INDIANAPOLIS – Consider some of the coaching dynamics for Jon Coffman this season at Purdue Fort Wayne.
His starting lineup includes three graduate students, a fifth-year senior and a senior. Combined, they have played 26 seasons of college basketball. It is Team AARP of college basketball.
His leading scorer, Jarred Godfrey, is an Eagle Scout. His second leading scorer, Bobby Planutis, is working on his third degree. The other forward, Ra Kpedi, is doing an internship as an equity analyst for a Fort Wayne bank. Once, practice had to be shuffled for his Chartered Financial Analyst exam. “How cool is it,” Coffman was saying, “that he shows up for practice in a suit?”
His team has four 1,000-point career scorers and should soon have a fifth.
His two top scorers, Godfrey and Planutis, have been solid gold at the free throw line. Planutis has shot 64 free throws in the past two years. He has missed two. Godfrey hit his first 37 attempts in Horizon League play this season before missing.
The transfer portal gusher did not flow through Fort Wayne. Coffman’s roster returned nearly intact from last year's Horizon League regular season co-champions. “They love the game, they love our spot, they love Fort Wayne and that’s why they’ve stayed,” Coffman said. “Our Eagle Scout, he had eight power-5s in the top-25 that gave him offers to go, and he probably passed up on a bunch of NIL to stay with us.”
Put all that together and what do you have?
A veteran team that is 12-7 so far and has atonement on its mind. The Mastodons — is there a better nickname in all Division I? — crashed out against Northern Kentucky in the semifinals of the Horizon League tournament last March. That meant no NCAA tournament, which would have been the program's first. The painful memories were fresh last week when Purdue Fort Wayne defeated IUPUI the other night in the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, the site of last spring’s Horizon tournament.
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“We’ve still got a chip on our shoulder,” Godfrey said. “Last year we didn’t finish the job that we know we could have, So we all instantly made that decision to come back. I feel like I have unfinished business with this team. I felt something this morning at gameday practice, just walking in here. Last time we were here we didn’t handle our business.”
Coffman is in his ninth season at Purdue Fort Wayne and has made his program appealing with a free-wheeling offense that can translate to professional basketball and an atmosphere that promotes cohesion and connectivity with the Fort Wayne business community. He figures that combination helps his players with future employment, on and off the court. So most of them stay.
🥶If you were wondering what it looks like becoming the program leader in wins. 🥶 @coachcoffman #FeelTheRumble #HLMBB pic.twitter.com/5LEwlE7yDs— Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons Basketball (@MastodonMBB) November 27, 2022
John Konchar did and become the school’s career leading scorer. “John came to us, we were his only Division I offer,” Coffman said. “And the next thing you know, he’s starting for the Memphis Grizzlies.”
Max Landis did. “He stayed when people were calling him while he was in my office to move on. He ended up Summit League player of the year.”
Godfrey did, even though, as the leading scorer for a conference champion and a grad student, he seemed a prime candidate for a bigger fish via the transfer portal. “I’m not going to lie, it was a little bit tempting,” Godfrey said. “But at the end of the day, I’ve built up a great network in Fort Wayne. The basketball has been handling itself. I like my role and how I can be myself and I don’t have to play within a box. It was a pretty quick decision for me.”
So Coffman will keep turning his offense loose. At last count, the Mastodons were in the top 16 nationally in 3-point attempts and makes.
And he will continue to hone the connections with the city’s business shakers and movers. “Our goal is to have them skip the first job and get the second one, so they’re not serving the coffee, they’re receiving the coffee. And it’s worked. These guys recognize the power of Fort Wayne.”
And he will continue his team-building ideas. “I don’t know if it’s goofy stuff, but we invest in their life skills. We did ballroom dancing this summer. We do dining etiquette. We took the guys to Cedar Point (an amusement park). We do golf lessons with our guys. Bobby’s the first to tell them, 'Coach is corny sometimes but he cares.'
“Those guys are living in our offices. I feel like half those guys are on our staff, the way we talk to them and the way we hang out.”
But can it get them where they want to go in March? Before the University of Southern Indiana moved up this season, Purdue Fort Wayne was the only Division I school in the state of Indiana never to play in the NCAA tournament. To make it there in 2023, the Mastodons will have to fight through a Horizon League that currently has a four-way tie for first, with Purdue Fort Wayne two games behind and tied for sixth. But the Mastodons have already beaten two of the teams in front of them. It seems a league where anything could happen.
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And if experience has much to do with it, they will be a threat.
“They have a poise about them,” Coffman said. “I can talk to them in a different way. When we sit down and look at the video, it’s a different kind of feeling.”
What echoes from that 57-43 loss to Northern Kentucky last March is the 28.8 shooting percentage, including going 3-for-20 from their beloved 3-point range. “We’ve got to be able to compete and have a chance to win those games when the 3’s aren’t dropping,” Coffman said. “Those guys have that burn, how do we win ugly when we need to?
“This group came back on a mission. They wanted to do something special. They want to take us to our first NCAA tournament. It doesn’t mean that anything short is not success. I’ve never gotten into that NCAA tournament-or-bust. But it would be really special with this group.”
So the old guys of Fort Wayne have future dreams, even if some of them come in a three-piece suit.