Note: This story initially appeared in the September/October issue of Gold and Black Illustrated. A group of former players and coaches from Purdue, Wyoming and Joe Tiller's alma mater Montana State gathered in Buffalo, Wyo., on July 1-2, 2017 to celebrate Tiller's 50th wedding anniversary and also to gather one more time with their coach. While Tiller's illness wasn't the focal point of the reunion, it was no secret that Tiller's time was dwindling.
It was time.
Since Joe Tiller permanently moved to Wyoming not long after his Boilermaker coaching tenure ended nine years ago, he has given a tongue-in-cheek blanket invitation for former players and friends to visit him and wife Arnette at their home in Buffalo.
During the first weekend of July, several former players and coaches took him up on the offer. Joe and Arnette were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a party that involved half the town of Buffalo, Tiller’s players at Wyoming and Purdue and even some of his college teammates from Montana State.
“It was a great chance to thank the old man for all he did for us,” All-America kicker Travis Dorsch said. “With the guys we had there — we had CEOs of companies to future NFL Hall of Famers and just overall great people there — that speaks to the impact that Coach had on us all.”
For the inner circle, it’s been no secret Tiller has been battling some chronic health issues lately. And that played a role in mobilizing his football family sooner than later. But Tiller’s illness wasn’t the focus of the weekend.
“We laughed the entire time,” said Chris Clopton, a starting cornerback on the Rose Bowl team who now works in the John Purdue Club. “The stories were flowing, and you could see Coach’s spirits rise from the moment we arrived.”
Clopton reminded Tiller about something the Coach always said to his players.
“When I first arrived, I joked with Coach that he always told us we need to beat that little voice in your mind that says you can’t do it,” said Clopton, offering encouragement. “He had a little chuckle with that.
“What was really impressive when all the guys got together is you can tell Coach fed off the energy and he was very upbeat. He always told us that to be successful, you have to beat the little man.”
It was a weekend when many things came full circle.
For receiver Seth Morales, who hadn’t been around Tiller much since he graduated in 2002, it was a time to reconnect. Morales, who will be forever remembered for his 64-yard touchdown reception from Drew Brees that essentially delivered the Boilermakers to the 2001 Rose Bowl in his junior year, didn’t end his Boilermaker career the way he wanted the following season. Though he started all 12 games in 2001, his role diminished, something that has bothered Morales since.
“I felt like I left some stuff behind in my senior year,” said Morales, now a successful businessman in Indianapolis. “It was kind of cool to finally wrap things up and be at peace, and he allowed me to do that. You would never have gotten that from him as a player, but it is great to have it now.”
About 15 former Boilermaker players were there for the weekend, including Brees, Dorsch, Dustin Keller, John Standeford and Dan Bick. Coaches Jim Chaney and Scott Downing were there, too.
Illinois State coach Brock Spack, who had visited a couple weeks earlier, was credited for having pushed Tiller with a little tough love of his own during his visit, also beating the “Beat the Little Man” drum.
“I think Brock’s visit was the start of Joe’s turnaround mentally,” said Pete Quinn, who has remained a close friend of Tiller’s but was also making his first visit to Buffalo. “Brock is like a second son to Joe.
“But you know that when Jim (Chaney) is around, there is laughter, and lots of it.”
Tiller showed his competitive juices were still flowing, engaging Brees in a game of Cribbage. Tiller, who has played the game for years, faced a newbie in Brees. Yet Brees, maybe the most competitive man alive, didn’t take it easy on the former coach.
“Drew crushed him,” Morales said. “Part of me said the Coach was taking it easy on Drew, but I am not 100 percent sure. It was great to see those two go at it, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that Drew catches on quick in everything, including Cribbage.”
An added bonus for Morales was getting to spend some quality time with Brees, something not easy to do with Brees being a national celebrity.
“Unless you are in Drew’s tightest circle, it is hard to get much time with him, which I totally understand,” Morales said. “But the first night, we hung out in Tiller’s basement and just talked shop for a couple hours and that was extra special.”
The get-together moved from Tiller’s home on the first night to their family-owned Italian restaurant in downtown Buffalo. Tiller’s daughter Renee runs Pie Zanos, and it is the place to go in the town of about 4,600 residents. It proved to be the right place to host the anniversary party.
“It really is a cool little town,” Quinn said. “The city of Buffalo has benefited greatly by Joe and Arnette living there, that’s for sure.”
Tom Schott, senior associate athletic director of communications who was at the gathering with his wife Jane, said the timing could not have been better for the anniversary celebration.
“It was the best medicine one could have had for Joe,” said Tom Schott, who has hosted the Tillers on their many return trips to West Lafayette over the years. “He looked like a different person by the time we left.
“It was night and day.”
For Dorsch and many of the guys, it was just an opportunity to say thanks to the man who was tough on them, but has meant so much. Tiller was sincere and even a bit solemn as he said he loved each and every one of them. That’s heady stuff coming from the crusty old coach.
“I pointed at my wife and at my kids and talked about my job and the lessons that I learned from him as a player,” Dorsch said in one of his private moments he had with Tiller. “I said, ‘I hope that seeing guys 20 years later allows you to reflect a bit on some of the lessons that you taught us.’
“I think he was trying to hold back a tear but wasn’t successful.”
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