Caleb Swanigan is the reason Purdue can legitimately dream about reaching a Final Four
WEST LAFAYETTE — If Matt Painter gets Purdue to a Final Four during his tenure, Caleb Swanigan will be a big reason.
Sadly, the former Boilermakers big man — lovingly nicknamed “Biggie” — won’t be around to celebrate such a milestone with other Purdue alums. An All-American at Purdue from 2015-17, Swanigan died Monday night in his adopted hometown of Fort Wayne, ending a life that had seen incredible lows and gigantic highs in his unexpectedly short 25 years.
Although Swanigan spent only 2 seasons as a Boilermaker before becoming a first-round NBA Draft pick of the Portland Trailblazers, his impact has been long-lasting. Arguably the most well-decorated signee in Purdue history, at least in the era of prep rankings, Swanigan helped to bring some swagger to the Boilermakers and made West Lafayette a more widely accepted destination for high-profile players.
Before, Purdue had largely been a stopping point for prospects who had the potential to turn into great college basketball players, but ones who were likely to stick around for 4 years. Players like Robbie Hummel and E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson and Chris Kramer and Rapheal Davis and AJ Hammons, and many more. But Biggie was different.
The story is well-documented: Once homeless before being adopted by former Purdue/NFL linebacker turned sports agent Roosevelt Barnes, Swanigan moved to Fort Wayne, shed more than 100 pounds and built himself into a McDonald’s All-American, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball (the first for Purdue since Glenn Robinson in 1991) and a state champion for Homestead High. Swanigan became an incredible example of perseverance, hard work, dedication and redemption. At almost any point during his first 18 years, Swanigan could have easily taken chosen a different path that took him to dark places.
But instead, he pushed through obstacles.
During his recruitment, Swanigan flirted with Michigan State by committing to Tom Izzo, but he flipped to Purdue, where Barnes had once played. And Swanigan was destined to be a short-term player for the Boilermakers, maybe a season, perhaps 2, but unlikely more than that.
And it was OK.
Because not only did Swanigan continue to build Purdue’s program back up to a national level — it was only 2 seasons earlier that the Boilermakers had completed their second of back-to-back sub-.500 seasons — he opened the door for others. If Swanigan doesn’t come to Purdue, does Carsen Edwards still follow? If Edwards doesn’t show up, and take the Boilermakers within an eyelash of a Final Four, does Jaden Ivey still follow?
Arguably, Purdue is in the midst of enjoying its greatest stretch of basketball, although fans — and the program — still long for the return trip to the Final Four. Dating to Swanigan’s first season, the Boilermakers have 4 Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite 8.
If Purdue gets there in the next several years, or decade, then Swanigan will represent a turning point, and so he leaves a legacy even bigger than the statistics, and those were significant.
It’s beyond sad that Swanigan’s life ended so soon. It’s a tragedy. The last few years were likely hard on Swanigan, after the end of his shorter-than-desired 3-year NBA career. But even in a tragic ending, there’s a successful life lived. Biggie was one of the hardest-working players in the history of Purdue sports, whether that’s basketball, football, track, volleyball … anything. He loved the work, and you could see it, as he shed the pounds and turned himself into a star. It made him an intimidating presence, but to those who were close to him, he was anything but.
Swanigan was loved, maybe more so than he even imagined, and he will forever hold a place at Purdue.