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Purdue ICONS #19: Joe Tiller

Today we have the first of three Boilermaker coaches that gained enough votes to crack the top 25. He is a coach that received a lot of criticism in his later years, but after three straight bowl-less years some peoplea re starting to talk about how lucky we were to have him. Joe Tiller will always be known as the man who revived Purdue football. Before he came, we had 13 straight bowl-less seasons and 12 in a row where we won four games or fewer on the field (technically Jim Colletto was 5-4-2 in 1994, but one victory was a forfeit over Michigan State that the Spartans won 42-30). I'd say we were Indiana, but with the way the Hoosiers were playing under Bill Mallory for most of that time it would be too much of an insult considering they nearly made a Rose Bowl or two.

I am contractually obligated to post this in any piece talking about Joe Tiller. I hope you don't mind.

Personally, I will always remember Joe Tiller for my time on campus. He mentored possibly the greatest quarterback in The Cradle and Big Ten history. All of that was going on while I was roaming the hallowed lanes of Purdue. With 188 total votes, Joe Tiller is our 19th rated Purdue ICON.

Tiller's background:

Cowboy Joe, as we know him, was born December 7, 1942, exactly one year after the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. He came into a world where the United States was starting to go on the offensive during World War II, so possibly that is what shaped his personality as an offensive-minded coach.

He would graduate from Rogers HS in Toledo, OH and earn a degree in secondary education from Montana State University. He played offensive tackle for the Bobcats, earning honorable mention All-America honors before getting drafted in the late rounds by the Patriots in 1964. He would play one year in the CFL, but his ultimate call was coaching.

Tiller began coaching as an assistant at Montana State from 1965-70. He then moved to Washington State for three years, where he was an offensive coordinator for two of them. After his short stint with the Cougars the Calgary Stampeders came calling again, and he worked in various roles back in the CFL from 1974-82. He even served as interim head coach for six games, going 2-3-1.

After that, Purdue came calling for the first time. From 1983-86 Tiller served in West Lafayette as Leon Burtnett's assistant head coach. He helped Jim Everett become a noted member of The Cradle and the Boilermakers reached the 1984 Peach Bowl with him. It would be our final bowl game for 13 years. Once Burtnett was fired in favor of Fred Akers, Tiller eventually found himself at Wyoming and his first permanent head coaching job. He took over for the Cowboys in 1991 and went 39-30-1, including 10-2 in 1996.

Basketball on Grass

Those outside of West Lafayette struggle to truly appreciate what Tiller did. When he was named head coach in December of 1996 our program was in shambles. Jim "A tie is as good as a win" Colletto had done a load of diddly squat, pissing away the collegiate career of mike Alstott. Colletto could pull off about one shocking upset per year, but more often than not his teams were known for blowing games. Our 59-56 defeat at Minnesota is still the Big Ten record for most points scored in a regulation loss. His final act was a home loss to Indiana, who came in on an 0-15 streak in Big Ten play.

Honoestly, I didn't know much about Tiller at the time. During the 1997 season I was a senior in high school. I had been going to games with my parents for about 10 years at this point. As my dad said, "We get to see a lot of good football, unfortunately none of it is Purdue." His long-time proclamation of taking us all to Pasadena if Purdue ever went was a fantasy. You see, my dad is hardly the sports fan I am. He gets Purdue football tickets and that is really it. As one of the diehards even he had little hope for this next coach.

Those few hopes were dashed when Tiller promptly lost his first game at Toledo 36-22. Sure, the Rockets went 9-3 that year, but even Colletto rarely lost to MAC teams. Now Notre Dame was coming to town. We hadn't beaten the Fighting Irish in 12 years. My parents took off for Colorado that week, leaving their tickets with my brother-in-law and his brother. I still remember the abuse we took from Notre Dame fans as we walked into the stadium and sat in section 22. We were totally unprepared for the fortunes of Purdue football to change that afternoon.

I wrote about this a few years ago, when my early readers at Off the Tracks voted this game the 4th best win of the Tiller Era. After 12 years of frustration, we turned the tables on the Irish in a 28-17 win that shocked everyone. Usually, ND kicked the living crap out of us, but that day we were actually dominant. The signature play was Rosevelt Colvin sacking Ron Powlus and Adrian Beasley recovering the fumble for a touchdown. It was pretty much on that day that I made up my mind to come to Purdue and be a Boilermaker. I was weighing that and an offer of a half tuition scholarship to Bradley University at the time. It is safe to say that if that upset doesn't happen, you may not be reading this blog today.

We reeled off six wins in a row from that point, eventually finishing 9-3 with a win over Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. The nine wins was three quarters of the 12 we had earned in the previous four seasons combined. Tiller did it by bringing the forward pass to the Big Ten. We were the first true spread team in the conference, and no one had any idea how to stop it. In a span of three weeks we dropped 59, 45, and 48 points on Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Our only conference losses were at Iowa (in a game we led at the half) and at home to Penn State. Best of all, we took the Bucket back by force in a 56-7 stomping. We proceeded to keep it where it belongs for most of a decade. 

My first year on campus was almost as fun, as we saw the beginning of the Drew Brees era with a 9-4 record, another Alamo Bowl win, and suddenly the dream that was Pasadena felt like it could happen. Even though we weren't a surprise anymore, we still were winning. That Alamo Bowl was especially fun because we mopped the floor with the #4 team in the nation and would have won going away if not for numerous special teams mistakes that handed them two touchdowns.

Of course, the high point was January 1, 2001, when I was standing in the north end zone of the Rose Bowl, chills down my spine, as Roy Johnson said "I Am An American". I was a junior that year. I sat in row five for the amazing Michigan comeback and Brees-to-Morales. I ran onto the field in delirious joy after both wins. I was on the field when the Big Ten trophy was presented after another beatdown of IU and roses were in the Bucket. Even then, being there, watching the Boilermakers in the Rose Bowl just as my dad promised us, was probably the best I have ever felt as a Purdue fan.

I said then that it wouldn't be another 34 years before we returned. Well, we're 10 into that period now. There were still a lot of highlights, such as the 2003 team that I feel is the best that Tiller fielded, but we never climbed back to the top of the Big Ten. We settled into a pattern of always being a very good team, but one that kept coming up just short of being great, especially from 2003-05. Tiller retired after the 2008 season, breaking Jack Mollenkopf's career wins record and finishing with a record of 87-61 at Purdue, 10 bowl games in 12 years, three NFL quarterbacks (Brees, Kyle Orton, and Curtis Painter), and a lot of memories. His final game was what he did best: annihilate Indiana. His record against the Hoosiers was 10-2 with four of those wins having Purdue crack 50 points.

That's how we remember Cowboy Joe. He has retired to his ranch out in Wyoming and occasionally comes back to West Lafayette to check in on what he built. His legacy is seen in Ross-Ade Stadium. The nine-figure renovation that includes our shiny Pavillion is a result of him making our football program relevant again. We may have gotten on him for losing a ton of big games, but is it really a bad thing to be a seven win bowl-team year in and year out? Coach Tiller walked away and has no regrets. I have no regrets about the 12 year ride he took us on as fans. Even as bad as things are right now, it is nothing compared to where Purdue football was when he came to West Lafayette. That is why he is an ICON.