- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

Joe Tiller arrived at Purdue a decade ago with a reputation as an offensive innovator and a scheme the school hoped would create excitement for a program accustomed to miserable seasons in a league then dominated by Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

The Boilermakers — and the Big Ten — haven’t been the same since.

Purdue, which meets Maryland in the Champs Sports Bowl on Friday, is making its ninth postseason appearance in 10 seasons. It was a turnaround made possible through the installation of the spread offense, a system based primarily on quick, short throws that was first developed more than 30 years ago but hadn’t fully escaped its West Coast roots.

It was a stunning development in a league in which “three yards and a cloud of dust” was the basic offensive mantra for decades. But more importantly, it allowed the Boilermakers to play in an aesthetically pleasing manner and attract recruits to a school that earned only five bowl berths before Tiller’s hiring.

The Boilermakers (8-5) rank sixth nationally in passing offense and ninth in total offense thanks to a pass-heavy attack that also allows Purdue to overcome a defense near the bottom of the 119-team Division I-A against the pass (105th), run (113th) and in total yards (114th).

“It’s fun, and that seems to be very important to the youth of today while they’re doing this football thing, so they like it,” Tiller said last week. “What’s been good for us is we see more kids involved in the system, so it makes it easier to evaluate players today than it used to.”

Tiller was familiar with some of the precepts of the offense since he served under the late Jack Elway at Washington State from 1971 to 1973, though he didn’t truly become immersed in the scheme until he took over as Wyoming’s offensive coordinator in 1987. Dennis Erickson had just left Wyoming to take over at Washington State but left behind a one-back spread playbook.

It became Tiller’s preferred offense, and it eventually helped him earn the top job at Wyoming. He spent six years with the Cowboys and parlayed a 10-2 season and a WAC division title in 1996 into the Purdue gig.

One-back sets have become more common in the Big Ten in the last 10 years as the Boilermakers enjoyed success under quarterbacks Drew Brees and Kyle Orton.

Purdue, meanwhile, has added the option to its offense, an approach that faltered with Brandon Kirsch at quarterback last year but has improved this season with junior Curtis Painter.

“There’s a lot of guys that were in on the ground floor,” Tiller said. “I don’t take any particular pride that others are utilizing the offense. I find it interesting and appealing because if I hadn’t seen somebody run this offense and incorporate the option other than ourselves, we probably still wouldn’t use it. We always beg, borrow and steal from each other. The same is true of this offense.”

He also earned the respect of other creative coaching minds, who saw how much he could draw from the talent available. In his first year at Purdue, the Boilermakers improved from 3-8 to 9-3.

“I was really impressed with some of the things they did,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. “I was at San Diego when he got the job at Purdue and kind of followed his success. I’ve always been an admirer of what he does offensively.”

Painter, who has thrown for 21 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in his first year as a starter, is the latest quarterback to find success in the system. Both Brees and Orton have started in the NFL, and Painter credited spending his redshirt season observing Orton as crucial for his development.

Painter’s gradual progress and usually sound decision-making encourages Tiller, who knows a smart quarterback is probably more valuable to his offense than one with prodigious physical gifts.

“There’s a lot of underneath throws and short throws. It doesn’t take a super arm to be successful,” Tiller said. “If you’re accurate, you have a good head on your shoulders and can process information quickly, you don’t need a cannon for an arm. … It’s a simple and easier offense to play in than some of the other offenses I’ve been around.”

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