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Joe Tiller, Staunch NFF Advocate, Passes Away
Joe Tiller, the head coach at Purdue and Wyoming, passes away. He was 74.
Published: 10/2/2017 10:00:00 AM

(Photo: Joe Tiller accepts a plaque in 2007, which named the NFF Northwest Indiana Chapter in his honor, from Tom Schott, Purdue’s senior associate athletics director for communications.)

Joe Tiller, the winningest head football coach in Purdue history and the namesake of the NFF Joe Tiller Chapter of Northwest Indiana, passed away Sept. 30 in Buffalo, Wyo. Born in Toledo, Ohio, he was 74.

“Joe Tiller holds a special place in NFF annals, having helped form two NFF chapters,” said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell. “The demands of being a head coach are endless, but the great ones realize the importance of doing everything they can to showcase football’s unique ability to instill leadership, teamwork and academic excellence. Joe Tiller understood that, and he recognized the NFF as a powerful vehicle for delivering on that promise. We are sincerely grateful for his commitment to our organization, and our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends at this time of loss.”

Throughout his career, Coach Tiller remained committed to strengthening the game for future generations, and he joined the National Football Foundation (NFF) in 1978. He played a seminal role in the launch of the NFF Wyoming Chapter in 1993 while the head coach at the Wyoming and then again with the Northwest Indiana Chapter in 2004 while leading the Purdue program. In 2007, the Northwest Indiana Chapter decided to recognize his commitment to the NFF by renaming itself in his honor.

"Coach Tiller and his staff are the reason I fell in love with the game and have stayed involved as a coach,” said Kelly Kitchel, the current president of the Northwest Indiana chapter and a former offensive lineman from 1998-2001 under coach Tiller at Purdue. “He taught us all many lessons, some we understood right away and some we understand now as grown men and fathers."

Both the Wyoming and the Northwest Indiana chapters annually host multiple events in support of the NFF’s efforts, including scholar-athlete banquets, and both chapters rank among the largest in the nation. The Wyoming chapter has distributed more than $310,000 in scholarships and the Northwest Indiana chapter has awarded more than $275,000 since their inceptions.

"Joe Tiller is the reason we have an NFF chapter in Northwest Indiana,” said Jim Vruggink, the executive director of the Northwest Indiana Chapter and the former public relations director at Purdue. “It was his idea. He asked me to get it started in 2004, and he promoted it enthusiastically until his death with his time and verbal support while he was coaching and with his donations and financial support of scholarships after he retired.”

Tom Schott, who has served on the chapter’s board of directors since it started and is Purdue’s senior associate athletics director for communications, credited the chapter’s meteoric success to Tiller’s support from the Purdue community.

“Joe has been a long-time proponent of the NFF, having helped to start a chapter in Wyoming before coming to Purdue,” said Schott when the chapter’s name was changed in 2007. “This chapter will be one of the many legacies Joe Tiller leaves for area football fans. Our board wants to ensure that future generations of scholarship recipients, award winners and members know who got all of this started.”

His impact with the Wyoming Chapter was also significant, and Tiller contributed his own money for scholarships at the Wyoming Chapter, even when he was at Purdue, and he returned to the banquet many times as an honored guest after he retired.

“The Wyoming Chapter was started in 1993 when Joe was Wyoming’s head coach, and he immediately jumped on board with support and encouragement,” said Mike Schutte, the former president of the Wyoming Chapter. “I believe he was a big influence in having others join the Wyoming Chapter in the early years… He inspired others to give scholarships when they knew he was at Purdue but still giving to Wyoming… Joe was a big man with a big heart and will be greatly missed.”

Tiller served as the Boilermakers' head football coach from 1997 to 2008, posting an 87-62 record, including a 53-43 tally in Big Ten Conference games. Tiller's 18-year head coaching record also included six seasons at Wyoming from 1991 to 1996, and he boasted an overall record of 126-92-1 for a .578 winning percentage. 

Tiller played offensive tackle at Montana State from 1961-63, followed by one year in the Canadian Football League for the Calgary Stampeders. He entered the coaching profession in 1965 as an assistant at his alma mater, and his path to the Wyoming head job included additional stops as an assistant with Washington State, the Calgary Stampeders, Purdue and Wyoming. 

At Wyoming, Tiller guided the Cowboys through one of their most successful periods in school history, including a share of the 1993 Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Championship and appearing in the 1993 Copper Bowl. In 1996, Wyoming finished with a 10-2 record, had the nation’s longest winning streak and won the WAC Pacific Division, earning a spot in the inaugural WAC Championship Game. The Cowboys finished the season at No. 22 in the national polls while reaching a high water mark of No. 15 during the 1996 campaign. The WAC Coach of the Year in 1996 and the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Region Coach of the Year in 1993 and ’96, Tiller headed to West Lafayette, Ind., after six seasons in Wyoming with a 39-30-1 (.564) record.

Prior to Tiller's hiring in November of 1996, Purdue had played in only five bowl games, and the team had managed a dismal 54-107-5 record during the preceding 15 years. Tiller quickly made changes, introducing a spread offense that featured three, four, even five wide receivers, forcing defenses to cover the field from sideline to sideline. The style created a radical change from the smash-mouth Big Ten style, and, in the basketball-crazed state of Indiana, people affectionately dubbed it "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, which is Purdue’s lone conference title and Rose Bowl appearance since 1967. Tiller coached 53 Purdue 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. 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. 

"Today is a very sad day for me and the entire Purdue family," said Drew Brees, an NFF National Scholar-Athlete who played quarterback 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."

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. He was honored as a “Distinguished American” by three NFF chapters: Chicago Metro, Central Indiana and Northwest Indiana in 2009. Tiller was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. Joe Tiller Drive, located immediately north of Ross-Ade Stadium, was named in his honor in 2015.

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 inducted into the Montana State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998. Joe is survived by his wife, Arnette; daughters, Renee and Julie; son, Michael; daughter-in-law Hilda; and grandchildren, Paulina, Lily, Gus and Tori. He also is survived by brothers Charles and Marvin.

Credit: Purdue Athletics contributed to this article. 

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