and about the inequities that college athletes face. Marcia Shoop did not disagree, but her husband took exception.
“I’m not a radical,” he said. “I’ve never said that the players should be paid, for instance. But it struck me that these young men had no due process, and no advocate. I think they should have due process rights. And I also think that they should be able to make money off their own likeness. Those are not radical ideas.”
Shoop took a year off before deciding to get back into the arena. When he did start thinking about landing a new job, he applied for head coaching openings at smaller colleges like Cornell and Davidson. But the athletic directors at such colleges, looking at his résumé, assumed that he was looking for a steppingstone that would help him move back to the big time.
“Marcia and I were really looking for a community that we could invest in completely,” Shoop told me. Which, they believed, they finally found in West Lafayette, Ind., when, in 2013, Shoop landed on the coaching staff of Purdue’s incoming head coach, Darrell Hazell.
Settling In in Indiana
By the time the Shoops got to Purdue, Burke had been the Boilermakers’ athletic director for 20 years. A former Purdue swimmer, he had been an executive at Inland Steel, where he had risen to become vice president for operating and administrative services. He spent the two decades at Purdue changing the face of the athletics program, building or renovating numerous facilities, putting more emphasis on women’s sports and steadily increasing revenue while keeping a tight rein on the budget so that Purdue athletics was never dependent on student fees or money from the university.
The women’s basketball team won the N.C.A.A. championship in 1999, and the women’s golf team did likewise in 2010. What’s more, Purdue athletes — including in the revenue sports of men’s basketball and football — receive real educations.
“I am studying organizational leadership with a minor in communications,” said David Blough, a redshirt freshman who became the team’s quarterback after the third game this season — and who was so upset about Shoop’s firing that he was willing to speak to me on the record, a rare move for a college athlete. “The variety of majors on our team is amazing,” he added.
But since the retirement of the longtime football coach Joe Tiller in 2008, Purdue football has struggled. And that matters not just in terms of wins and losses, but also in terms of revenue. Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium seats 57,236 fans. This season, average attendance was below 38,000, resulting in a revenue shortfall of $3 million. “I haven’t done the accounting,” Burke told reporters at his news conference on Wednesday, but he said, “It’s not a good picture.”
The Shoops, meanwhile, settled in nicely in West Lafayette, finding exactly the kind of community they had been searching for. “We dove in,” said Marcia Shoop, who started a cross-country team that eventually numbered over 80 runners.
They did not keep their views about college athletics a secret. A year after they arrived at Purdue, Marcia Shoop’s book was published. Blough, the quarterback, told me that John Shoop spoke openly about his views — but he also told the players that just because he believed something, that did not mean they had to believe it as well. He was doing what any good college teacher does: exposing students to new ideas.
Marcia Shoop had a number of conversations with Burke about players’ rights. According to her, Burke said he had no patience for the O’Bannon case and the effort by some Northwestern football players to form a union. As a former steel executive, he said, he had seen how the United Steelworkers operated, and he cited his distaste for the union as his reason for not supporting more rights for players. (Schott declined to respond to my questions about these conversations.)
In the spring, a Big Ten executive spoke to the Purdue athletic staff. After he had decried the O’Bannon decision — in which a federal judge ruled the N.C.A.A. was in violation of the antitrust laws — Shoop posed a question. Why should the N.C.A.A. care, he asked, if players make money on their own likeness? According to several people at the meeting, the Big Ten executive replied, “So you would be O.K. if a University of Texas student-athlete made $1 million signing autographs for an hour?”
“Well, yes, I would,” Shoop said. “But that’s not an answer to my question.” An agitated Burke interrupted the exchange, put his arm around the executive, and suggested that if the two of them wanted to continue the conversation, they do it elsewhere. (Schott, who was also there, says that Burke did not try to cut off the conversation.)
Then, a few months ago, Marcia Shoop tried to organize a forum that would have featured the Purdue Neurotrauma Group, which has done pathbreaking work on the effect of repeated subconcussive blows to the brain, and a documentary, “The Business of Amateurs,” by Bob DeMars, a former college defensive lineman. Burke told her that the athletic department would not be involved because of the film’s emphasis on players’ rights. He also made it clear to Shoop — and to the Purdue Neurotrauma Group, according to Tom Talavage, a scientist in the department — that the athletic department would not underwrite any of the costs of the event. (Schott did not respond to a direct question about Burke’s response to the proposed forum.)
And then came the Missouri football players’ strike.
On Nov. 9, Marcia Shoop wrote a blog post about the strike. Describing college athletes as an “unpaid labor force” in an “unjust situation,” she wrote that “I continue to pray” that “the players find their voice” and will someday be able to “enact change.”
Two days later, Stacy Clardie, who covers Purdue football for the website Gold and Black, part of the Rivals.com network, texted Marcia Shoop to tell her that she had heard from a source that John Shoop would be fired as soon as the season ended.
John Shoop confronted Hazell the next day. Hazell denied that he planned to fire him. A day later, with Purdue students staging an antiracism rally — and with the football team in Evanston, Ill., preparing for a game against Northwestern — the Boilermakers’ quarterbacks posted on Twitter a photograph of themselves in support of the rally. Shoop was in the picture. He was also the only member of the athletic department to sign a letter to Mitch Daniels, the Purdue president and former Indiana governor, saying that racism needed to be addressed on campus.
Sixteen days later, he was history. Purdue’s poor record made it easy to include Shoop along with the two defensive coaches, and to characterize it as a necessary housecleaning, as Purdue has done.
Late Thursday afternoon, Schott sent me a statement that said “the decision to part ways with three of our assistant coaches, who had at-will employment relationships, was based solely by the desire of Coach Hazell to improve our football program. Any suggestion to the contrary is patently false.”
In his news conference on Wednesday, Burke said the Boilermakers needed “an offense you can articulate.” Well, maybe.
Purdue’s offense was very young, but despite inconsistent play and rookie mistakes, it showed real promise, something Burke also noted in his news conference. The Boilermakers scored 36, 38 and 55 points in games this season. More than two-thirds of the team’s 40 offensive touchdowns were generated by first-year players. (The 55-point game, which resulted in one of Purdue’s two wins this season, was against Nebraska.) That Shoop, the man who had recruited and nurtured virtually all of those young offensive players, was now gone appears to have escaped Burke. Oh, and the grade point average of the offensive players was 2.98. ‘In Position to Succeed’
It is extremely rare — and risky — for a college athlete to speak out about anything beyond the game itself. Yet Blough, the quarterback, who still has three years of eligibility at Purdue, was willing to get on the phone with me to talk about Shoop. That’s how much “Coach Shoop” means to him.
“He was one of the main reasons I came to Purdue,” Blough said. “He always shared his view about life and taught us to be men. He put us in a position to succeed and gave us chances.” He also praised Marcia Shoop and recalled how much he had enjoyed Thanksgiving with the Shoops — a holiday the Shoops celebrate with the football players every year.
As for the Boilermakers, Blough said he felt the team had shown in 2015 that it was headed in the right direction. “We were really young,” he told me. “I think we only had four seniors of the top 22 guys. We were making progress.”
When I asked if he thought Shoop had been fired unfairly, there was a long pause. “I don’t feel comfortable answering that question,” Blough finally replied.
I can’t say I blame him. He saw what happens at Purdue when people speak out.
An earlier version of this article misstated John Shoop’s job for the Carolina Panthers in 1995, when he was 25. He was an assistant coach, but he was not yet the quarterbacks coach. It also misstated the position Bob DeMars played in college. He was a defensive lineman, not a linebacker.