Joe Tiller was a great football coach in so many ways.
He went 87-62 from 1997 to 2008, with 10 bowl trips in 12 seasons, including the 2000 Rose Bowl.
To put 87-62 at Purdue in perspective, you have to understand that the Boilermakers went 54-107-5 in the 15 years before Tiller got there. And they have gone 31-67 in the eight full seasons since he left.
That's what you call a gifted coach.
What I especially appreciated about Tiller, 74, who died Saturday at home in Buffalo, Wyoming, was his dry sense of humor and his unassuming manner. Both of those things are in desperately short supply among college football coaches—and have been for a long time.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
``We’re not going to wait four years to figure this thing out,’’ Tiller said when he took the Purdue job. ``If I were to wait four more years to figure it out, I wouldn’t hardly have any hair left.’’
Tiller already had hardly any hair.
When told the Orlando Sentinel had made the Boilers their pre-season No. 1 in 2005, he said, ``All my relatives in Orlando came through for me. So I want to thank Pluto and Mickey and Donald.”
When Tiller made his little jokes, they were often so low-keyed you had to think for a moment to realize what was going on. There was humor, truth and humility.
It was as if you were sitting around with a fishing pole, or having a quiet beer back at a rustic lodge in his beloved Wyoming. Although born and raised in Toledo, Tiller spent most of his football life in the Northwest.
He is Purdue’s winningest coach, ahead of Jack Mollenkopf, who was 84-39-9 in 1956-69, and was the Old Gold and Black standard when I was a kid. He had quarterbacks like Bob Griese and Mike Phipps, and running back Leroy Keyes, who went crazy on Illinois in the first college game I ever attended.
Beyond his wonderful personal style, Tiller made a much-needed impact on Big Ten football with his ``basketball on grass’’ offense, which injected scoring into a league that tended to slog.
In 1997, his first season, he won at Minnesota 59-43. The next week, he beat Wisconsin 45-20. After that, the Boilermakers also took care of Illinois 48-3, and Indiana 56-7. And that was before he turned Drew Brees loose.
Purdue went 9-3 that year. The year before, it had gone 3-8.
His greatest heights came when he continued Purdue’s Cradle of Quarterbacks tradition by signing and unleashing Brees. After playing sparingly as a freshman in 1997 (no TDs, 19 completions), Brees went on a tear the next three years. He wound up throwing 90 touchdowns and more than 11,792 yards, and collecting a stack of Big Ten records.
The irony is how Brees got to West Lafayette. He was a high-school standout in Austin, tracking for his dream of playing for the Longhorns or Texas A&M, but everyone backed off when when he blew out his knee as a high school junior. Everyone except Purdue and Kentucky.
Brees wisely went with Tiller.
``We were so convinced that he was going to be a great player,’’ Tiller explained later, ``that we recruited a junior college quarterback.’’
As the tributes to a fine man and coach have been pouring in, it’s clear, though, that his legacy as a friend and mentor and ambassador for college football exceeds his considerable success on the field.
``They say when you leave a place, it’s not what you take with you, but rather what you leave behind,’’ Tiller said after his final game in 2008. ``Hopefully, we left some great memories. I know we’ve left some great young men.’’
RIP, Joe Tiller.
You will be missed. But not forgotten.[/membership]