Dienhart: It's 1997 all over again for Purdue
COLUMBIA, Mo. – This feels like 1997, all over again.
Purdue fans remember that season. How couldn’t they? It was Joe Tiller’s first in West Lafayette, and he immediately flipped the losing script. Jeff Brohm is on track to do the same thing. Today’s dominating 35-3 win at Missouri served further notice that Purdue no longer is the Big Ten patsy. In fact, the Boilers look like a contender in the Big Ten West.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. But there is no denying that the first three games of the Brohm era have offered loads of hope to a success-starved program.
Brohm walked into a mess when he took the job in December. The program had won nine games in the previous four years and hadn’t been to a bowl since 2012. You name it, and it was a problem in West Lafayette.
The offensive line couldn’t get a push.
The defensive line was a sieve.
The quarterbacks turned the ball over too much.
Worst of all: Fans stopped caring, as attendance in Ross-Ade Stadium plummeted.
New A.D. Mike Bobinski walked into this quagmire in August 2016. Now, he was tasked with making perhaps the most crucial hire in school history. Screw this up, and an athletic department already in dire straits would sink even farther.
It looks like Bobinski hit a home run.
Brohm arrived in West Lafayette with a steely star, iron jaw and impressive resume. He was coming off a strong three-year run at Western Kentucky, where he built some of the nation’s most powerful offenses. And won. A lot.
The ball cap-wearing Brohm is many things. Tough, hard-working and smart. He has an everyman’s persona that is relatable to the West Lafayette community and Purdue. A no ego coach for a no ego town and school.
Brohm has quickly built trust with his beleaguered squad. It hasn’t taken them long to know they can believe in what he tells them. If they do what he says, they are likely to have success. The evidence has been apparent since the opener vs. No. 16 Louisville.
Few gave the Boilermakers a chance to even hang close with the Cardinals—let alone beat Louisville. Yet, Purdue pushed the Cardinals and defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson to the limit in a 35-28 loss in Indianapolis. That sure didn’t look like the same old Purdue in Lucas Oil Stadium. The Boilers actually played hard all the time. And they looked prepared and well-coached.
The next week, the Boilers came home and whipped supposedly dangerous Ohio, 44-21. The team showed its full arsenal of potential on a Friday night in front of an excited Ross-Ade Stadium crowd. The offense was flying. The defense made key stops and never broke.
Best of all: The Boilermakers won. For the first time in years, Purdue football was fun.
Today, on a scorching hot day in mid-Missouri, Brohm’s team took another step in dispatching a hapless Mizzou team. How good are the Boilermakers?
We will find out even more this Saturday, when Purdue welcomes Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines to town. Michigan isn’t clicking on all cylinders. Yes, the defense has played with ferocity as it has replaced 10 starters. But the offense has been inconsistent. The running game didn’t really get on track last week vs. Air Force. And quarterback Wilton Speight has struggled with his accuracy and ability to stretch defenses in the vertical pass game.
But, let’s take time to savor this dominating win for Purdue, which notched its biggest road win since a 47-13 victory in 1999 vs. Daunte Culpepper and UCF. The coach in 1999? Tiller.
That brings me back to where I started: 1997. Twenty years ago, Tiller took over following the dreary Jim Colletto era. Tiller flopped in his debut, losing at Toledo, 36-22. But the next week, the Boilermakers shocked the world by knocking of No. 15 Notre Dame, 28-17. Tiller and Purdue never looked back, capping a 9-3 season with a victory vs. Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. It was the school’s first postseason trip since 1984.
That monumental 1997 team was a rag-tag bunch led by plucky quarterback Billy Dicken, setting the table for a memorable 12-year run under Tiller that included a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl in the 2000 season. By the time Tiller retired after the 2008 season, he was the Boilermakers’ all-time winningest coach with an 87-62 mark (53-43 Big Ten) with 10 bowl bids.
The next eight seasons were cloaked in darkness. Danny Hope was overmatched. Darrell Hazell was just awful.
But, let’s forget about the past and focus on the future, which looks bright for Purdue.