Updated: November 9, 2012 6:19AM
HAMMOND — New Purdue Calumet athletic director Rick Costello is a basketball buff.
“Can’t get enough hoops,” he said at a recent lunch with this writer and John Friend, who served as interim boss during a 14-month national search for Robert Bunnell’s successor.
Friend took on that role for the second time when Bunnell resigned after four years at PUC. One of Northwest Indiana’s most omnipresent athletic figures, he applauded when Costello stepped up to the plate on Sept. 17.
The Indiana Hall of Famer is sticking around as a consultant, which Costello appreciates. He won’t hesitate to rely on Friend’s lifetime of expertise, which includes pioneering Munster High School’s athletic program before joining Purdue Calumet in 1980.
“It’s so great to have John here,” Costello said while picking at an impossibly large salad. “Somebody who knows the history here and people in the community is a God-send. I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Costello acquired most of his basketball expertise in Pennsylvania. Growing up in Altoona, he coached high school basketball in that state after graduating from Muhlenberg (Pa.) College. One of his vicariously enjoyable basketball moments came last March when 15th seeded Lehigh (Pa.) stunned Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Costello relished it, having served as an assistant basketball coach for the Mountain Hawks in the early 90s.
It’s a challenging assignment. Just five years ago, Purdue cancelled its basketball season because of academic ineligibilities which cost Mike James his job.
“The whole basketball staff and the athletic director were fired,” Friend recalled. “The women’s basketball coach resigned. It was very unpleasant.”
Women’s basketball quickly rebounded under Tom Megyesi, who came over from Lake Central. His last four teams have led the CCAC in scoring and the Peregrines are coming off a 23-10 season.
Unfortunately, men’s basketball is still recovering from that near-knockout punch. Struggling to rebuild under Dan Voudrie, the Peregrines have posted an underwhelming 31-85 record in the last four years. Hopefully, a strong recruiting class should reverse that trend.
Costello, 45, came over from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Division I program which belongs to the Horizon League. After spending 15 months there, he’s looking forward to watching Voudrie as well as Megyesi in action.
Belonging to the Chicagoland Conference will make it easier for him to manage an athletic budget despite the attendance issues which always seem to plague satellite campuses. Purdue Calumet’s transportation costs are minimal because nearly all 16 members are within a 75-minute drive of the campus.
That may dramatically change in the near-future. Don’t be surprised if Purdue Calumet switches from NAIA status to NCAA Division II.
When that happens the Great Lakes Valley Conference, arguably the best Division II basketball conference in the country, would be an appealing option. Natural rivalries could easily develop with St. Joseph’s, Indianapolis, Quincy, Drury and Lewis.
“It has been mentioned,” said Friend, acknowledging interest in the GLVC. “It makes sense.”
Purdue Calumet currently sponsors 10 sports, but is expanding. Adding baseball and softball will boost the number of student-athletes from 125 to 200 next year.
Being a commuter campus, you might expect most of them to hail from nearby communities, but PUC is becoming more cosmopolitan. While more than doubling its enrollment to 10,000 in the last dozen years, dorms — actually housing units — have been added to accomodate out-of-state students.
Athletics is no exception to the modest international flavor. Two players from Saudi Arabia belong to the soccer team.
Since leaving Munster to sign on at PUC he’s served under four chancellors, the latest being Thomas Keon, who assumed his duties on June 30. Keon came over from Central Florida, where he was the Dean of the College of Business Administration.
“He’s very athletic minded,” Friend said. “We’re lucky to have him because he understands how important sports are to establishing a school’s identity.”
For the impact basketball can have look no farther than nearby Valparaiso, which went from a virtual unknown to Cinderella status when Coach Homer Drew and player Bryce Drew took them to the Sweet Sixteen in 1998 with dramatic victories over Florida State and Mississippi.
The athletic boomlet is quite a switch for PUC, which briefly considered shutting down its program after the 2006-07 scandal.
“Fortunately, that didn’t happen,” Friend said.