Drew Brees and Joe Tiller are forever linked. As a result, I am a Drew Brees disciple. For years he has been on my NFL fantasy team, but it was Joe Tiller that made him one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. When I think of my four years in West Lafayette, one of my favorite memories is what Joe and Drew did for three of those four years. November 18, 2000 may have been the pinnacle of Purdue football. That as the day Joe and Drew took us officially to a place few believed was possible. I was there, running onto the field in sheer joy.
It honestly goes back before that for me though. I want to go back to September 13, 1997. I was a senior in high school, just under a month before my 18th birthday. I wasn't sure what choice I was going to make for college. I had many offers on the table. As a National Merit Semifinalist, I had a half-tuition scholarship to Bradley University, while the University of Dayton and Butler University were in my final choices. I didn't know shit about shit. I had a dream of being a sports broadcaster, but I was toying with athletic training as a major. On that day, I walked into Ross-Ade Stadium with my brother-in-law and his brother unsure of what I was going to do. My thoughts of that game a reflected here, but what happened that day is a major reason I became a Boilermaker.
A football game isn't the smartest reason to choose a university. I admit now I could have done better as far as what my life goals are, but I also recognize that I cannot imagine my life without being a Purdue alumnus. I do not regret a thing. Being a Boilermaker is a large part of who I am. It was before I came to Purdue since my father is also an alumnus (School of Pharmacy '75), and I hope it will be when the day comes that Mrs. T-Mill and I have a child. Since I base my Boilermaker status largely on Joe Tiller's tenure as a football coach, he has a large hand in what I hope will someday be a third generation Purdue alumnus.
The Joe Tiller era will end this Saturday. It will end with a whimper of a win over an Indiana team that is poor even by its own standards. Though his time on the sidelines began with an embarrassing loss to a pretty good Toledo team, Tiller shocked everyone by immediately getting the Boilers to a bowl game in his first season. Nine other bowl games followed, tripling the total number of postseason trips made in the 110 years of football that Purdue played before he became coach. His 86 wins tops the school list, but this season alone is enough to question what his final legacy will be.
I, like many of you readers, have seen the entire thing. I was there at the Notre Dame game in 1997 when we shocked the Irish for win #1. I will be there this Saturday when he gets win #86 and the 10th P link goes on the Bucket. I was there for the high, watching from the end zone of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. I was there for the low two weeks ago when we put the finishing touches on the first season with at least seven losses at Michigan State. The fact I was there is reason enough to look at Joe Tiller’s final legacy in a positive light.
Before Tiller came, Purdue was less than an afterthought in college football. We made some very brief noise with Mike Alstott, but other than a bi-annual sellout against Notre Dame the fans stayed away in droves. There was no reason to come to games. As my dad, a season ticket holder for almost 30 years now, once said, "We get to see a lot of good football, but none of it is Purdue. We get to see Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State…" Our opinion of a good season was to beat a couple of MAC teams, win another conference game, and beat Indiana for the Bucket. Even that last part didn’t happen with regularity. The Hoosiers had Bill Mallory and Heisman candidate Anthony Thompson while I was growing up. They were respectable while we were awful. To us, a 4-7 season with the Bucket was a good year.
Tiller changed all that by beating Notre Dame, something Fred Akers and Jim "A tie is as good as a win in the Big Ten" Colletto never did. They rarely even came close. Those that were in the stadium that day saw not just a win that easily made the top five in the "Best wins of the Tiller Era" poll, they saw hope. With that one win, Purdue fans young and old began to believe that maybe, just maybe, we could win more games than we lost. Joe did just that by going 9-3 his first year. He made us believe that we could do it with regularity the next year by going 9-4 and shocking #4 Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl.
What followed that is what will be remembered as the high points. From 1998-2004 Purdue was a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten conference each season. Bowl games were no longer just a treat. Suddenly the Sun Bowl was a disappointment because it wasn’t played a day later. In that span we played on New Year’s Day three times. We had never played on New Year's Day before that (the 1967 Rose Bowl was on January 2). Even though all three games were losses, we stood toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the country. One or two plays could have made all three wins as well. It was a peak that would last until a chilly fall day in October of 2004.
We call it, "The Fumble". With Gameday in town, a #5 national ranking, all the tough remaining games at home, and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback we were right there in the rarified territory of being a candidate for something more than the Big Ten title. We were on the short list for the National Title (something even vaunted Notre Dame can't claim the past 15 years). With eight minutes left against Wisconsin it looked even more likely to happen. What happened next was nothing short of one of the worst stomach punches a college football program can get. Scott Starks’ fumble return of Kyle Orton’s drop, literally inches away from being ruled down, happened so fast no one had time to even cheer the blocked extra point that followed. That one play seemed to have crushed not just the fans, but the collective spirit of the program.
We are 26-30 since that moment. This is after going 60-32 before that. Quite a turning point.
Was this Joe’s fault? As the one ultimately in charge of the program, the answer is yes. Still, there were other factors beyond his control. It is clear that the program has faded from the top down, but we still owe thanks to Joe for getting us to the point where we can believe in more. The stadium itself bears an indelible mark to his legacy in the state of the art pavilion and press box. The fact that he put butts in the seats for 12 years meant the University had more revenue to embark on projects that benefitted other sports like the Mackey Arena renovation. Though things look dark right now, it certainly does not look like it will be another 13 years before we reach another bowl game. More likely it will be another 1-3 years.
This is not the ending we all envisioned. Few people saw the 2008 team as this bad. Injuries and poor performance have hurt us more. There wasn’t a dream of a national title like in 2004 or 2005, but we certainly hoped for more. We’re not going to get it, so Saturday must be Joe’s final send off. This is truly a win at any cost game. I had the joy of walking into Ross-Ade Stadium in late November of 2000 knowing there was no way in hell Indiana was beating us to knock us from the Rose Bowl. Everyone else felt it too. Though only pride is on the line this time, we need to have that attitude again.
Thank you, Joe, for making us believe we can be more. Thank you for 12 years of work and dedication. Thank you for shaping the life of this life-long Boilermaker. I have screwed up many things in my life. Graduating from Purdue University is one of the few things I am unashamedly proud of. Joe Tiller is a major reason that I am a Purdue alumnus, and I thank him for that. I know he doesn't have a lot of respect for bloggers, but I thank him from the bottom of my heart for having the role he did in shaping my life.