Benner/Sports and Ball State University and Purdue University and Marian University and College Sports and Education & Workforce Development and Sports Business

Purdue's Tiller had success, despite recent season disappointments

November 17, 2008
When it comes to lame ducks, well, George Bush hasn't had such a great last season, either.

Maybe that's some solace for the soon-to-be former Purdue University football coach, Joe Tiller. Then again, probably not. The Joe Tiller I know always has been a competitor; that is one of the major reasons he became the winningest coach in Purdue history.

So I have to believe this disappointing season, which ends Nov. 22 when Indiana visits Ross-Ade Stadium in the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket, has left a considerable ache that will still be with him when he's sitting on the porch of his ranch home in Wyoming.

No one likes to go out a loser.

This would be the second failed victory lap for Purdue in recent times, stretching the plausibility of the theory of orderly transition enacted by Athletics Director Morgan Burke, whom I respect and admire as a person and as an A.D.

Burke orchestrated the transfer of power from longtime basketball coach Gene Keady to newcomer (and former Boilermaker) Matt Painter. But as Painter spent his season in waiting as Keady's top assistant, Purdue languished and finished with a 7-21 record.

That was the bad news. The good news was that Painter was instantly up to speed in both recruiting and instilling his way of doing things. Just a couple of years later, Painter's Boilermakers are preseason Big Ten favorites.

Now Burke has done it again, installing Eastern Kentucky University's Danny Hope as Tiller's successor a year ago. In the meantime, Tiller's final team has tumbled to a 3-7 record going into its last two games.

Then again, if Hope's transition matches that of Painter's, everyone will be happy.

Still, it's an awkward situation at best. And if anyone can identify, it's Keady.

"Any time you hire another coach, the coach that is being replaced is a lame duck towards motivating those [players]," he told reporters recently at the Big Ten basketball media day, where he was preparing for another season as an analyst on the Big Ten Network. "They know they don't have to listen to you the next year. It's tough.

"I can sympathize with Joe. It's not any fun. After you've coached 50 years, you would like to go out a winner ... you feel like you've let everybody down when that happens."

I've heard and read the comments from Purdue followers. Some say Tiller put it on cruise control this year. Others claim he gave up on his players long before they gave up on him. Some are convinced this exit strategy is a year too late in coming.

I always have defended Tiller, largely because I can so well remember where that program was -- and wasn't -- coming out of the Leon Burtnett/Fred Akers/Jim Colletto years.

Yes, I know about that disappointing bowl record and that current 0-for-17 mark against ranked teams. But I also recall that Alamo Bowl upset of Kansas State University and, without question, that Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.

No matter how Tiller might be judged in the present, his legacy is incomplete if it doesn't include the fact that he made Purdue football relevant, meaningful and fun again.

As he rides off into the Wyoming sunset, I wish him nothing but the best.

Other college football notes

Congratulations to the Marian College Knights. In just their second season, head coach Ted Karras and his team were 6-4 going into the final game of the season and thus assured of a winning record. By any measure, that's quite an accomplishment.

Marian, which becomes Marian University next summer, has drawn decent crowds to its home games at Pike High School, but expects to create a louder buzz next year when it moves into its on-campus stadium.

Marian President Dan Elsener is one of the more inspiring leaders I've come across in higher education. He also understands the positive role sports can play within the framework of academia. He has things on a roll on the Cold Springs Road campus.

Finally, it's Tuesday night -- Tuesday night -- and I'm watching Ball State play the University of Miami on ESPN2. Since I had one daughter graduate from BSU and the other from Miami, we always refer to this game as the "Tuition Bowl."

But what grates is that this was the second of four consecutive midweek games Ball State will be playing to fulfill the Mid-American Conference's grasp for national television exposure.

I wonder whether it's worth it.

___

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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