The Purdue Boilermakers, lost and adrift as a program, fired Darrell Hazell on Sunday and are looking for a new leader.
Where should they turn?
In one very specific and meaningful way, they need to return to the past. More specifically, they need to return to the last time they succeeded at a very high level.
In the 2000 college football season, Purdue made the Rose Bowl — not Michigan, not Ohio State, but the Boilermakers. Exactly how did this happen?
Purdue has made only two Rose Bowls in its largely snake-bitten football history. That’s as many World Series titles as the Chicago Cubs have won in 140 years of National League baseball. One came in 1967 under the great Bob Griese, who then won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. The other? The 2000 season and the 2001 game against Washington.
The essential lesson of that 2000 season is what Purdue must honor in the selection of its next head coach and offensive coordinator.
The man in the cover image for this story (shown above) is Joe Tiller. He led Purdue to Pasadena 16 years ago. It’s true that the rest of the Big Ten struggled that season, but Purdue still took advantage of a rare opportunity and earned its place in the Arroyo Seco on what used to be college football’s biggest day.
Tiller knew something essential to success at a school such as Purdue: He realized that he couldn’t out-muscle Michigan or Ohio State. He couldn’t try to beat the Wolverines or Buckeyes (or today, Wisconsin or Nebraska or Iowa, in the Big Ten West) at their own power-football game. Tiller employed a pace-and-space style of offense which came to be known as “basketball on grass.” It wasn’t used in the Big Ten then, and it isn’t now.
Wisconsin and Iowa still play smashmouth football, at least to the extent they can. Northwestern, Nebraska, Minnesota — none of those teams are high-tech, either. (Illinois is in its own universe of ineptitude.)
Purdue can’t play the same sledgehammer style most of the Big Ten does. This doesn’t mean Les Miles — if he’s interested — should be automatically eliminated from a discussion, but it means that if Purdue does want Miles to come aboard, it must require Miles to hire an innovative offensive mind who will bring a clear stylistic difference to the program, setting it apart from the rest of the conference.
It is no small irony that as Purdue searches for a new head coach, Georgia is flailing because Joe Tiller’s offensive coordinator in West Lafayette (and an assistant at Wyoming before that) is no longer the innovative play-caller he once was. Jim Chaney’s career has become stale in the SEC. He is rudderless and lost without Tiller as his boss.
Innovation on offense is the theme and the identity Purdue must incorporate into its next coaching staff. The head coach doesn’t necessarily need to be the innovator himself, but if he’s not the man with the plan, he must hire an offensive coordinator who will bring in fresh air — a new Brees, you might say — and update the Boilermakers for the 21st century. Members of the Art Briles or Mike Leach coaching trees would generally fit this category.
If Purdue wants a head coach who is also the innovator — which is probably the better path to pursue — Philip Montgomery of Tulsa, from the Briles tree, stands out as one reasonable option. Sonny Cumbie, an assistant at TCU who played and coached at Texas Tech and is a member of the Leach School, would also make an excellent choice.
Montgomery and Cumbie are both Texas guys, born in the Lone Star State and possessing comparatively little familiarity with the Midwest. They both might pass on Purdue. However, the Boilermakers have Big Ten Network money to work with. They can sell the Joe Tiller vision. If they provide a competitive salary to a defensive coordinator and a whole staff, one of these Texas boys — or someone with a similar background — could be sold on the Boilermaker job.
Purdue is not in good shape as a program, and no one can deny that much. However, the only way the school will renew itself on the gridiron is if it commits resources to this process… and remembers how it reached the Rose Bowl at the very beginning of this century.