By CLIFF BRUNT
Indy Sports Legends editor Cliff Brunt interviewed former Purdue football coach Joe Tiller by telephone this past Thursday while Tiller was home in Wyoming. Tiller, 69, is the winningest coach in Purdue history and led the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl after the 2000 season. Here are the best comments from the 35-minute conversation.
Q: What do you think of Purdue’s close call against Notre Dame, and where do you see the Boilermakers falling into the Big Ten race?
That game didn’t surprise me. With them (Notre Dame) playing in Ireland, etc., for Notre Dame’s sake, it’s a good thing they were playing in South Bend. Notre Dame’s probably better than that game. I think Purdue’s an improved football team, certainly an improved football team, and this is the year to be improved. It looks like Michigan State and Ohio State are the programs that have held onto their lofty status. It looks like Wisconsin has slipped this year. Certainly, Penn State has fallen off the pedestal totally. Iowa’s not the team they’ve been. I don’t know about Nebraska. I’m still having a difficult time believing Nebraska’s in the Big Ten. This is a good year to have a good team and I think they (Purdue) have the makings of a good team.
Q: Do you miss coaching?
A: The only time I miss football is on Saturdays. I’m like a player anymore. I don’t want all the rest of the stuff. I just want to play the games.
Q: Are you just a spectator or do you think like a coach when you watch games?
A: I mostly enjoy the game, mostly. I still analyze stuff. I mostly analyze game management. ˜What would I do here, substitute here or use a timeout?’ I really love the last two minutes. The last two minutes, I’m a coach again. Outside of that, I’m kind of a spectator. My first year was the hardest. Not that I wanted to be a coach. I wanted a headset. I still occasionally get into something like, I might stand up in front of the TV and give the sign for the timeout, but I know they can’t see me. But outside of that, I’m just another spectator enjoying the game.
Q: What do you do now that you have all this extra time?
A: It allows me time to read. I’ve probably read 20 books since I’ve retired, mostly on Native American stuff. We’re right in the middle of Plains Indian country. I’ve even got some old books and books that have been referred to me that maybe were written at the turn of the (20th) century. The book I just finished is called ˜Lewis and Clark among the Indians.’
Q: I recently put together a list of the top 10 receivers in Purdue history. (Here’s the story). Is there anything you disagree with?
A: Chris Daniels was the guy I would have included in that list. He only had one really great year, but he still holds the single-game record for receptions. Chris was injured a lot, but when he was healthy and going, he could catch with the best of them.
Q: Taylor Stubblefield was at the top of that list (Here’s the entry on Stubblefield). What made him a special player?
A: He had extremely soft hands. He had great hand-eye coordination and his physical skills were good. He didn’t have deep speed. He was quicker than he was fast. He could get open, he was a really, really good route runner, he was very smart. He could read defenses. He and (Kyle) Orton worked out together all the time, so they were always on the same page.
Until his senior year, he never really got much national notoriety. Even his senior year, I think some people voted for him reluctantly, but the statistics were so overwhelming that you couldn’t ignore him.
Q: Some people said Bart Burrell should have been on the list, too.
A: He and (Mark) Herrmann were the big combination back in Herm’s day. Whenever they mentioned Herm, they mentioned Bart.
Q: When do you plan on visiting Purdue again?
A: We always have since we’ve gone away from Purdue for the past three years — it’s hard to believe this is going to be number four — but we’ve always tried to come to Purdue when they’re playing two games back-to-back at home. The two games this year are Marshall and Michigan.
Q: You recently were invited back to Washington State, where you used to be an assistant coach, for a 40-year anniversary celebration of the opening of Martin Stadium. What was it like seeing all those guys again?
A: Probably 95, 97 percent of that team, I haven’t seen in 40 years, I’ve seen just a handful of those guys. That was fun getting reacquainted with those guys. It’s hard to believe they’re all in their 60s. I told them, I said ˜I must have been about 12 years old when I coached you.’ It was classy. They did it right. They treated the alumni players that came back very well, looked after them, didn’t charge them for anything. There was a Friday night banquet, and a Saturday pregame, and they gave you $50 shirts to wear with the embroidered ’72 class and the like. They didn’t give you the gray T-shirts with a stencil and the like.
Q: Did you ever think Drew Brees would end up being this good as a pro?
A: I didn’t think he would lead all of football in passing like he’s done. I thought he’d be a starter in the NFL in the right situation. He’s so gifted, he’s so talented, he’s so competitive, he’s so smart. But I knew he had to be with a coach, with an organization that didn’t worry about the fact that he wasn’t 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4. The guy’s 6-foot and change, and I knew the scouts coming through would downgrade him for it. I can see why he was downgraded, but if you looked at performance and the different types of balls he could throw and the speed on the ball, and the uncanny accuracy, you could tell he was going to be very successful. And he has been. He really did it with San Diego, but he and Sean Payton and the Saints really hit it off right (Here’s the story on why it made no sense for the Saints to wait so long to pay Brees).