I still remember September 13, 1997. I was a month short of my 18th birthday and remember trudging to Ross-Ade Stadium with my brother-in-law and his Purdue alumni brother as Purdue got ready to play No. 11 Notre Dame. We were fresh off of a 14-point loss at Toledo and riding a 12-game losing streak to the Irish. It certainly looked like the Joe Tiller period of Purdue football was going to be just like the previous few years I remember seeing while growing up.
Then we shocked Notre Dame 28-17, and everything changed.
The Ross-Ade pavilion, the $65 million football facility, even the Mackey Arena renovations: all of that grew from a seed planted on September 13, 1997 when coach Tiller upset the Irish. Within a few years the beginning of the modern wave of new facilities on Purdue’s campus would start, all because Tiller elevated the program into a moneymaker (before Burke let it decline). The pavilion itself was built partially on funds from Tiller’s trip to Pasadena.
That’s why it is so sad to see the news this morning from several former players that coach Tiller has passed away at his home in Wyoming:
We are saddened to report that Joe Tiller has passed away in Buffalo, Wyoming. Condolences to Arnette, Julie, Renee and Mike. RIP.— Purdue Football (@BoilerFootball) September 30, 2017
Today is a sad day for myself, teammates and all of Boiler Nation. Coach Tiller has passed away. One of the great influences in my life.— Kelly Kitchel (@Kelly_Kitchel) September 30, 2017
RIP Coach Tiller. Help Turned me from a short fat black kid to an NFL champion. Changed my life, I'll always love you for that. Rest easy, see you when I get there, coach— Chukky Okobi (@Chukky412) September 30, 2017
Saddened to learn of the death of former Purdue football coach Joe Tiller. Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord...— 46 WHME Sports (@46Sports) September 30, 2017
Can confirm former #Purdue head football coach Joe Tiller has passed away at age of 74 . Funeral will be held on October 12.— Andrew Pogar (@AndrewPogar) September 30, 2017
I obviously have a soft spot for coach Tiller, as the height of his era happened while I was a student at Purdue. I was right there in front watching Drew Brees and co. make us believe that Pasadena could actually happen. I was there on that glorious day when the Boilermakers returned to Pasadena for only the second time ever.
Coach Tiller was more than just Purdue’s all-time winningest coach. He revived a culture at Purdue that had been long dormant. He built a program where they said it could not be built (making it all the more sad that it was torn down once he retired). He was lionized as a hero and stood by Purdue University even when other schools came calling. When it was time for him to retire he stepped aside and rode off to Wyoming, never interfering with those that came after, but always proud to see the Boilers do well.
It also hurts because Tiller bears a striking resemblance to my dad. They both have the same mustache, genial smile, and gruff laugh. He just happened to be a really good football coach instead of a pharmacist from Kokomo. When Tiller was hired in 1996 it really looked like my dad had been hired.
It is sad he did not live to see something rightfully named after him in relation to the program. We have the Mollenkopf practice facility named after Jack Mollenkopf, but either the performance facility or the field needs to bear Tiller’s name. He means that much to us.
I know of Purdue’s place in the college football world. We will never be Alabama, or Ohio State, or USC. For a short season from 1997 to 2004 coach Tiller had us rubbing shoulders with them, however. He made us believe. He gave us great joy on Saturday afternoons.
Coach Tiller, you will be missed.