Joe Tiller is most renowned for his tenure at Purdue — and with good reason. But I will always associate the head coach with Wyoming as much as Purdue.
Tiller — who passed away Saturday morning at 74, per GoldAndBlack.com — played a prominent role in my childhood college football-viewing experience. In the days before web streaming, when the only way to get online was with an AOL account and 28.8K modem, and pre-dating ESPN’s consolidation of broadcasting rights, independent TV-7 out of Prescott, Arizona, syndicated blocks of Western Athletic Conference football.
The mid-1990s were a great time for the WAC, too, with BYU not far removed from a national championship and producing a Heisman Trophy winner. LaVell Edwards had Hall of Fame company in Air Force’s Fisher DeBerry, who coached perennial bowl teams and Top 25 regulars. San Diego State had one of the most exciting players in college football in Marshall Faulk. Utah was perennially in the mix.
And at Wyoming, Joe Tiller’s Wyoming Cowboys continued on the foundation Paul Roach set.
Tiller ran a high-tempo, pass-heavy offensive style at Wyoming not unlike Edwards’ system at BYU. The Cowboys played a key role in making the WAC must-see football; I pity those who didn’t have a TV-7 equivalent beaming #WACtion into their homes.
In 1993, quarterback Joe Hughes passed for 3,135 yards and powered Wyoming to the Copper Bowl. It’s now the Cactus Bowl and moved to Phoenix in the late ’90s, but in its original incarnation, the Tucson-based bowl game was always a favorite in my household.
The 1993 season foreshadowed all that was to come in Joe Tiller’s outstanding career. In the 1996 Cowboys’ march to 10 wins and a No. 22 final ranking, completing one of the best seasons in program history, Josh Wallwork aired it out in a manner that would become standard around college football — but not for another decade or so.
Joe Tiller’s success with quarterbacks like Wallwork laid the groundwork for college football to adopted the pass-happy attack he oversaw en masse.
Tiller’s move to Purdue the next season yielded immediate results. Billy Dicken passed for nearly 3,200 yards to lead the Boilermakers to nine wins in 1997, but it was the youngster who was second on the depth chart for that surprise team who became the poster child of Joe Tiller’s career.
Drew Brees scrawled his name all over NCAA records in Tiller’s system, in the process becoming a Heisman finalist and guiding Purdue to its first Rose Bowl since 1966.
Purdue was such a breath of fresh air in the three yards-in-a-cloud-of-a-dust Big Ten of the time. Joe Tiller’s success with the Boilers quite literally altered the conference, setting in motion the shift that would bring in offensively innovative head coaches like Urban Meyer and James Franklin.
Jeff Brohm, who has had some early success in his first season at Purdue, is a worthy successor to Tiller’s legacy.
I remember as an undergrad at the University of Arizona watching a woeful, John Mackovic-coached team try to slow Kyle Orton and the Boilers in 2003. Orton effortlessly dissected the Wildcats for three touchdowns. Purdue’s offense compared to that which Arizona ran didn’t even resemble the same sport. I wondered why more teams didn’t employ a similar strategy.
Thanks to Joe Tiller, many teams around the nation do.