WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue coach Ryan Walters is settling into his dream job.
When he walks onto the practice field, he sees his players chasing his vision with a plan he started compiling more than a decade ago. His office overlooks the tunnel at his new home field, the recently renovated Ross-Ade Stadium.
On Saturday, the 37-year-old Walters may even run through the fog as the train horn blares. The sixth-youngest head coach in the Bowl Subdivision is ready to make his Boilermakers’ debut against Fresno State.
“I accepted the job on a Sunday night, flew out here Monday and we were walking around the field (that) Monday evening,” Walters said. “I was with my family, inside the stadium and they had my picture on the Jumbotron. It was like, ‘Wow, you know, this is for real, like I’m the head coach here.’ The gravity of that weight, I felt it immediately and wanted to just start going to work.”
His schedule has been virtually non-stop since that moment last December.
Walters spent months hiring assistants, recruiting prep stars, persuading some Purdue players to stay while finding help in the transfer portal, even awarding a scholarship to last year’s top rusher Devin Mockobee. Then came spring ball and a summer getting acclimated to his new campus, new community and new lifestyle before camp opened.
The whirlwind hasn’t fazed Walters, who has been around football most of his life.
His father, Marc, played quarterback at Colorado when Gary Barnett was an offensive assistant. His childhood babysitter was former Buffaloes star Eric Bienemy, now the Washington Commanders assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.
Walters started his college career as a Colorado quarterback before moving to safety and eventually taking one brief shot at an NFL job before embarking on a coaching career that included mentors such as Barnett, Bob Stoops, Barry Odom and Bret Bielema.
“I definitely took a lot of notes, so I’ve got a pretty good idea what I want to do,” Walters said. “So it wasn’t like, ‘I killed the interview. I got the job and then OK, now I’ve got to figure out how to be a head coach.’ It was more ‘I got the job, execute the plan.’”
Exactly what his strategy looks like is being kept under wraps until Saturday. Still, a few things are clear.
Walters is no traditional Purdue head coach. He’s the first with a predominantly defensive background to hold the title since Leon Burtnett was promoted from defensive coordinator in 1982 and just the second defensive-minded coach hired from outside the program in 50 years.
Instead of seeking advice about filling his staff, Walters followed his instincts.
Authenticity Strikes Chord with Players
His authenticity struck a chord with players such as new starting quarterback Hudson Card, who Walters targeted after the former Texas prep star entered the transfer portal.
“Purdue reached out to me more like in the middle of the recruitment phase. Just thankful that he hit me up,” Card said. “A lot of it was going with my gut feeling. Some of the opportunities, I didn’t feel it was the right place in my heart. I decided to wait, and Purdue was that answer.”
Card’s athleticism also serves as a stark contrast to Purdue’s predominantly pre-eminent dropback quarterbacks — Bob Griese, Len Dawson, Drew Brees and Aidan O’Connell. Walters knows Card’s mobility will cause headaches for opponents, too.
What won’t change: Purdue’s penchant for playing fast and scoring points.
New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, the former Texas Tech star, was hired to install the Air Raid scheme. Walters wants to throw the ball to score, run the ball to win and Harrell’s job is strike the proper balance.
“I think the most important thing is to make sure all your playmakers touch the football, whether they’re in the backfield, whether they’re receivers, you know Hudson is an elite athlete himself,” Harrell said. “I think getting our best, most explosive ball carriers the ball is our most important job.”
Walters also realizes Purdue’s successes or failures will be a reflection of him, the Big Ten’s fourth Black coach and one of 14 in the 133-member FBS.
But for Walters, this is not a mission.
It’s part of the journey his best friend, his father, encouraged him to make all those years ago when he accepted his first coaching job — student assistant at his alma mater in 2009.
“He introduced me to the game,” Walters said. “He coached me, our Pop Warner teams, and he was always there to throw the ball around in the backyard or pick up a basketball and go shoot hoops. That was definitely impactful on my career. And then his sort of no-excuses attitude. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard him complain.”
With so many questions and so much work still to finish before Saturday, Walters doesn’t have time to complain, either.
Instead, he’s trying to remain the calm, stoic leader of Purdue’s program while anticipating the emotional rush he expects when the Boilermakers begin the centennial season at Ross-Ade.
“There’s not much time for daydreaming,” Walters said. “But every time I do, I get goosebumps. You try to put yourself in those moments, so it doesn’t surprise you. But I don’t think there’s anything I can do from a mental standpoint to capture what that moment is going to feel like.”