WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Joe Tiller, one of the most beloved and popular figures in Purdue Athletics history, passed away Saturday morning at the age of 74 in Buffalo, Wyoming.
Tiller served as the Boilermakers’ head football coach from 1997 to 2008. The winningest coach in school history, he posted an 87-62 record, including 53-43 in Big Ten Conference games. Tiller’s 149 games coached are the most in Purdue annals.
“Today is a very sad day for me and the entire Purdue family,” said Drew Brees, who played for Tiller from 1997 to 2000. “Coach Tiller was an important person in my life and to so many other guys who played for him. He did so much more than teach us how to win. He taught us life lessons and how to be great leaders and men. My thoughts and prayers are with Arnette, Julie, Renee and Mike.”
Prior to Tiller’s hiring in November of 1996, Purdue football had played in a total of five bowl games. In the preceding 15 years, the Boilermakers managed merely a 54-107-5 record. Tiller introduced the spread offense to Purdue, featuring three, four, even five wide receivers and forcing defenses to cover the field from sideline to sideline. It was a radical change from the smash-mouth Big Ten style and, in the basketball-crazed state of Indiana, was dubbed affectionately “basketball on grass.”
The result was 10 bowl games, including the 2001 Rose Bowl, an average of more than seven wins per season and a Big Ten championship in 2000. Tiller coached 64 players who went on to the National Football League, six All-Americans and two Academic All-Americans.
Tiller was recognized as the 1997 Big Ten and national Coach of the Year.
In addition to the Rose Bowl, the Boilermakers played in the 1997 Alamo, 1998 Alamo, 2000 Outback, 2001 Sun, 2002 Sun, 2004 Capital One, 2004 Sun, 2006 Champs Sports and 2007 Motor City bowls. Purdue was nationally ranked in the Associated Press poll for 80 weeks — tied for the most under any coach in school history — including a high of No. 5 during the 2004 season.
“Joe took a chance coming back to Purdue, and all Boilermakers, and me in particular, are grateful,” said former Purdue athletics director Morgan Burke, who hired Tiller. “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. I know the Purdue family joins me in expressing our condolences to Arnette and all of his family.”
Tiller topped Jack Mollenkopf for the most wins by a Purdue coach with his 85th victory – a 32-25 verdict over Central Michigan at Ross-Ade Stadium on Sept. 20, 2008.
Earlier, Tiller was assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at Purdue from 1983 to 1986 under Leon Burtnett.
Tiller served as head coach of the East team in the 2015 East-West Shrine Game and earned a 45-27 victory. He played for the West team in 1963 and became just the fifth individual to both play and coach in the Shrine Game.
The charismatic Tiller endeared himself to Boilermaker fans everywhere with his sense of humor and humility.
“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,” Tiller said in 2008. “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.”
In January of 2008, Tiller was awarded the Order of the Griffin, one of Purdue’s highest honors, given to individuals whose commitment to the university goes well beyond the call of duty, and whose strength and vision have greatly benefited the institution. He was appointed head coach emeritus by the board of trustees Nov. 21, 2008.
Tiller was inducted into 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’s 18-year head coaching record, including six seasons at Wyoming from 1991 to 1996, was 126-92-1, a .578 winning percentage. In 1996, Tiller led the Cowboys to a 10-2 record, the Western Athletic Conference championship game and a No. 22 final national ranking. Wyoming played in the 1993 Copper Bowl.
In 1989 and 1990, Tiller was assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Washington State. Prior to that, he was offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Wyoming in 1987 and 1988.
From 1974 to 1982, Tiller spent nine seasons with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He was an assistant coach (offensive and defensive lines) from 1974 to 1976, interim head coach for six games in 1976 (2-3-1 record), assistant general manager from 1977 to 1980 and director of administration and player personnel from 1980 to 1982.
Tiller was an assistant coach at Washington State from 1971 to 1973, spending one year as defensive line coach and two years as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. In 1965, he began his coaching career as an assistant (offensive and defensive lines) at Montana State and was there through 1970.
A native of Toledo, Ohio, Tiller attended Rogers High School and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in secondary education from Montana State in 1965. He was an honorable mention All-American offensive tackle and team captain for the Bobcats. Tiller was drafted by the Boston Patriots of the American Football League in 1964 (18th round) but did not sign. He played for Calgary of the CFL during the 1964 season.
Tiller was inducted into the Montana State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998.
Tiller is survived by his wife, Arnette; daughters, Renee and Julie; son, Michael; daughter-in-law Hilda; and grandchildren, Paulina, Lily, Gus and Tori.
A viewing is scheduled in Buffalo for Oct. 11 and the funeral Oct. 12.