The basement of my house pays homage to Purdue sports...We've got photos from tailgates, a gold towel given to the students back in 1996, other pieces of memorabilia, six different Purdue football helmets (from different periods)...all sorts of stuff. A couple of the pieces in my collection that I really appreciate have Joe Tiller's signature on them. One of them can't be purchased, and that's why I like it so much.
Back in 1997 following Purdue's victory over UND, I wrote the new football coach a note. In the note I wrote of how I liked meeting him months earlier when I was a counselor at Tark (as he made some P.R. rounds throughout campus), it also talked about how excited I was for what was ahead with Coach Tiller as the program's new leader. He responded, in less than seven days, with a hand-written quick note on a Purdue Football note card-
Thanks for all of your congratulatory comments...we all appreciate your thoughtfulness. Keep the faith!
Not a big deal, but it meant a lot to me. I've talked to the man on the phone on his weekly call-in show a few times, and shook his hand around campus...and he's always been pleasant and I've always liked the guy. But, none of these stories would have been as noteworthy had Joe Tiller not had success as Purdue's head football coach. As he once said he was hired "...to win a championship..." He did just that in his fourth season as Purdue's head coach...That might be the problem.
Whether or not you believe Tiller belongs in the conversation with Nobel Kizer and "Fat" Jack Mollenkopf as the greatest football coach that Purdue has had can be debated, but he's definitely in the top-three...and his importance to the program and the greater athletic department is immense. After all, he knocked the cobwebs loose from a fanbase and a machine that greatly needed a reminder that it could once again be successful.
I've heard proponents of the coach say that he was a victim of his own success...There's truth in that- he rose the bar from the murky depths of the conference cellar to the upper third of the conference in no-time flat...doing so with players that no one thought he could win with. So many thought there would be another level of success as recruiting began to reflect the upward trend on the field. Sadly, the illusive and mytical "next level" never came. But the level his teams reached during his apex in West Lafayette were very respectable.
Purdue garnered national attention in the pre-season publications, and more-importantly by being invited to major bowls at the season's end. While keeping the streak of bowl games alive became more important than winning championships, his teams went from the top third of the conference, to the middle, to where we are now.
Coach Tiller has changed...and no one's blaming him for the change. I know a ton of 60 year old men who simply don't want to work as hard as they did in their 30s, 40s or 50s...I think I'll probably be that way. But, college football demands the type of time, passion and attention to detail that a younger Joe Tiller had. I appreciate what he gave to my alma mater, but it wasn't charity work, he was paid well to deal with the highs and the lows. And, until a few seasons ago, I felt he more than earned his seven-figure salary.
But coaching is still a hired position, in turn, he's not a king...and in my opinion, he didn't earn the right to do the job at anything less than 100%. He set his goals high and the fans, alums and students all followed with raised expectations; Perhaps he's set the groundwork that he set will lead to more championships...Only time will tell.
Regardless of what Danny Hope accomplishes in his tenure as Purdue football's next head coach, history will judge his predecessor well...his years at Purdue will be viewed as overwhelmingly successful. And as time passes, the Purdue family will look back more fondly on the Joe Tiller Era.