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Chief Engineer

Purdue's Tiller Has a Knack for Bringing Out the Best in His Players and Coaches

December 29, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's a cross between Wilford Brimley and Grandpa Walton, crusty but lovable, wise enough to wrap his messages in humor that is most often aimed at himself.

Purdue Coach Joe Tiller peppers his speech with expressions such as "dang-gum" and "tinker's dam." He chooses his practice clothes for comfort, not effect, and the wide-brimmed Panama hat he wears to ward off the sun would look comical on most other coaches.

Somehow, it's perfect for Tiller. Like him, it's different, with a definite flair. It flouts style and conventional wisdom and the sometimes too-serious business of college football, just as Tiller has done with the Boilermakers.

Under his guidance, Purdue on Monday will make its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1967 and the second in school history. Before he arrived from Wyoming in late 1996, the Boilermakers had losing records in 11 of 12 seasons; they had gone to only one bowl game since 1981 and hadn't won one since they defeated Missouri in the 1980 Liberty Bowl.

"I said when I signed on at Purdue that I understand our goal was to build a competitive football team and position us to play in this game," he said.

But no one expected the turnaround to be so swift.

With rubber-armed quarterback Drew Brees racking up passing yards like an odometer gone berserk, the Boilermakers have earned four consecutive bowl invitations, the longest streak in school history. But being in Pasadena is a dream for Tiller, who is 58 but at heart remains the scrappy kid from Toledo, Ohio.

"We still find ourselves getting up and pinching ourselves each morning to make sure we're really here," said Tiller, who led Purdue to two Alamo Bowl victories before losing the Outback Bowl in overtime to Georgia last Jan. 1.

The 14th-ranked Boilermakers are here to face the fourth-ranked Washington Huskies because Tiller assembled some obviously skillful players, such as Brees, receivers Vinny Sutherland and John Standeford and running back Montrell Lowe. And because he found niches for others with less obvious skill: He turned Matt Light from a so-so tight end into an impressive tackle and gave the too-small, too-light Seth Morales a chance to become a quick and clever receiver.

Most of all, they're here because Tiller made them believe in him, in their coaches and themselves.

"Coach Tiller and I have been through a lot together. He's been a great motivator and great teacher," Brees said. "He always knows what to say to get you relaxed, and off the field he always knows what to say to motivate you.

"His motivation is to tell you the facts. Guys playing this game sometimes get so uptight, you don't think. He gets you to relax and think more clearly. He always knows what to say at the right moment and brings us back to reality. He's able to keep us at a pretty even level."

Said Sutherland: "He doesn't yell. But you know when to have fun with him and you know when it's time to get down to work."

It always seems time for Tiller to poke fun at himself.

At the Rose Bowl coaches' news conference a few weeks ago, Tiller joked that unlike Washington Coach Rick Neuheisel, he wasn't fortunate enough to win the Rose Bowl.

"I was disappointed as a freshman in 1927 that Montana State didn't win," he said.

Asked how he had transformed a downtrodden program into a winner, he credited good fortune and a kind schedule in his first season.

"We did not play Ohio State or Michigan. Coming out of Wyoming, in Cheyenne Frontier Days, if you're looking at this, we'd call that a good draw," he said.

"I'm not sure we said anything different than the previous staff, but maybe you've won some games and have some credibility. Since I've been coaching, we had only one major injury. It was the opposite my first year at Wyoming--we had 23 major surgeries. We've stayed healthy.

"The other reason is the coaches and our golden-locked hair and baby-blue eyes and intelligence."

Tiller, an All-American guard at Montana State, was drafted by the Boston Patriots of the American Football League but didn't sign. He spent one year with Calgary of the Canadian Football League before returning to Montana State as an assistant coach.

He moved to Washington State in 1971 as an assistant coach, first with the defensive line and then as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. From there, he went back to Calgary for nine seasons, as an assistant coach, interim coach for six games, assistant general manager and director or administration and player personnel.

"I went to the Canadian league at age 28 to try to position myself for a job in the NFL," he said. "Marv Levy had come out of the Canadian league to the NFL, Bud Grant, and Jim Finks did in a management role. There were a number of CFL guys who basically used the CFL as a springboard to the NFL. After talking to a number of people, I decided to go.

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