By Cliff Brunt
For decades, Purdue has billed itself the “Cradle of Quarterbacks.”
No coach did more to maintain that reputation than Joe Tiller. The man who guided Drew Brees as a Boilermaker and was the school’s winningest football coach, died Saturday at age 74. He died at home of natural causes in Buffalo, Wyoming, the Harness Funeral Home said.
“Coach Tiller was an important person in my life and to so many other guys who played for him,” Brees, the New Orleans Saints star who played for Tiller from 1997 to 2000, said. “He did so much more than teach us how to win. He taught us life lessons and how to be great leaders and men.”
Tiller and Brees carried Purdue to rare heights at a school better known for basketball. Together, they led Tiller’s “basketball on grass” spread offense to the 2000 Big Ten title and 2001 Rose Bowl, where Purdue lost to Washington 34-24.
“Joe Tiller was one of the great coaches in all of Purdue history,” Purdue President Mitch Daniels said. “The next time we go to the Rose Bowl, our first thoughts will be of him, and we will miss him every day in between.”
Tiller had an 87-62 record at Purdue from 1997 to 2008. Besides Brees, he coached two other NFL quarterbacks — Kyle Orton and Curtis Painter. They led offenses that rewrote the Big Ten’s record books. Brees is the Big Ten’s all-time leading passer, Painter is second and Orton eighth.
“It’s a fun offense to play in, and it attracts young people,” Tiller told The Associated Press in 2008. “That’s why I thought it was a matter of time before everybody ran it.”
Tiller was proud of Brees and Orton’s success in the NFL and used it to fire back at those who considered quarterbacks were system players. Brees has a Super Bowl ring and ranks third in NFL history in yards passing. Orton has 18,000 career yards and 101 touchdowns in the NFL.
“It’s kind of interesting that two of the guys that were real torchbearers have gone on and played at the next level,” Tiller said in 2008. “And not a surprise to us, I might add.”
Tiller’s success at Purdue came after years of struggle. In the 15 years before the school hired him, the Boilermakers had a 54-107-5 record. Purdue played in five bowl games in school history before Tiller arrived; the Boilermakers played in 10 on his watch.
“We’ve changed the culture surrounding the football program,” Tiller told the AP in 2007. “I think that we certainly have changed the expectation level, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
Tiller was an assistant at Purdue from 1983 to 1986. He was an assistant at Wyoming and Washington State before becoming head coach at Wyoming for six years. In 1996, he led Wyoming to a 10-2 record and the Western Athletic Conference championship game.
“Joe took a chance coming back to Purdue, and all Boilermakers, and me in particular, are grateful,” former Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. “Joe was the best evaluator of talent I have ever seen. His dry wit endeared him to his players, and he knew how to coach and motivate them.”
Tiller said in 2008 he wanted to be remembered for more than football.
“People ask me about my legacy at Purdue, and I guess I see myself as a guy who came in and fit the place, and the place fit him — a man of the people,” he said.
“I’ve always prided myself on being able to get along with anybody, whether they are a major donor or someone who comes to one game a year. I’ve tried to respect everybody, so I would like my legacy to be that I was a good guy who could also coach football.”
From Toledo, Ohio, Tiller was a star lineman at Montana State and played one season for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League.
Tiller began his coaching career at his alma mater under Jim Sweeney. Tiller rejoined Sweeney at Washington State in 1971, then was with the Stampeders from 1974 to 1982 as an assistant coach, interim head coach, assistant general manager and director of administration and player personnel.
Tiller was inducted into the Montana State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998, and the Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. Joe Tiller Drive, located immediately north of Ross-Ade Stadium, was named in his honor Sept. 19, 2015.
Tiller is survived by wife Arnette; daughters Renee and Julie; son Michael; and grandchildren Paulina, Lily, Gus and Tori.
There will be a viewing in Buffalo, Wyoming, on Oct. 11, with the funeral the next day.
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