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B1G Historical Perspective: The Forward Pass Comes to the Midwest

Joe Tiller’s arrival in West Lafayette ushered in something new and exciting to Big Ten fans – the passing game.

Robert Scheer

Many years ago, it was Woody Hayes who coined the phrase for Big Ten offenses which stuck from the early 1950s through the mid 1990s: three yards and a cloud of dust. Hayes recipe of running between the tackles, stout defense, and special teams was the trademark of the conference for many years. There were occasional exceptions – such as Mike White’s Illinois teams of the early 1980s – but for the most part the passing game was shunned in the midwest.

Throughout the 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, Purdue was stuck in a rut. The Boilermakers had only 2 winning seasons dating back to 1979. Despite earning the nickname ‘Quarterback U’ with the likes of Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Mike Phipps, and Jim Evertt playing for the black and gold; Purdue was stuck in the doldrums. Following a very disappointing 3-8 1996 season the Boilermakers fired head coach Jim Colletto and decided they needed a fresh approach.

This approach came from the Rocky Mountains; specifically, the old Western Athletic Conference. Back in the 1990s, ESPN would televise WAC games on Thursday nights. These games at times seemed like 7-on-7 passing drills. One of the leading coaches in the WAC was Wyoming’s Joe Tiller, who had led the Cowboys from 1991-1996 to a 39-30-1 record; including a 10-2 finish and Associated Press Top 25 ranking for the 1996 season. Sensing that Tiller was just what the Boilermakers needed to improve their football fortunes, Purdue hired him for the 1997 season.

In 1997 Joe Tiller took over a Purdue team that had gone 54-107-5 over the previous fifteen seasons. He immediately installed his spread passing game offense. The Boilermaker’s three, four, and five wide receiver sets forced opposing defenses to defend sideline-to-sideline: something quite unusual for a conference accustomed to teams lining up in the I formation and handing the ball to the tailback 40 times a game. Purdue got off to a rocky start in Tiller’s first season, losing their opener to Toledo. However, the Boilermakers won 8 of their remaining 10 regular season games; including victories over ranked Notre Dame and Wisconsin teams. This earned Purdue an appearance in the Alamo Bowl (the Boilermakers first bowl game since the 1984 Peach Bowl), a second-place Big Ten finish and a final Associated Press Top 25 ranking.

Joe Tiller and Drew Brees
David Umberger

Joining Joe Tiller in West Lafayette in 1997 was a quarterback from Dallas who would go on to re-write Big Ten passing records. Drew Brees earned the starting quarterback job in the 1998 season. In his three seasons leading Joe Tiller’s ‘basketball on grass’ offense Brees set 2 NCAA, 13 Big Ten, and 19 Purdue University records. The high point during Brees tenure as starting quarterback was Purdue winning a share of the 2000 Big Ten title (with Michigan and Northwestern) and an appearance in the 2001 Rose Bowl: the Boilermakers’ first since 1967.

Following Drew Brees departure to the NFL, Purdue enjoyed continued success under Joe Tiller. In addition to the aforementioned Alamo and Rose Bowls, Purdue earned post-season appearances in the 1998 Alamo, 2000 Outback, 2001 Sun, 2002 Sun, 2004 Capital One, 2004 Sun, 2006 Champs Sports (where Purdue faced Ralph Friedgen’s Maryland Terrapins), and 2007 Motor City bowls. The Boilermakers only missed post-season play twice during Tiller’s tenure (2005 and 2008), and were only shut out once while he was in West Lafayette (12-0 in 2006 against Penn State).

Even though Joe Tiller retired from Purdue 10 seasons ago, his impact is still felt. Purdue’s 4,208 passing yards for the 1998 season are still a Big Ten record; 20 years after the fact. During the 2008 season Joe Tiller notched victory #85 in West Lafayette against Central Michigan; the most wins ever by a Purdue head football coach. Even though the Big Ten still retained its 3 yards and a cloud of dust roots well into the 2000s with Tresselball and Wisconsin’s heavy run offense, today teams regularly line up in the 3, 4, and 5 wide receiver sets that were trademarks of Joe Tiller’s offenses. And to further illustrate Purdue’s football reminiscence under Joe Tiller, the Boilermakers sent quarterbacks Drew Brees, Kyle Orton, and Curtis Paniter to the NFL.

It was nearly one year ago (September 30, 2017) that Joe Tiller passed away at his Wyoming ranch at the age of 74. His 12 seasons in West Lafayette – in addition to his entire football career – will be long remembered. While the Boilermakers 83 pass attempts in a 1998 loss to Wisconsin were a strange new world for Big Ten football, Joe Tiller will always be remembered as one thing: a true winner.

Brent Drinkut / Journal & Courier