How Purdue lured Jeff Brohm to save its struggling football program

September 5, 2017 | Journal & Courier

Mitch Daniels, Mike Berghoff and Mike Bobinski — three of Purdue University's top decision makers — are sitting at the end of a long Amish-built cherry kitchen table inside Daniels’ home near Indianapolis.

The university president, the chairman of the Board of Trustees and the school's athletic director take turns speaking into an iPhone sitting on the table.

On the other end is Jeff Brohm.

“We were holding our breath,” Daniels recalled.

This was Sunday, Dec. 4, one day after Brohm guided Western Kentucky to another Conference USA championship. Brohm was a hot commodity among Power 5 schools looking to elevate their programs because of his high-powered offense and innovative approach.

Bobinski wanted Brohm at Purdue. When Bobinski fired Darrell Hazell six games into the 2016 season, Brohm’s name was at the top of his list. His research would confirm his initial feeling: Brohm was the right fit at Purdue.

More than 24 hours after this important Sunday conversation, Brohm was introduced as the program’s head coach.

In the last nine months, Brohm has worked diligently to piece together a roster — adding graduate transfers and junior college players — to put the program in the best possible position to succeed during the 2017 season, which begins Saturday against 16th-ranked Louisville at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Without the call from Daniels’ home, Brohm is likely starting his fourth season at Western Kentucky instead of facing his hometown program where he was once a star quarterback.

About two weeks before the end of the 2016 regular season, Bobinski zeroed in on Brohm.

Bobinski vetted other candidates but he kept coming back to Brohm. There were candidates with plenty of splash and others who had more experience at big-time programs. Brohm’s credentials, philosophy, reputation, and character were the template Bobinski used to measure other coaches on his list.

“I felt he was the best overall fit for our circumstance. Period. I was convinced of that. I’m convinced of that,” Bobinski said. “I don’t think there was anybody in the mix we could’ve gone to that would’ve been better for us at this point and time, especially as I’ve watched him work and acclimate into our situation and take on the challenge and roll up his sleeves and get to it.”

As Brohm’s WKU team was enjoying another successful season, Bobinski kept his distance, trying to avoid becoming a distraction but also not lose sight of his top choice. He started to formulate a plan to bring Brohm to West Lafayette and meet with Daniels, Berghoff and university personnel in hopes of finalizing a deal.

But the Hilltoppers won the conference championship, a celebration ensued and the next day the school accepted an invitation to play in the Boca Raton Bowl. Bobinski had one of the school’s planes ready to pick up Brohm and bring him to campus.

Brohm wasn’t leaving Bowling Green, Kentucky, at least not yet.

“When the weekend started, I didn’t think he was going to take it,” said Greg Brohm, Jeff’s older brother.

Other schools were pushing hard to get involved with Brohm. Bobinski admitted to feeling uncomfortable, thinking his No. 1 target might slip away.

“I’m not certain where we’re going at this point,” Bobinski said.

A call was arranged with Brohm for the next day with the help of DHR International, the search firm Purdue used in the process, and Brohm’s agent and close friend, Shawn Freibert.

Bobinski had done all of the leg work bringing Brohm to this point in the process. Daniels and Berghoff laid out the compensation boundaries to Bobinski, who presented a verbal offer.

"We told him, “Mike, don’t let anything stand in the way of getting our guy. When you’re convinced it’s the guy we’ll make sure it happens,' " Berghoff said.

The phone call was going to be the last sales pitch. All the key talking points had to be emphasized. Either convince Brohm of Purdue’s commitment to building a championship program or start moving down Bobinski's list.

This is where Daniels shines.

He’s a closer in these situations. Bobinski was convinced Brohm would bring the football program out of the Big Ten basement and make it relevant again. He also convinced Daniels that Brohm was the right choice.

“If I chipped in anything, it was to cement the enthusiasm and the sense of commitment we all have,” Daniels said. “That seemed to have some value in the conversation.

“I don’t think he ever challenged the notion of our commitment but he wanted to know. The burden was on us — it wasn’t on him to ask — it was on us to drive it home.”

The $65 million performance complex was already under construction. There was one sign of a commitment. The other signs came from the trio, especially Daniels, whose desire to see the school’s football program win again was heard on the other end.

Increased salaries for the head coach and staff, including a six-year contract worth nearly $20 million for Brohm. His assistants have multi-year contracts. More support personnel and creating a strength and conditioning program dedicated to football. Overall, Purdue has funneled around $4 million in new resources into the program.

“Having that conversation was the tipping point,” said Freibert, who played baseball at Louisville when Brohm was the quarterback on the football team. “You could feel the commitment. You could feel the passion in their voices for what they wanted to accomplish and Jeff was their guy.”

But Brohm didn’t say yes. Not yet. He needed to talk to his family and Freibert. Brohm was scheduled to call Daniels at 7 p.m. with his answer.

When Purdue started inquiring about Brohm, his father, Oscar, was the first one from his inner circle to encourage him to take the job. It’s a Big Ten program, the best conference in the country and the resources available were too attractive to pass up.

“From the beginning, I said, ‘Take Purdue,” said Oscar, who also played quarterback at Louisville and serves as a quarterback coach at Trinity High School. “There were some really good teams after him hard. He made his own decision but he does listen to everybody.”

Oscar called the weekend “hectic” from the family’s perspective. After Western Kentucky won the league title, Oscar was coaching on the same field in the Class 6A state championship game later that evening.

Early the next morning, Oscar called Jeff.

“I knew there were a lot of things going on and he had to make a decision probably that day,” Oscar said. “I wanted him to feel like he had the opportunity to work his way through it, so I got him up early. I knew he would be up. We talked for 90 minutes.”

With no deal in place after the Sunday afternoon conversation, Bobinski, Berghoff and Glenn Sugiyama – managing partner at DHR International – boarded the university plane to visit other candidates.

The trio had set up interviews. They were prepared to quickly move away from Brohm. They moved from airport to airport, waiting to hear from Daniels.

“At each stop, we’re checking in,” Berghoff said. “Glenn checks in through his channels. We’re calling Mitch. It’s no big deal when it’s four, five and six o’clock.”

It becomes a big deal when 7 p.m. passes and Brohm hasn’t called. No call at 7:15 p.m. No call by 7:30 p.m. Finally, Daniels calls Berghoff at 7:40 p.m.

The issue? Brohm is operating on central time.

“What are we thinking?” Berghoff said, laughing. “He wasn’t late. We’re 20 minutes away from seven o’clock.”

Berghoff, Bobinski and Sugiyama decide to wait before heading to another location. The call came. Brohm accepted Purdue’s offer.

“We gave each high-fives and we flew back to Indianapolis,” Berghoff said.

They can laugh about it now.

“We’re dotting every I and crossing every T and we forget to say central or eastern,” Freibert said. “You’re in your own little world at that point and so laser focused on juggling so many balls in terms of how things will go down and all the parameters and you finally realize there’s an hour time difference.

“We laughed about. I was understanding of their position and they were understanding of ours. It was pretty funny, I guess.”

So, why did Brohm accept the Purdue job?

He was comfortable at Western Kentucky and a majority of his team would be coming back. His family was nearby. He could wait another year or two and a more established Power 5 program likely would call, offer more money and resources, and the opportunity to win in the short term was probably more attractive.

Brohm even spoke with former Purdue coach Danny Hope about the job. Hope told Brohm to take it.

“This year, I knew some things would come about more,” Brohm said. “The Purdue thing, at first, I was good where I was at. But Mike (Bobinski) did a good job. I got on the phone with Mitch. He did a good job. The more you talk to the people, the more you’re going to lean that way.

“Before I tried not to talk to anybody. They did a good job of selling the investment they’re making in football. They showed they were going to help along the way. They understood it wasn’t going to be easy but they needed somebody who was ready to take it on.”

Once on campus, it took Brohm less than 24 hours to realize he had made the right decision.

“After I got here, ‘yeah, this is what I want to do,’” Brohm said. “I feel there are a lot of hungry people around here that want the same thing and for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened but they’re ready for somebody to grab the bull by the horns and make it happen.

“You do have support here. Is there a lot of room to improve? You bet there is. Now, I have to find a way to get it done.”