Rest Easy, Cowboy Joe
It’s been confirmed this morning that Joe Tiller, the man who put Purdue football back on the map after a very long time in purgatory, has died of complications from congestive heart failure. Coach Tiller was 74.
Purdue hired Joe Tiller in 1997 after a long period of darkness for the football program. They had not been above .500 or to a bowl game since 1984 (and even that ’84 season was just 7-5 and was preceded by three more under .500 campaigns). To say interest had waned was an understatement. Mike Alstott had just come through town and hadn’t gotten close to a bowl game for his efforts. Morgan Burke then made perhaps the best hire of his entire AD tenure.
Joe Tiller turned Purdue immediately from a 3-8 team in 1996 to a 9-3 squad in 1997. Purdue hadn’t won nine games since 1980 (when his players were either barely born or were toddlers at most), but they bought in fast following a win over Notre Dame, their first in twelve years.
Tiller brought with him from Wyoming (where they won ten games in his final season, reached as high as 16 in the polls and weren’t invited to a bowl) what could only be described as a high-octane offense. It was quickly called “basketball on grass” and was the most exciting offense in the Big Ten. As Joe would say, at some places, the run sets up the pass…. at Purdue under Tiller, the pass set up the pass. And while the spread might not seem unusual today, it was pretty much unheard of in the Big Ten in 1997. Don't let anyone tell you differently -- Joe Tiller changed the way football was played in the Big Ten. That's pretty amazing.
Purdue became the team nobody wanted to deal with. The fans caught on, too, and the 1-2-3-FIRST DOWN chant was born. As my co-editor Boilerdowd likes to tell it, that always worked really well when it was a constant reminder to the other team that Purdue was relentlessly marching up and down the field. Purdue had a swagger, a cockiness…and it was fun.
Tiller owned Nick Saban, and I personally remember coming back to Purdue in 1999 when Michigan State came in ranked 5th in the nation under Saban and Drew and the Boilermakers demolished them 52-28. Good times, indeed.
Over his career, he went 10-2 against Indiana and 5-7 against Notre Dame (which, yeah, is under .500, but was still a lot of fun to know there was a legit chance every year) and is the all-time winningest football coach in Purdue history.
Coach Tiller also brought Purdue their first (and as yet only) win at Notre Dame since 1974, an utter pasting by the Kyle Orton led Boilermakers in 2004, which led to one of our all-time favorite photos of Coach (at right).
Tiller took Purdue to a previously unheard-of eight straight bowls and ten in his twelve years at the helm. He taught us to expect to compete, to expect to win…and to have fun doing it. And perhaps most importantly, he taught us that going to the Rose Bowl could happen at Purdue. The 2000 season featured miracle comebacks, Seth “holy toledo” Morales (listen to that crowd) and culminated in a win over Indiana to go to the Rose Bowl:
Joe Tiller, quite simply, was as good as we remember him. He was a crusty guy who didn’t always say the right thing and didn’t really care what others thought of that. He made players and fans believe that great things were possible…and he delivered.
The Purdue community has lost one of its favorite people and it comes on a Saturday during college football season but one in which Purdue has a bye. So perhaps it’s fitting that the stadium he made come to life again will be dark and quiet for this weekend as we remember Coach Tiller. But after that period of reflection, Ross-Ade will be full, loud and rocking next Saturday….just the way he would have liked it.
Rest easy, Coach.