He came from Wyoming, from the old Western Athletic Conference, a league of schools with maverick streaks that many considered a step down from the blue bloods. But out in Laramie, Joe Tiller got to test his “Basketball on Grass” offensive philosophy, and in 1997, he brought that to Big Ten country.
Since its last Rose Bowl trip following the 1966 season, Purdue had wandered in mostly mediocrity, making a handful of bowls in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, after a Peach Bowl appearance in 1984, hard times hit West Lafayette, Ind., and the Boilermakers went through a trio of coaches — Leon Burtnett, Fred Akers and Jim Colletto — with no winning seasons and no Big Ten finish better than sixth.
It was time for a change, and Purdue certainly got it with Tiller.
Tiller, who died Saturday at age 74, immediately transformed the Boilermakers. The burly former CFL offensive lineman with the trademark bushy mustache guided Purdue to a 9-3 record, second-place Big Ten finish and an Alamo Bowl win in his first year. That substance from his spread-it-all-over-the-field style caught the conference’s attention.
“Joe Tiller was ahead of his time, when most people in those days played a more regular-type offense,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who squared off against Tiller three times as Michigan State’s coach. “It was not normal to have to play nickel-and-dime defenses and be spread out all over the field. He did a great job of coaching it, and they did a great job of executing it.”
That main job of executing in Purdue’s glory days under Tiller fell on the shoulders of quarterback Drew Brees. The Texan, recruited only by Purdue and Kentucky among major conference schools, was a little-used backup in 1997. But he seized the starting job as a sophomore and went on to pass for 11,792 yards and 90 TDs. Those marks still stand as a Big Ten records.
In Brees’ first two years as a starter, the Boilermakers went 9-4 and 7-5. Then, he capped his college career with a share of the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth in 2000, Purdue’s first since 1966. In that breakthrough year, the Boilermakers went 8-4 and upset Michigan and Ohio State. Eight times they scored 30 points or more, a big number in those days.
Brees, deep into a likely Hall of Fame career with the New Orleans Saints, remembers Tiller as more than just a coach. “He did so much more than teach us how to win,” Brees tweeted. “He taught us life lessons and how to be great leaders and men.”
To Gophers fans, Tiller and his high-flying offense will be remembered but probably not fondly. Tiller’s teams went 8-2 against Minnesota, including 7-1 in his head-to-head battles with Glen Mason, who began his Gophers career the same year Tiller arrived at Purdue.
Purdue’s most unlikely win over the Gophers came at the Metrodome in 2001, when the Boilermakers trailed 28-25 with 19 seconds left and were backed up to their 3-yard line with no timeouts left. But Brandon Hance hit on passes of 27 and 39 yards, and Travis Dorsch kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired to force overtime. Hance’s 19-yard TD pass to John Standeford in overtime won it 35-28.
“W.O.W. Exclamation mark. Exclamation mark. Exclamation mark,” was how Tiller described the comeback.
Tiller will be honored before and throughout Saturday’s game against the Gophers at Ross-Ade Stadium, and those tributes even will come from Minnesota. Coach P.J. Fleck tweeted Thursday that the Gophers will salute Tiller with a sticker on their helmets featuring that bushy mustache.
“He redefined the passing game that you see today, and really made it difficult to stop,” Fleck said, later adding, “He’s one of the best coaches in Big Ten history, but not only one of the best coaches, one of the best people.”
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune.