Notre Dame football: Tiller’s thoughts include tough road for Purdue

South Bend Tribune

The torrent of random visitors who show up in Joe Tiller’s driveway in Buffalo, Wyo., often unannounced, has slowed to a trickle.

The unadulterated opinions flowing from the 70-year-old former Purdue head football coach has not.

Nor has the sense of humor that wraps many of them.

He’ll be watching from a distance — 1,241 miles to be exact — on Saturday night when his former team, 1-1 Purdue, hosts No. 21 Notre Dame (1-1) in a primetime meeting Saturday (8 p.m. EDT; ABC-TV) at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind.

What he expects to see is a Purdue program much more in the throes of rebuilding than the one he took over after coach Jim Colletto stepped away.

“Now, none of those kids that are playing in this game — none of them — are kids that we recruited,” Tiller said. “And I want to offer that as a disclaimer.”

He then laughed heartily.

“I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that,” he said. “I watched that Cincinnati game (a 42-7 loss in the Aug. 31 season opener), and I felt sorry for them. They’re in for a long season.”

Not that the Boilermakers are always must-see TV for the fully retired coach who presided over the Purdue program for 12 seasons (1997-2008) and now casts a shadow on it.

“We do get the Big Ten Network out here,” offered Tiller, who produced 10 bowl teams after taking over a program with two winning seasons in the 16 that preceded his arrival.

Sometimes, though, fly-fishing in a trout stream on his property takes precedence over Purdue, or a game at his pre-Purdue coaching stop, the University of Wyoming, or entertaining the aforementioned strangers.

“Had two coeds from Great Falls, Mont., write me to tell me they wanted to come by and say hi on their way to driving to Purdue,” said Tiller, who will make the 19-hour drive to West Lafayette himself via his RV in a couple of weeks to watch the Boilers in person. “You know how it goes, ‘I’m a great Purdue fan. My dad graduated from there. My sister goes there, dah dah dah dah dah dah dah.’

“I called her on her cell phone and said, ‘If you’re going to be driving all day, you might as well stay.’ So they had dinner with (wife) Arnette and me. We played cards with them and then they stayed in one of the two cabins we have on the property. Never met them before, may never see them again. That’s what my life after Purdue has been like.

“Had a guy stop up here from Lebanon, Ind. Wanted to interview me about what I was doing five years after retirement. He kept looking at the mountains and shaking his head and saying ‘You’re living a dream out here.’ Well, it is pretty nice.

“I’m done doing TV, I won’t do radio, but I do get quoted. And sometimes I put my foot in my mouth. That’s OK. At least they get a straight answer.”

Here’s a sampling:

As you look at what first-year coach Darrell Hazell has in front of him, what maybe are the hardest things he has to deal with in trying to rebuild the program?

“Probably the hardest thing is the expectation level,” Tiller said. “I see some statements about how good they could be and how they could win seven or eight games or whatever. And if I see anybody says that, I’m thinking, ‘Man, they’re pie in the sky.’

“I have not seen (Hazell) say that, but I have seen the Purdue administration say that. And so the more of that that gets repeated, that creates some expectations that are difficult to measure up to. Furthermore, I think I’m glad that we were able to accomplish something at Purdue, but I think that we’re probably his worst enemy from the point of view that people expect some quick results and they expect them to be successful now and the like. And that’s unrealistic.

“I think one of the big misnomers, and I’ll probably catch hell for this, but I usually say stuff that you can catch hell over. But I think there’s a big misnomer that Purdue has recruited well in the last short period of time, recruited better than what they had been recruiting. And as a result of that, you would think that all those players that were such good recruits would be on the field today and they would be an improved squad.

“In reality, I think they’ve gotten worse. And that’s a tough deal for Darrell to swallow, because some people actually bought that BS and they do think that Purdue is a more talented team than it was six, seven, eight years ago. And that simply isn’t true. So he’s got to dig his way out of that dilemma, and that’s going to take some time.”

How big of a game was the ND game for your kids? How big of a game was it for you?

“I used to tell our team, ‘There’s 118 Division I football teams, and there are 116 of them that wish they were right where you’re at today. So enjoy the moment and embrace it and go out there and have some fun and play hard.’ ”

“For me, it was not a big issue, just in the sense I was getting to be a really old guy. The older you get, the less that stuff really impacts you. I was more excited as an assistant coach when I was at Purdue to play Notre Dame than I was as a head coach.

“Don’t misunderstand me. It was always a big game, and I always enjoyed the rivalry, enjoyed the opportunity to play them and the like, but I didn’t walk around in a state of emotional bliss all week long getting ready to play them as a head coach.”

What do you think about Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten?

“I’m not a big fan of it, personally,” Tiller said. “When I was a head coach, we always used to have our head coaching meetings in the spring and (commissioner) Jim Delany would come in and talk to the coaches every year about the state of the game and current issues involving the Big Ten.

I don’t remember the exact years that the Big Ten was courting Notre Dame, but during that period of time, the question was: Notre Dame’s been invited; what happens if Notre Dame says no? I think the Big Ten went after them a couple of times, but Delany said our presidents are of the opinion that we shouldn’t be adding anyone to the conference that does not add to the prestige of the conference, the quality of the conference. That was true when Penn State came in, and every coach was shaking his head and saying, ‘Yeah, that’s good, that’s a good idea.’

“They want a university that academically matches up with the other Big Ten schools, that matches up tradition-wise, so that when they come in, they bring something to the conference. And I thought that made darn good sense.

“And of course, Notre Dame said no, and the Big Ten, at that time, totally backed off of expansion. And then they added Nebraska. I thought, ‘OK, that’s in line with what he had said — tradition, they’re the university in their state, a good school in terms of academics, and that’s a good addition.

“Then they go and invite Rutgers and Maryland. Quite frankly, I don’t know much about them. But in terms of tradition and prestige, I don’t know what they bring to the conference. If I were in the conference, I’d probably get reprimanded right now and I’d probably get a call from Delany, saying that Maryland is a great institution or whatever. But I’ll tell you what, when you’re sitting in Buffalo, Wyo., it doesn’t make sense.”

What are your thoughts about Notre Dame dropping Michigan, but keeping Michigan State and Purdue with some breaks to accommodate its new commitment to the ACC?

“I think it’s good for Purdue and good for Michigan State,” Tiller said. “I felt like as a coach at Purdue that we should always play Notre Dame. And I felt that way, because the two universities have been playing for such a long time. Purdue and Notre Dame, I think, is the second-longest rivalry for Notre Dame.

“Some people say, ‘Well it would be nice to get Notre Dame off the schedule, get a lighter-weight outfit.’ I used to say no. We should play them forever.

“I understand that, and their commitment to the ACC is good, because if they’re going to participate in the benefits of being in the ACC in terms of bowls at the end of the season, then certainly they ought to be playing games (against ACC teams). In my opinion, they ought to just join the conference full time and play their two or three non-leagues and let it go at that.”

Former Purdue football coach Joe Tiller believes the Boilermakers are going to experience some growing pains this season.  AP photo