Jon Kitchel reflects on 1980 Purdue Final Four team

Apr. 5—The Purdue men's basketball team has reached the Final Four for the first time since 1980.

Former Lewis Cass standout player and coach Jon Kitchel was a player on the Boilermakers Final Four team 44 years ago.

His granddaughter, Collins Aulbach, is a student in Greg Crozier's fourth grade class at Lewis Cass. Kitchel said he had a flood of memories come back to him from the 1980 Final Four when he was searching through memorabilia to send with Collins to Mr. Crozier's class this week.

"When Greg called I started digging through a lot of the stuff I had and it brought back a lot of great memories," Kitchel said. "There's an NCAA watch, a basketball that says Final Four on it, a necklace pendant with Final Four. It brought back a lot of good memories just going through those things. Over time you kind of forget about it until you have something like this that comes about and brings it to the forefront again."

Like the current Boilers led by 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, the 1980 Boilers were led by another 7-footer, Joe Barry Carroll, who went on to post over 12,000 points and 5,000 rebounds during 12 seasons in the NBA.

"It kind of feels like to me that we're going back to old-school basketball again," Kitchel said. "Because if you look at the teams that have been successful in the tournament this year they all have a dominant post guy. I haven't been a big fan of the four-out, five-out dribble drive offense where you just try to find the most athletic guys where you just try to beat the defender off the dribble without setting any kind of screens or having a motion offense like we did back in the day.

"These teams that are in the finals right now with the exception of Alabama, I don't know that they have a dominating post guy like the other three schools do, but they set picks. The only picks that you see the last few years are taking your biggest guy 25 feet away from the basket and setting high ball screens and running pick and pops with them and hoping they have big guys that can shoot the three and have forgotten about the big post guys inside.

"But Edey has kind of brought back the coolness of being a dominating post player. North Carolina State has got a dominating post player. UConn has a dominating post player. I think you're going to see a change in basketball because I think that's going to be the norm again that they're going to go out to try to find good, big, strong, skilled big men that can plug up the middle on defense and stick the ball in the hole down low with baby hooks and old traditional ball-fake crossover moves and drop steps. For me being an old-school guy, I love it."

Kitchel said a rule change helped the Boilers reach the NCAA Tournament in 1980.

"My freshman year we were co-champions of the Big Ten and didn't make the tournament. So the following year, 1980, was when they expanded the field to 48 teams and we did make the tournament that year," he said.

The Boilers entered the tournament as a No. 6 seed. They defeated No. 11 seed LaSalle 90-82 and No. 3 seed St. John's to reach the Sweet 16.

They beat No. 2 seed and Big Ten champion Indiana 76-69 and No. 4 seed Duke 68-60 to reach the Final Four.

With the Final Four at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Purdue lost to No. 8 seed UCLA 67-62 before beating No. 5 seed Iowa 75-58 in the consolation game.

No. 2 seed Louisville topped UCLA 59-54 to win the national title. It was coach Denny Crum's first national title. He would also win one with Louisville in 1986.

UCLA was coached by Larry Brown in 1980. The Bruins' five NCAA tournament wins and championship game appearance were later vacated after the NCAA had determined UCLA committed nine violations.

The Bruins were led by Kiki Vandeweghe, who went on to score nearly 16,000 points in 14 NBA seasons.

"He was another one of those dominating post players that could step out and hit the midrange jumper too and he had a big career in the NBA," Kitchel said. "They had a real quick guard. We got beat by five in that game and it was a back-and-forth game but we just didn't get it done.

"That year Louisville won. They had a guy named Darrell Griffith and he was an incredible athlete and incredible basketball player. But we always felt like if we would have been able to get to the championship game, their post player was 6-7, a guy named Wiley Brown, and we felt like Joe Barry could have had his way had we got there but we just couldn't get past Kiki Vandeweghe and the UCLA bunch."

The 1980 Boilers were coached by Lee Rose, who curiously left after the season to coach at South Florida.

"I'm not real sure. That was really an odd deal," Kitchel said. "And nobody talked about it. He had been at North Carolina Charlotte and had taken them, they had a guy named Cornbread Maxwell, he had taken them to the Final Four when he was there. He came up and in two years took us to the Final Four. And he just vanished for a small school. I don't know what the situation was there. But then [Gene] Keady came in right after that."

Kitchel was a 6-foot-5 guard for the Boilers. After starring alongside his cousin Ted at Lewis Cass, which culminated with an undefeated regular season their senior season in 1978 (which ended with a double overtime loss at Marion in a regional final), Kitchel's playing time was limited in his four years at Purdue.

He averaged 4.4 minutes per game over his four years there and scored 90 total points in 84 games played.

"I came in there and they had recruited me as a point guard. At that time is when they were wanting the big point guards, Magic Johnson was at Michigan State at that time at 6-8," he said. "I could make the transition to point guard on the defensive side, I could guard the smaller guys, but the really quick defenders caused a lot of problems for me. So it slid me down to the No. 2 spot.

"At our No. 2 was a guy named Keith Edmonson. He started that year as a sophomore on the team and the rest of his career too. He was an All-American at Purdue, he was the 10th overall pick in the draft, he was just better than I was. So my role in practice was to defend him and make him better. If he got in foul trouble or needed a break, my job was to come in there and relieve him for whatever length of time that was or not at all. My role was kind of like [Caleb] Furst's role, be ready in case they need you and then come and practice hard and make everybody else better. That's what my role was.

"In my mind it was unfortunate because my goal was always to play for Purdue. When I was a little kid that's all I ever wanted to do. I got to start a couple games when I was there but everyone wants to be the star of the team and sometimes you've got to take a backseat to players that are better than you and at that point, Keith Edmonson, no matter what I did, I worked harder than he did, I did all the things, he was just better than I was. I played behind him the whole time that I was there."

Kitchel said he considered transferring to another school to get more playing time but decided to stay put. He said a conversation with his father, Bob, who also played at Purdue, helped him make his decision.

"After my sophomore year I talked to Dad about it. I had said that I think that I can see the writing on the wall with Keith and the position that I was in and I talked to Dad about it and he kind of encouraged me to stick it out and just to continue to fight for whatever time that I got," he said. "And I did and I have absolutely no regrets."

He said in the subsequent years his choice to stay at Purdue has paid off. The stability at Purdue with Matt Painter following Keady has benefited the program overall, he added.

"I would have completely regretted it if I would have left because with Painter, I didn't have any kind of relationship with him other than the fact that we were both coached by the same coach in coach Keady, but I am a part of the family," Kitchel said. "I'm a part of the Purdue family now regardless of what my status was as a player there. He includes everyone that has ever played basketball for Purdue to be a part of the family still. He has alumni functions, we go to his house. I used to take our Cass team to shootouts at Purdue. He would take our team through the locker room. He's been incredible as a leader of our basketball program for everybody who has been involved from the very beginning. We go to those alumni functions and they'll be people that are 75 years old, 80 years old that are there that have played that long ago and they feel just as special as the current players that are there. There current players will be there mingling with us and we get to visit with them. He's done a great job of recruiting high character players.

"If I knew the way it was going to turn out and that I was going to be a guy that came off the bench and had limited time, if I would have known that ahead of time I still would have chosen Purdue. Because it was what I always wanted to do and I'm extremely proud to be a part of the program and I still am."