SPORTS: Tiller rescued Purdue but isn’t immune to critics

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This year the NCAA mandated that Division I-A football media guides be reduced to a uniform 212 pages. Keep in mind that these fonts of information intended for inkstained wretches had morphed into voluminous pitch-tools for recruits and brag books for boosters.

The cutback didn’t prevent Purdue’s sports information office from devoting a copious 11 pages of copy in its 2005 guide to Joltin’ Joe Tiller.

Perhaps I (or you, dear reader) should read nothing more into that other than a way to introduce this column. Then again, it certainly could be viewed as quantifiable recognition of Tiller’s immense impact on Purdue football in general and Boilermaker athletics overall.

After all, the man immediately yanked Purdue out of the muck upon his arrival, which led to the eventual remodeling of Ross-Ade Stadium, which in turn re-fired the athletic department’s revenue-generator and made fall Saturdays in West Lafayette something special again.

Oh, and as an added bonus, he’s 7-1 against Indiana.

Given that, it comes as a surprise that I hear there is restlessness among some factions of the Purdue sort-of faithful, that while Tiller’s teams have won plenty, they’ve left chips on the table, including bowl-game losses five of the past six years.

Critics also point out that Tiller’s squads have feasted on appetizers, but have been largely unable to digest the main course. Against unranked teams under Tiller, Purdue is 50-11. Against ranked teams, the record is 12-26. And in close games, the touchdownor-less kind that can make a season something special, the Boilers are 18-23.

Shoot, even his Rose Bowl team finished a rather pedestrian 8-4.

“We’ve got more ‘jumpers’ than we used to have, on and off the bandwagon,” Tiller said at the recent Big Ten football kickoff in Chicago. “But that’s the nature of it. I’d much rather be in this environment than one where nobody cares.”

They are likely to care as much as ever this autumn. Purdue returns 20 starters, including all 11 on a depth-stacked defense, and the schedule is kind, not as much with who is on it but who is off it: Michigan and Ohio State.

“Got ’em right where we want ’em,” Tiller says.

At the very least, anything less than a ninth bowl trip in nine years would be a monumental disappointment. But Purdue-and its fans-are reaching a been-theredone-that disenchantment with annual journeys to second-tier bowls.

Tiller says he notices the change most when he gets on the rubber-chicken circuit of alumni and booster outings.

“The question I got my first year at Purdue was, ‘Coach, do you think we can beat IU?’ ” Tiller said. “And then we won some games and went to a bowl game and the next summer it was, ‘Coach, do you think we’ll ever be able to go to another bowl?’ And after my third year it was, ‘Coach, when are you going to go to the Rose Bowl?’And now it’s, ‘Coach, you’ve got all these starters back, should I get my tickets now for a BCS bowl?”

But even as Tiller admits that it’s a good problem to have, and he licks his lips like a fox in the henhouse about the preseason speculation casting Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa (the Boilers have the Hawkeyes at Ross-Ade on Oct. 8) as Big Ten favorites.

“We like our position,” Tiller says.

There is the not-so-little matter of a quarterback to run Purdue’s high-octane spread offense. Brandon Kirsch, who has the wheels to bring some option possibilities to the attack, steps in for the graduated Kyle Orton.

Tiller pulls no punches. “We’ll go as the quarterback position goes,” he says.

He admits that Big Ten defenses have wised up to the spread offense, and there are better, quicker players on opposing defenses. He’s had to tinker and adjust.

“I remember when we first got here that I just had to shut up and smile when teams lined up to defend us, thinking, ‘That ain’t going to work,’ ” Tiller says. “But defenses adjusted and we changed. It’s a chess game and we’re always trying to stay one step ahead.”

But not a step ahead of the Purdue posse, heaven forbid.

“What I’ve accomplished at Purdue is that I think-I think-that I will be able to get out of coaching on my terms rather than somebody else’s,” Tiller says.

But then you’ve got to feed the beast … and the beast is always hungry.

Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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