June 3, 2008

Tiller changed Purdue and Big Ten football

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Purdue coach Joe Tiller is smiling. He's even a little playful. You would be, too, if you were within third-and-short of retirement.

On this late May day, Tiller glances out his office window toward Ross-Ade Stadium. Tiller is a big man with shoulders and arms any Teamster would be proud of. But he's as much teddy bear as he is grizzly bear, a family man whose focus drifts toward tomorrow as he fingers his trademark mustache, picks up a stack of photos and points.

"This is the house my wife and I are building in Wyoming," he says. "It will be nice. My wife, Arnette, will have another place where she can do her artwork."

Tiller, 65, smiles again, then quickly turns serious as he mentions the upcoming season. It will be Tiller's "victory lap," a cherry on top of what posterity will preserve as a glorious 12-year run for the Boilermakers. Tiller will leave Purdue as the school's greatest coach.

Joe Tiller has made Purdue one of the Big Ten's better programs, forging the fourth-best league record since his tenure began in 1997. Making the achievement more remarkable is that Tiller's recruiting classes have been ranked as high as third in the league just once by Rivals.com since 2002. And Tiller has worked with fewer resources (salary pool for assistants, for instance) and lesser facilities than many of the schools he's ahead of. Here's a look at the Big Ten standings from 1997-2007:
Ohio State66-2210
Penn State48-407
Michigan State 36-525
Indiana 22-661

He'll also leave as a guy who changed the way the game is played in the Big Ten.

The proof? His second victory this fall will make him the winningest coach in Boilermakers history, surpassing Jack Mollenkopf. And it's almost a sure thing he'll lead Purdue to an 11th bowl in 12 seasons. His Boilers, led by quarterback Curtis Painter, could be could be a Big Ten dark horse.

Tiller has breathed life into a dreary Purdue program that had gone 54-107-5 with one bowl in the 15 seasons before he arrived. Even more remarkable: Fueled by quarterback Drew Brees, Tiller delivered a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl bid in 2000, the school's first since the 1966 season.

If that's not enough, Tiller will be remembered as the guy who forever changed Big Ten football with his version of the spread offense brought from Wyoming in 1997. Tiller's teams passed, passed, then passed some more, puncturing the notion that 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust was the only way to win in the land-lubbing Big Ten.

"I never thought I'd be here this long," says Tiller, who is 83-54 at Purdue after forging a 39-30-1 mark at Wyoming from 1991-96. "I figured I'd be here for four or five years and then move on to another job."

Tiller had his chances. Colorado called. Washington talked to Tiller. And Nebraska sniffed around. The closest Tiller came to bolting was to North Carolina. But Tiller stayed, committed to making a Purdue program that had become a punch line into a relevant national entity.

Alas, Tiller has become a casualty of his own success. Fans who have sipped from the Rose Bowl cup and gone to two marquee Florida bowls (Outback in the 1999 season and Capital One in the 2003 season) have grown restless with Tiller's inability to consistently deliver Purdue to that nebulous "next level."

Before Tiller rides off to the Wyoming sunset, he'll groom Danny Hope for the coaching job. Hope was hired over the winter as a coach-in-waiting. Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke was familiar with this, as he laid out a similar plan in basketball for Matt Painter to follow Gene Keady a few years ago.

"It was important that we have a good transition to help with recruiting," Burke says. "We look at the program as a stool with five legs, each representing a recruiting class. If we lose a big portion of one of those legs, we will be in trouble as a program. By doing this (succession plan), we ensured we kept what we feel is a pretty good class together. We only lost one player in this process."

Schools hatching succession plans are the latest craze. Florida State has Jimbo Fisher cued up to take over for Bobby Bowden. Joker Phillips is next in line at Kentucky. Even a few NFL teams are in on the act, with Jim Caldwell poised one day to assume command from Tony Dungy with the Colts and Jim Mora Jr. tabbed to take over the Seahawks from Mike Holmgren in 2009.

"This sort of started shortly after we lost to Maryland in the Champs Bowl (after the 2006 season)," Tiller says. "I was supposed to get a contract extension, but I met with Morgan shortly after the game and he said he couldn't do it. He said he was getting a lot of e-mails (following Purdue's performance vs. the Terrapins)."

Tiller knew his time was short, that an extended deal was more for cosmetic reasons to help recruiting. Still, he wanted a year added to his deal or at least assurances of his tenure through 2008.

As the 2007 season dawned, insiders say Tiller had several showdowns with Burke. It got to a point after a late-season loss to Michigan State where Tiller threatened to resign before the final game if something couldn't be worked out to finalize his exit from Purdue. After the season, Tiller and Burke came to an agreement to guarantee Tiller's employment through the 2008 season. And the seeds of the succession plan began to grow.

"I don't know if succession plans are a trend," Burke said. "We had a good situation for one here because we had a veteran coach. It was the same situation as our basketball team. We had our coaches (Tiller and Keady) involved in the process, but the ultimate decision was made by the university."

Burke contacted a search firm in Atlanta to help identify candidates. Air Force's Troy Calhoun, Connecticut's Randy Edsall and Cincinnati's Brian Kelly were targeted, but they were too pricey. The search shifted to Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, UCLA offensive coordinator Jay Norvell, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and Hope, an assistant to Tiller at Wyoming (1996) and Purdue (1997-2001) who was coach at Division I-AA Eastern Kentucky.

Joe Tiller is 65 and headed for retirement after the 2008 season. Here's a look at other I-A coaches who are 60 or older. (In case you're wondering, there are just five I-A coaches under 40: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald (33), Wisconsin's Bret Bielema (37) Florida International's Mario Cristobal (37), Temple's Al Golden (37) and Kansas State's Ron Prince (38).

"I was the one who recommended Danny," Tiller says. "He had done a good job at Eastern Kentucky. And Danny understood Purdue."

The field quickly was winnowed, and Burke and Tiller met at Burke's house for breakfast to weigh the pros and cons of the finalists: Chryst and Hope. In the end, Hope 35-22 in five years at EKU, with one Ohio Valley Conference title was the choice.

"I have a lot of friends here in town," Hope says. "I had a great experience the first time that I coached here. I was very fortunate to come in with Coach Tiller on the ground level, and we had great fun. It made a huge impact on my life and I'm just thrilled to be back."

Hope, 49, is a recruiting dynamo with a pinch of country charisma. He's also perfect for the Purdue job. The coach at this ultimate "think inside the box" university has to be devoid of ego. The school is utterly un-urbane. Even worse, Purdue forever will be the third wheel in a three-wheel race in its own state behind Notre Dame and Indiana. But that doesn't mean Purdue can't be the best of the trio and it frequently was under Tiller.

Hope knows all of this, which is why he's ideal. There will be no surprises, no illusions of having the biggest and the best of everything, which was the case for Fred Akers during his disastrous reign from 1987-90. Jim Colletto followed from 1991-96, but he too often dwelled on what he didn't have and created a culture of negativity.

Like Tiller, Hope understands Purdue. He knows its strengths. He knows its weaknesses. And he knows he can win here.

"It would have been difficult to bring in someone from the outside who had no connection to Purdue," Tiller says.

Tiller smiles again. He's happy Hope, who's one of his guys, will follow him. Still, many around the program felt Spack, a loyal Tiller soldier and a Purdue alum, should have been given the job. But if it wasn't Spack, Hope was the guy. He has a year to learn the personnel, recruit and understand his staff.

Tiller knows it's time for him to leave. As he likes to say, there are trout swimming in a stream in Buffalo, Wyo., calling his name.

"I talk a lot about fly-fishing," says Tiller, who is preparing his West Lafayette house for sale. "But I honestly haven't done it much. It takes a lot of practice. And I intend to get good at it."

Tiller swears we won't see him much, if at all, in 2009. He wants to "get away" for at least a year.

"Then, I'll see," Tiller says. "I wouldn't mind looking into TV work. And I would love to be a headhunter, helping colleges look for coaches. I know just about everyone in the sport."

BIGGEST WIN: "It has to be the 1997 win over Notre Dame. That was the catalyst. And we also had had some students die in a plane crash that week, so many feel the win helped the campus heal, too."
TOUGHEST LOSS: "When we lost in overtime at Ohio State in 2003. I thought we took as good a team as we had into Columbus that day. To this day, that's the loudest game I ever have been at. I could not hear anything in my headset."
STRANGEST JOB: "When I was with the (CFL's) Calgary Stampeders working in personnel, I also was in charge of running the stadium. I got involved in helping organize rock concerts. I wasn't into rock and roll (in the 1970s) since I had three young kids. Alice Cooper came in and I asked someone, "What kind of music does she play?" We nearly had a riot because he wouldn't go on the stage. At one point, they couldn't find his snake. But he delivered a heck of show when he finally got out there."
CD COLLECTION: "I have a lot of them. Frank Sinatra is one of my favorites. I have Kenny Chesney, the Eagles, I even have some Bee Gees. And I love Michael Bolton. I think he would make a great country singer."

Tiller needs the time away from football. The past few seasons have been trying. Tiller may deny it, but many feel his relationship with Burke has been strained for most of this decade. Even worse, there's a sense his program has grown stale.

Purdue is 29-27 in the Big Ten since 2001. And big wins have been few, with the Boilers going 12-34 vs. ranked teams during Tiller's tenure. And while he has delivered a lot of bowls, most have been of the "who cares?" variety.

Still, you have to remember where Purdue was before his arrival: The school had been to five bowls total.

"They all want more," Tiller says. "And I'm not sure we're equipped to do that here. When you look at the size of our stadium and compare other resources it's difficult. I even compromised some of my personal beliefs in dealing with players (keeping some bad attitudes on the team). That's one of my big regrets."

Tiller's other big regret: never having an agent. That's a big reason he has been underpaid.

At this point, Tiller reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out his W-2 forms from 1997-2006. In 1997, Tiller made $338,861. He didn't pass the $1 million mark until 2004. Tiller, who still makes less than most similarly tenured coaches, has totaled his salaries from 1997-2006, and it comes to $8,286,944 an average of $690,662.

Tiller's high point was 2007, when he made $1.56 million a figure bolstered by a one-time stay bonus worth $300,000. This year, Tiller will make $1.2 million.

Tiller isn't bitter. He knows being a college coach is about more than money. It's about having former players such as wide receiver Brian Alford stopping by his office with his three children, telling them Tiller is the guy who saved his life.

"I told Brian to hold on," Tiller says of the former All-Big Ten player he helped straighten out academically in 1997. "I didn't have that big of an impact on him."

Oh, but you did, Coach. The footprint Tiller will leave at this place is formidable. Tiller changed player's lives, revived a program and made it matter. And he altered forever the way a conference played football.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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