Analysis: Why was Joe Tiller so successful at Purdue?

Brian Neubert, staff
Gold and Black


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Purdue had won during its football history prior to Joe Tiller's arrival, but never as consistently and only rarely in such memorable fashion.

The late former Boilermaker coach seemed to redefine "possible" at Purdue during his 12-year run, during which he won a school-record 87 games, took the program to 10 bowl games and claimed a share of the Big Ten title — and the Rose berth that came with it — in 2000 and created scores of memories that should resonate with those Purdue fans who witnessed it all for quite some time.

But why? Why was the former Wyoming coach successful at Purdue?

It's a multi-layered answer.

Fit: The product of modest Midwestern roots who'd come up through the coaching ranks the hard way in difficult jobs — he didn't get his first head coaching job until he was nearly 50 — Tiller's demeanor and personality fit well at modest Midwestern Purdue and his diversity of experience wired him well for the job ahead and the resources available.

While he did in time come to grow frustrated at times with the very real limitations at Purdue and on occasion its lack of appeal to bigger-name recruits, his background coming up through lower-profile coaching outposts out west — and Canada — in addition to a prior stint at Purdue suited him well in his Big Ten post.

His personality fit well in the community and likely would have earned him a certain likeability quotient among fans even if he'd not won right away, as would have the creative style of football he brought to the program.

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Style: Tiller was an innovator, a Dennis Erickson and Jack Elway disciple and one of the pioneers of the spread-offense passing philosophy, the style that has come to change the way offense is played in college football nowadays. He may not have necessarily invented the offense, he was maybe the first to win big with it and certainly brought a great deal of attention to it.

That novelty immediately leveled the playing field for Purdue in the treacherous Big Ten, a league widely skeptical of whether that offense could truly work among its numerous elite programs, particularly after the late Jim Wacker had found only so-so results with a similar style at Minnesota earlier.

But Tiller and his staff believed in it and that belief paid off in a big way.

But almost as significant as the offensive mindset Tiller brought to Purdue was the defensive identity he and coordinator Brock Spack implemented.

Understanding the difficulties of recruiting high-end defensive talent to Purdue, they schemed to complement a quick-strike offense with a big-play defense. They put speed wherever they could, blitzed constantly and cut loose their edge rushers, birthing the program's now-storied "Den of Defensive Ends."

Putting a premium on sacks and turnovers fit well with an offense that for better and worse didn't figure to be on the field very long, and almost certainly gave it a better chance for success than holding up against the run for sustained periods would have.

The synergy Purdue built between offense and defense is one of the more overlooked keys to the Boilermakers' success under Tiller.

Personnel Management: As a football coach, Tiller's legacy should lie significantly in his eye for, and management of, players.

It changed Purdue's fortunes immediately.

Where prior coaches saw a big, relatively slow tight end in Matt Light, Tiller saw an offensive tackle. The result: Light's a borderline NFL Hall-of-Famer. Where prior coaches saw a defensive tackle in Brandon Gorin, Tiller saw a long, athletic and cerebral offensive tackle to bookend Light.

Gilbert Gardner went from high school wide receiver to starting middle linebacker, as a true freshman, on a Rose Bowl team. Ralph Turner was an athletic quarterback who helped Purdue win a whole bunch of games as a safety.

Tiller overcame some recruiting limitations at Purdue by evaluating at a high level, turning athletic defensive linemen into offensive linemen, big safeties into fast linebackers and so on.

Defense got right of first refusal on the best athletes, because the system could overcome it on offense.

The emphasis on versatile athleticism manifested itself in an emphasis on signing quarterbacks and running backs in bulk, the presumption being that the best athletes played those positions for their high schools.

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Recruiting: Yes, Tiller was right that there were limitations in recruiting at Purdue, but he and his staffs certainly took that element of program-building to a new level.

Tiller mostly surrounded himself with young, hungry, personable assistant coaches who excelled in that phase of the job and himself served as an effective eye in evaluation and "closer" in living rooms, with his personable, disarming nature.

And identity mattered.

Tiller gave Purdue a distinct one on offense — making it a national player for quarterbacks, in particular — and defense alike and made the Boilermakers a "fun" option on both sides of the ball, while also building a program by out-evaluating the field and moving, developing or finding systematic fits with under-recruited players. The examples are too many to list.

Staffing: As in recruiting, Tiller possessed an uncanny eye for coaching talent, an ability to continually find and hire promising young coaches with the energy the program needed and an asking price that could work.

His first criteria was staff chemistry, making the interview process a staff-wide endeavor.

And all along the way, Tiller empowered his coaches to handle their areas free of micromanagement, earning significant collateral with those who worked for him.

Belief: It's now stuff of legend at Purdue how Tiller reacted to a rather one-sided loss at Toledo in his debut.

It was his calm, assuring response to that disappointing loss that, those involved will tell you, that buoyed the Boilermakers heading into Week 2 against Notre Dame, an upset that will long be remembered as one of the greatest wins in school history and the nudge that got the ball rolling on the Tiller Era.

There are numerous examples of Purdue snatching victories from the jaws of defeat in most improbable fashion — typically Michigan State was involved — that also spoke to Tiller's knack for instilling belief.

His relaxed, stoic sideline demeanor was its foundation.


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