The Sweep

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Joe Tiller changed major conference football by bringing the
spread offense to the Big Ten.
AP

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- Greetings from Oklahoma, where there's a certain, significant football game taking place tonight.

I just returned from eating lunch at a Texas Roadhouse next to my hotel. On a TV at the bar, Purdue was routing Indiana 62-10, and I couldn't help but note the fitting coincidence that I'd be watching Joe Tiller's victorious (and, with all due respect to Indiana, deserved) sendoff while here to cover the type of aerial shootout that he himself helped usher in.

Tonight, No. 2 Texas Tech and No. 5 Oklahoma will each spend the large majority of the game in four- and five-receiver sets, while their respective star quarterbacks each throw 40, 50, maybe 60 times. We take these kinds of aerial shootouts as par for the course these days, but a decade ago it was virtually unheard of outside of the WAC.

Spread offenses exist in every facet of the sport these days. Contrary to what you might have read, the first person to unleash "basketball on grass" on the major-conference level was not Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer, Gary Pinkel or any of the sport's reigning spread gurus. It was Tiller.

Prior to Tiller's arrival at Purdue in 1997, the Boilers had been mired in mediocrity for more than a decade. Big Ten teams could pretty much count on two "gimme" wins every season: Minnesota and Purdue. Along comes Tiller, via Wyoming, armed with a frenetic, pass-happy offense he had developed in the years since inheriting Dennis Erickson's one-back playbook at Washington State, and instantly the Boilers were a nine-win team. Three years later, Drew Brees would lead them to the Rose Bowl.

Obviously, Tiller's star eventually faded. In recent years, he couldn't find a quarterback worthy of the legacy left by Brees and Kyle Orton. And by his own admission, he found he could no longer connect with today's "me-first" players. But mostly, the novelty of his offense wore off in the Big Ten, and around the country, as everyone from Northwestern to Florida copied it.

Even so, Tiller still led Purdue to 10 bowl games in 12 seasons, a remarkable feat for that school. It's a shame he went out with the worst season of his tenure (4-8), but he got in a circa 1997 butt-whipping (complete with a 445-yard, five-TD performance from QB Curtis Painter) in his finale.

He will be missed.

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