Joe Tiller -- What Might Have Been

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With all the Tiller-love floating at Big Ten media day and likely throughout this season for what he’s done at Purdue, let me take a moment to talk a bit about what could have been.

Sure, we here at BS appreciate what ol’ Joe has done for the program. Lord knows all of us were at Purdue in the ‘90s, living through the Fred Akers Experience as well as the Jim Colletto...debacle. So, yes, to preface this, we definitely know how good things have been in comparison. But do you realize how good they could have been? And I’m not talking about “if only we’d not gotten blown out all those times!” I mean, simple things. Easy to fix things. Made our own opportunities and caught a few breaks. Your know, things that get taken care of by a well-prepared football team.

Coach Tiller has guided the Boilers to three 9-win seasons, plus three more 8-win seasons. Which means we’ve had five legitimate chances at 10-win seasons during Joe’s 11 years at the helm. Do you know how many teams in the Big Ten have not had a 10-win season during Joe’s years in West Lafayette? Just three – the Boilers, Northwestern (who did have a ten-win season in 1995, however) and, of course, the Hoosiers. Still, that’s upsetting.

So what could Joe’s tenure have looked like? I’m so glad you asked. Now bear in mind we’re not suggesting we “got robbed” in any of these cases, etc. Please understand that – fact is, our program is where it is on its own merits (or demerits?). But it’s fun to think about how things might be different if the close calls went the other way.

Let’s take a look.*

1997
Record: 9-3
Shoulda been: 10-2

In Coach Tiller’s first season, he took over a squad made up of Jim Colletto recruits that had just gone 3-8 in 1996 and turned them into an 8-3 regular season team that won a bowl game. We were all delirious, yes it’s true. And none of us would trade that awesome, fun season for anything. Those of us who saw it and had experienced what preceded it loved it. But let’s look at that season.

Overall, the Boilers went 9-3, including an excellent Alamo Bowl victory. However, they opened Coach Tiller’s tenure with a two-TD loss at Toledo. This was followed by six straight wins, including the first in a while over Notre Dame. There were theories that Tiller was sandbagging against Toledo and not showing his full arsenal – and if you look back at that game it sure looks that way – and was holding his cards close to his vest until unleashing hell on ND. I do remember thinking if we’d only been able to beat that Toledo team, we’d have opened the season 7-0. It was unfathomable. Boilerdowd, as he tends to do, brought me back to reality by pointing out that a victory in that first game might have affected our boys and they might not have been able to keep winning if they had the “undefeated” tag attached to them. A good point.

However, had they simply taken that first game, suddenly that’s a 10-2 team. Is that a guarantee? No, but it sure appears possible.

1998
Record: 9-4
Shoulda been: 11-2

Tiller’s second season continued the thrill ride as we were not yet spoiled enough to expect solid seasons. And yet here it came again. But just like his first year, Tiller’s team stumbled out of the gate on the road, losing by ten at USC. And let’s not forget, this isn’t Pete Carroll USC – this is Paul Hackett USC, a team that went 8-5 in 1998. Still, not an unreasonable loss.

No, the unreasonable botch in 1998 came up at the dirtcloud known as Notre Dame Stadium, when the Boilers squandered a chance to finally win there and lost, 31-30. One of the more painful losses to the Domers, and as it turned out, the one close one that definitely got away and stood between the Boilers and a ten-win season. The other two losses were @ Wisconsin (an 11-1 team the Boilers only lost by seven to, in Camp Randall) and @ Penn State.

The unforgettable Alamo Bowl over #4 Kansas State wrapped up a blissful season for the Boilermaker faithful.

2000
Record: 8-4
Shoulda been: 10-2

The 2000 season, despite only being an eight-win campaign, will stand out in the minds of any Purdue fan under the age of 50 as one of the true magical seasons. How can this be, though, with four losses? Trust us, we’re Purdue.

It was Drew Brees’ senior season and it culminated with a Rose Bowl appearance and Big Ten championship. Clutch wins over Michigan and Ohio State – in literally almost unbelievable circumstances – made this a truly incredible season. So what kept it from being a 10 or 11 win season?

An inexplicable loss at Notre Dame, 23-21, in a game that Brees simply proved he just couldn’t do it in South Bend. Penn State in Happy Valley, long a tough place to play, turned up a 22-20 heartbreaker. And a complete letdown game November 11 at Michigan State (losing 30-10) a week after the biggest win in Tiller’s tenure over OSU at home.

And then, of course, the Boilers came out for warm-ups at the Rose Bowl wearing helmets with roses through the Purdue “P” on the side. We knew we were in trouble then. Could any of the Notre Dame, PSU and MSU games have gone the other way? Sure. And losing to a 5-6 (2-6 in the Big Ten) MSU team was simply unacceptable.

2003
Record: 9-4
Shoulda been: 11-2

Purdue once again begins the year with a loss, this time to Bowling Green. But this one hurt especially bad because it was at home and was by one point. A little-known trivia fact is that this was the one game that Purdue wore their gold uniforms with black numbering on them. The previous year’s gold with white numbers at home were impossible to read from a distance or on TV and were universally panned, resulting in the new versions. Well, after losing in the new ones, too, Joe Tiller deemed the black the only way to go and so for the second home game of the year, the team burst out to “Back in Black,” and went on to not only destroy Arizona 59-7, but to also win six in a row to race out to a 6-1 start to the season.

And then they went to Michigan, where Joe pooped himself and the Boilers got destroyed 31-3. However, they rebounded to win two more in a row to move to 8-2 with three games to go, including the bowl. Sadly, only a victory over IU was in the cards, as the Boilers lost a squeaker at OSU, 16-13, and by a TD in the Cap One Bowl to UGA.

So what game could easily have been a win? Well, despite OSU being an 11-win team, the loss there could easily have been a victory. And if you want to talk about “shouda beens,” I think we can safely say the opening game against BG was a missed opportunity at a ten-win season. Damn gold unis.

2004
Record: 7-5
Shoulda been: 12-0


I was originally only going to mention seasons where the Boilers came within one or two missed opportunities of winning ten games, but I have to mention 2004 as well because this was the best 7-5 team ever. At least for the first half of the season. Talent, poise, leadership, confidence… this team had it all. And then “The Fumble” happened.

Purdue won its first two games by a combined score of 110-7. Then they overcame the trap game they usually lose under Joe, beating Illinois in Champaign 38-0. And then came almost everyone’s favorite Purdue-Notre Dame memory of the past 15 years, the 41-16 pasting by Orton and company, followed by a third straight road win over Penn State. Now, let’s think about this – beating three straight teams on the road, two of them being ND and PSU. This was not the Purdue we had come to know. This was a team that believed – and had us all believing – that anything could happen and that maybe – just maybe – we’d finally turned the corner as a program and that all the pieces might just be in the right places. Orton was being talked about for Heisman, Tiller seemed to be keeping an even keel, the players were working hard… it all looked good.

Even ESPN thought so, actually sending the GameDay crew to Purdue for the first and only time ever. And I remember Kirk Herbstreit listing his “Top 5” in the country and they went basically according to the AP poll – with Purdue being #5. How crazy was this? ESPN on campus, the Boilers undefeated, a night game that the whole nation was sort of paying attention to. Crazyness.

The crazyness continued into the game, with the Boilers playing strong, solid, SMART defense and holding a 17-7 lead with eight minutes to go. They hadn’t tried to do things they shouldn’t against a strong Wisco team. As I said, they played smart and plodding football and worked themselves into a position to win. I even admit, I was feeling good, up ten with eight minutes left at home and with Kyle Orton at the helm. What would our rank be? 3? 4?

Then Orton fumbled, Wisconsin recovered and the Purdue football program…. well, it still hasn’t recovered. Gut-wrenching losses at home to Michigan (16-14), at Northwestern (13-10) and at Iowa (23-21) dropped the Boilers to 5-4 and the season, despite not being completely outplayed in any game, was lost. Somehow, they managed to get up for the OSU game and won by seven, but that only rubbed in the salt, with all of wondering how great that win over OSU would have felt if we’d gotten wins in those close games leading up to it. Everyone, from players to fans, vented their frustration the final week is a 63-24 thrashing of IU. But as I said, it was a lost season and one with long-standing impact on the program. They shouldn't have lost ANY of the games they did.

2006
Record: 8-6
Shoulda been: 10-4

While the ’04 team was a hell of a lot better than 7-5, this team was the worst 8-win team you’ll ever see. When you looked at the 13-game regular season, you could EASILY project ten possible wins. And a 4-0 start got us thinking it even more. They’d only need to go 6-3 down the stretch – totally possible.

But then the soft underbelly of the team was exposed and they were blown out or otherwise dominated in four of the next five games to be at 5-4 after nine contests. Still, five winnable games remained on the schedule if you included the bowl game, and after they reeled off three straight wins to run to 8-4, I remember telling boilerdowd that we had no excuse not to win ten.

Well, we went out to Hawaii and allowed Colt Brennan’s system offense to hang on for a 42-35 win – which wasn’t bad since after basically not showing up for the first half, the Boilers roared back in the second half. Still, it wasn’t to be and the team apparently decided they didn’t care one bit about the bowl game, losing in uninspiring fashion to Maryland. (“Crab cakes and football – that’s what Maryland DOES!”)

2007
Record: 8-5
Shoulda Been: 11-2

Again, an eight-win season that felt like a lost season. Perhaps we’re getting restless now, but when you look at the lineup the Boilers had to face, ten wins doesn’t sound ludicrous. And a 5-0 start will only make you think it’s even more possible, knowing you only need a 5-3 finish to make it happen.

And then you lose to OSU at home and UM on the road – okay, par for the course. I could even take this consistent failure against these schools if we took care of business everywhere else. But losses by a TD at PSU and inexcusably by 17 against MSU – at HOME – are just not okay. PSU wasn’t that good last year and MSU wasn’t, either – plus they were in our house. Losing to IU was just another kick in the testicles – such is life as a Purdue fan.

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So what if all of this had happened? Joe would literally be a legend in West Lafayette and the program would be on a steady upswing. Sure, we'd basically be Kansas State of the 1990s with a bunch of 10 and 11 win seasons and little to show for it, but still, I might take that. Let us know what you think.

*Warning – reliving these seasons and looking back at the links provided that show the game-by-game results may be depressing to your health and encumber your sexual performance. Consider yourselves warned.

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