Welcome back to B1G 2019, Off Tackle Empire’s week-by-week preview of all fourteen Big Ten teams!
One feature we’re adding this summer is “Better Know a B1G Blog,” wherein we get a chance to hear from the various schools’ own bloggers about what makes their site, their school, and their fans unique in both the Big Ten and the college football landscape. Check out our pieces with Rutgers’ On the Banks, Illinois’ The Champaign Room, Nebraska’s Corn Nation, and Maryland’s Testudo Times.
While we love, appreciate, and enjoyed our time with each of those blogs, though, Purdue Week brings with it a chance to really take a trip down memory lane.
The Rivalry, Esq., made the move to SBNation and became Off Tackle Empire in August of 2008, joining a handful of team-specific sites. Just a couple months later, the greatest Purdue blog on the damn internet, Hammer and Rails, came into being. Its proprietor, Travis Miller, has been terrorizing the internet ever since with takes about Purdue Boilermakers sports and probably—we assume—images of Purdue Pete.
Before you do one damn thing, give him a follow @JustTMill, and keep up with the various Hammer and Rails tweet-crusades @HammerAndRails. You will not be sorry, unless you have bad opinions about Purdue.
OTE: Has H&R been around even longer than OTE has?! Tell us how you came to the SBN empire and where you were first: Your origin story, any particular H&R in-jokes we should be aware of, or any other Purdue-specific quirks we should know about when we pop over to read an article?
Travis Miller: I am basically the Old Man of SB Nation Big Ten sites. Hammer & Rails started way back in February 2009 when SB Nation made its big push to have a site for every team. At the time, there were only four Big Ten sites: Black Shoe Diaries, The Daily Gopher, Maize N’ Brew, and Black Heart Gold Pants. I came on with basically the other 7 teams at the time, but I remember when the Northwestern site was Sippin’ on Purple and the Ohio State was Along the Olentangy. I have been the site manager from day 1, an extreme rarity around these parts.
I have been doing it even longer, too. I started on blogger in August 2006 as the “Boilermaker Football Blog” and expanded it to cover basketball for 2007-08. I renamed it “Off the Tracks, but when SB Nation contacted me to come over that domain was taken by a women’s guest house in Alaska, so I came up with a few names and put it up for a vote. Hammer & Rails was born from there.
We’ve been around so long we have had original memes long forgotten, like the Barbasol Foreplay Pancakes (from the original Barbasol ads on BTN). The one that seemed to die recently is the “Fire Painter” from the small but loud part of our fanbase that wanted coach Painter fired. They have been pretty quiet of lately, but we did have one diehard on our Facebook page as recently as May.
OTE: Give us an idea of what kind of #content you think exemplifies the qualities of Hammer and Rails. (You guys are Extremely Online, too...what’s gone into that?) What’s been your favorite experience for H&R?
We’ve done a lot of different things over the years and had our share of controversy. The Extremely Online comes from me starting the Twitter account and not being able to shut up even when I probably should. I am sure you have seen the bickering with Crimson Quarry which went a little too far this March and that was on me.
Mostly though I have always tried to write like a fan with incredible access. We have a basketball season media pass and have done a few football games. I remember the 2010 football game at Notre Dame was a high point because we got a media pass, but a low point because the Notre Dame SID took umbrage at me running our open thread during the game and got us in trouble with Purdue for a year. That led to all kinds of false rumors. To this day people believe I made a fool of myself in the Notre Dame press box when no such thing happened (and trust me, the rule about not cheering in the press box is null and void if Notre Dame scores).
We realize we’re not everyone’s favorite people out there. There are plenty of haters on the Gold and Black (Purdue’s Rivals site) that are convinced all we do is steal content and don’t do anything original. Yeah, we’ve made our mistakes, but we’re blessed with a much larger audience that has looked past them and comes back to us. I try to use the press releases and credentials we get to write with a different beat. In press conferences I don’t ask a question, but when I do I try to make it different, like when I asked Thad Matta at Big Ten Media Days how he was going to replace Mark Titus instead of Evan Turner.
The best part is that over the years I have been able to gather some really great writers. Juan Crespo is my right hand man and often the voice of reason for us. Andrew Ledman has been on hiatus of late as he prepares to take the bar, but besides filling the role that every SB Nation site needs a lawyer on staff he has been a long time solid contributor and offers a great insight as a former Paint Crew President. Rachel Van Gessel has been an excellent contributor for women’s volleyball and basketball for many years. Casey Bartley has a great style and an excellent gift for prose that our fans love. Drew Schneider and Kyle Holderfield have been great additions to cover football recruiting and pick up a lot of other smaller things. We recently added Chris Ford of All My Sports Teams Suck to provide insight into analytics.
There have been other writers come and go over the years and honestly, we would not be where we are without everyone. They are truly a pleasure to work with and I am glad I can offer so many people a voice on Purdue sports.
OTE: What’s one stereotype about the H&R commentariat or Purdue fanbase that Big Ten fans as a whole get wrong? How have you seen the Purdue community you’ve reached change over the last decade (!!!)?
We’ve been through a lot in the past decade. The Hazell years were about as low as it can possibly get from a fan’s standpoint and it led to the most controversial article I have ever written, saying that it was time for Purdue to leave the Big Ten. It was a dark time as Morgan Burke was clearly coasting and had lost the desire to even try to compete. We were spending the least in the Big Ten with the fewest sports and our own AD said he was uninterested in getting into an athletics arms race. My premise was that if we weren’t even going to compete, why even bother staying in the conference.
To this day some people over at GBI get Very Mad Online about that article, but hey clearly missed the main point within it. For the longest time we were seen as cheap and even when Burke opened the checkbook to hire Hazell it backfired in disastrous fashion. When basketball was struggling at the same time we were in a pretty bad spot.
Now, five years later, things have changed dramatically. Football is on a major upswing for the first time in 15 years. Basketball came as close as you can get to a Final Four without actually going and is in its best spot in 25 years. For both, things can get even better and are pointing in that direction. A lot of people saw the Virginia loss in March and thought “Same old Purdue”, but I was oddly encouraged by it. It took a fluke play to deny us a Final Four (and maybe a title) in a year that was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Maybe that breakthrough into April will finally happen now.
And the fans are believing too. Jeff Brohm gave us reason to actually care about football again when Hazell and Burke had pretty much ruined us. Matt Painter has established himself as one of the best in the business and finally had a few signature March moments. Even our other sports have had success with baseball making only its third NCAA tournament ever in 2018, Volleyball consistently in the top 15 nationally, women’s golf being a national contender, and several individual athletes in both track and diving doing well. It is honestly a great time to be a Purdue fan and it might even get better.
OTE: What are you most excited about for the Purdue 2019 season? For the uninitiated fan of another Big Ten school, what are the storylines surrounding your program? Where do you see the Boilers in the pantheon of Big Ten football going into 2019?
It is going to be a damn lot of fun to see what Rondale Moore is going to do for an encore. I call him a “Just how the hell do you stop that guy?” guy. We finally have one of those! It is year three for coach Brohm and he is adding the best recruiting class we have had in the modern era. He has plenty of weapons offensively and if the offensive line develops he is going to have a fully armed and operational Brohmfense. On defense we return a lot of experience and are adding a lot of talented freshmen for depth. Because of that, I think the defense can make a big jump forward.
Can Purdue win the Big Ten West? Who knows. It is the more uncertain division of the two and I can see anyone except Illinois at least having a chance. Yes, Purdue was 6-7 last season and got absolutely drilled in its bowl game, but we lost three home games literally on the final snap of the game (Eastern Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin) and both Northwestern and Michigan State were competitive deep into the fourth quarter. We showed that when things are on, we anyone in the league because of that magical October night against Ohio State. Honestly, it is just fun to not be a doormat anymore.
I think that with the relative youth in some spots we’re about a 6-8 win team, but things are looking good for a monster 2020 season.
OTE: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Anything else—tailgating advice, West Lafayette bars to visit, local cuisine, etc.—we should know about Purdue and H&R?
This is an easy one. Every year we try to update our Gameday Guide to West Lafayette and it is always featured at the bottom of our page. It has pretty much everything you need to know about West Lafayette. We also have an article Juan did a few years ago about what to do as a student. That covers pretty much everything.
Any chance to bring up that Gameday Guide, man. It’s excellent and has helped me on many a trip to West Lafayette. My deepest thanks to Travis not only for the time and the great thoughts and reminiscences, but for being a trailblazer in the world of SBNation and Big Ten blogging. To many more angry arguments on Twitter!
Speaking of, go follow him @JustTMill, and check out the site’s offerings—including great in-game (re)tweeting/updates—@HammerAndRails.