Revisiting Tom Dienhart's 2008 column on Purdue's post-Tiller plan

Revisiting Tom Dienhart's 2008 column on Purdue's post-Tiller plan

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Allow me to take you on a trip down memory lane. The day was June 3rd, 2008. iPods still had click wheels. Rickrolling was pretty big. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III was ruling the airwaves. Lil Wayne was still a thing. Also, Tom Dienhart wrote a column about Purdue football for Rivals.com. I stumbled upon it, and it begged to be blogged.

CLICK HERE TO FOLLOW ALONG WITH TOM’S COLUMN. Then cry a little bit.

tl;dr summary: Morgan Burke’s most important decision as athletic director came in 2008, and he failed miserably. That decision was influenced by Joe Tiller’s desire to become Purdue’s all-time wins leader, and that a cheap “Purdue guy” got the gig. That decision has set back the football program to the 80’s, and this athletic department’s culture can not produce another Tiller-esque recovery.

Purdue football in 2008 was coming down from the relative high of Joe Tiller’s reign. 11 years, 10 bowl games, and 51 Big Ten wins made Purdue empirically the fourth best program in the conference.

Purdue football under Tiller

Now, it seemed inevitable that Penn State would leap Purdue, but being a top 5 program in a conference with traditional powerhouses is a pretty great position to be in, even if Purdue’s history identified it as a solidly lower mid-tier program.

This is good! This is great! Programs that are historically mediocre find someone that helps the program innovate and grow (as Cowboy Joe did with “Basketball on Grass”), and once that transformative figure moves on they reach a crossroads.

(All indented quotes are from Tom’s 2008 column.)

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. 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.

There are so many things there.

First, there’s no questioning Tiller’s standing among Purdue coaches (particularly in the scholarship era) and as a disrupting innovator among power conference programs. What was once a gimmick became a clear winning strategy, and it was because Cowboy Joe and his quarterbacks made it possible.

But…the “victory lap” probably should have been 2007, when Tiller started 7-2 and finished with three straight losses to mediocre Penn State and Michigan State squads, along with a demoralizing Bucket Game loss to an inferior IU team in Bloomington. Handing the next coach a pretty good collegiate roster would have been a great way to go out, but the succession plan had been settled.

From multiple 2008 reports, Burke wanted to buy Tiller out, but Tiller wanted to grab those two more wins to earn his official title as “Winningest Purdue football coach”. Definitely not the best reason, because who knows what would have happened if Purdue finished with wins over Michigan State and Indiana.

Either way, Purdue came into the 2008 season knowing it would be Tiller’s last, with a talented enough team and a Heisman Trophy Candidate at quarterback he could finish his career on a high note.

"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."

Good lord, 1997 Joe thought Purdue was the most mediocre 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."

Remember when “the next level” meant a New Year’s bowl and not, let’s say, 4 wins and “just don’t be a national joke” status?

"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."

2009 Purdue recruiting class

 

That was the 2008 recruiting class that Hope’s hiring (and the succession plan) kept together. There were a few gems, but it was the 75th ranked recruiting class in the nation. I'm sure any promising young coach could have kept that together.

I’d much rather Burke tell us the truth, which was “Danny Hope was hella cheap, maybe I can get lucky again because, hell, it worked with Tiller and Matt Painter so why can’t it work again?”

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.

Jimbo Fisher: 64-11, super successful (on the field) at FSU.

Joker Phillips: 13-24, fired by UK after three seasons that went from mediocre to horrendous.

Jim Caldwell: 26-22, got fired after a 2-14 season without Peyton Manning, currently 1-5 with the Detroit Lions, hasn’t blinked since 1973.

Jim Mora Jr.: 5-11, unceremoniously fired after one season.

Soooo maybe stability isn’t guaranteed by a succession plan.

"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)."

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.

Remember, at one point Morgan Burke responded to A LOSS IN A RESPECTED BOWL GAME BY THREATENING TO FIRE THE PROGRAM’S BEST EVER HEAD COACH.

PURDUE HAS CURRENTLY WON FIVE GAMES IN THREE YEARS.

EVERYTHING’S HUNKY DORY.

SORRY. I LOST MY HEAD FOR A SECOND THERE. Let’s move on.

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.

Troy Calhoun: 62-47 in 9 seasons at Air Force, with one down year, unanimously a pretty good coach.

Randy Edsall: went 74-70 in 12 seasons at Connecticut, and 22-33 at Maryland (steady improvements, cratered this year). Was fired last week, after signing a three year extension this summer.

Brian Kelly: 34-6 in four seasons at Cincinnati (after a 1-win first season), 51-21 in six seasons at Notre Dame. Evil incarnate, but a very good recruiter and coach.

Brock Spack: Tiller’s DC for 11 years, is currently 51-27 at Illinois State.

Paul Chryst: hired by Pittsburgh in 2012 and went 19-19, hired by Wisconsin this year and is currently 5-2. Just demolished Purdue three days ago.

Jay Norvell: was Co-Offensive Corrdinator at Oklahoma for six years, is currently a WR coach at Texas.

Jason Garrett: 42-34 in six seasons with the Cowboys, was never going to come to Purdue, someone get Dienhart some smelling salts.

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.

1) Breakfast is usually a great decision-making meal. 2) This is why you make all major decisions over a Triple XXX breakfast. 3) I bet Burke makes soggy bacon.

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.

GOOD THING WE HIRED EGO-LESS DANNY. HE WAS SO PERFECT. THANK GOD WE THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX. LIKE TACO BELL.

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.

GOOD THING HOPE NEVER FOSTERED A CULTURE OF NEGATIVITY, AND KNEW HIS WEAKNESSES.

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."

Sorry, that one was a long one. But I thought it was pretty eye-opening.

We all knew that the biggest gripe against Tiller was his record against ranked teams, and how rare it was to be truly surprised by a Purdue victory. We, as Purdue fans, loved Tiller but knew the time was close for a change.

But if anything was clear by these “calls for more”, it was that Purdue fans were ready to take the next step. Purdue was ready to build on Tiller’s legacy, and ready to become a constant among the rotation of respected power conference programs.

Purdue fans were ready to kiss those laughingstock days goodbye.

Unfortunately, the athletic director with a decade’s-worth of strained conversations with his school’s most successful football coach had other ideas. Tiller's concerns about the school's commitment level were spot-on.

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In 2008, Purdue football had climbed a small hill and reached a crossroads of sorts. One fork went uphill, the other fork remained at the same level, and you lose sight of each path’s destination after a few yards.

Now, make no mistake, the uphill fork wasn’t a paved beauty. It’s jagged, slightly dangerous for weak-ankled hikers, and there’s no guarantee that it would remain elevated after the visible peak. But there’s no doubt it went in a general upward direction, and the furthest you could fall was back to this intermediate hill peak.

The other fork’s path was a little smoother, but the sightlines disappeared much more quickly…there was no way of knowing if all that work you just put in getting up that small hill would be reversed by, let’s say, the path ending at a canyon and you tumbling thousands of feet to your painful and completely preventable death.

Purdue, under Athletic Director Morgan Burke and the entire 2008 decision tree, took the smoother route. The easier route. The route who’s path was much less knowable, only because it was easier and cheaper and much less painful in the short term.

The decision of Burke’s board room was one that thousands of movies and books have taught us: the easy path isn’t always the correct decision.

One last note:

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’s second-biggest regret was negotiating cheapskate contracts with Burke without an agent. Burke closed his wallet during the biggest decision of his tenure and limited Purdue’s 2008 football investment, settling for Danny Hope (at Tiller’s urging). But maybe, just maybe, if Purdue’s athletic department had a little more vision for the program, things in 2015 could look dramatically different.

Tiller Hope Spack Chryst

Unfortunately, Burke’s decisions have left Purdue tumbling down that cliff, with its life flashing before its eyes. The “Holy Toledo”s, the NFL-level talent, the fumbles, the mustaches. But what stands out the most is relevancy; when Purdue wasn’t just a shorthand for “a terrible football program”. When Purdue was much, much more than just a national joke.

I’m not saying one of those candidates identified above (Chryst, Norvell, Calhoun, Edsall or Kelly) would have guaranteed a better result. But it would have been a clear sign from the athletic department that Purdue football means something to the school, and that Purdue truly aims for excellence in every aspect of its existence.

Morgan Burke took the easy route, found a giant chasm waiting for Purdue, and somehow ended up with a parachute of a promotion. The guys on the field (including Hope’s successor), the few fans left watching, and the legacies of Tiller and Burke are the ones left tumbling down that cliff.

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