Mason, Tiller:

by Michael Dougherty

From 1987 to 1996 the Purdue Boilermakers and Minnesota Gophers football teams were virtually living in a parallel world.
The two programs spent that 10-year span rolling up a downright awful .331 winning percentage, while being invited to exactly zero bowl games. Purdue went 33-73-4 in those 10 years, while Minnesota finished their own Decade of Defeats with a 38-70-2 mark.
After the 1996 season, both programs decided to make a change in coaches — Purdue hired an offensive guru from Wyoming named Joe Tiller, and Minnesota brought in the defensive-minded Glen Mason, who was fresh off a successful nine-year rebuilding stint at Kansas.
Tiller spent his first season at Purdue instituting his high-powered “spread offense” and leading the Boilermakers to a 9-3 record, including a win over Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl for the program’s first bowl victory since 1980.
Mason, meanwhile, guided Minnesota to a 3-9 record, its seventh-straight losing season.
However, the rebuilding attempts Mason has made are beginning to show some signs of success, as his squad is 3-0 heading into Saturday’s Big Ten opener in West Lafayette, Ind., against Tiller’s Boilermakers.
Both coaches have delivered what their reputations promised. Mason has his stingy Gophers defense ranked first in the nation against the run, and Tiller’s innovative offense is generaled by sophomore star-in-waiting Drew Brees.
The spread offense is a one-back West Coast-style system, which utilizes a quick passing game to set up the run.
“To my knowledge, this offense actually started at a high school in southern California,” Tiller said. “I was introduced to it at the University of Wyoming in 1987 and I’ve been around it since that time.
Tiller said the offense was brought to Wyoming by a young coach from Idaho — Dennis Erickson, who went on to coach at Miami and is now with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
Last year, Tiller’s offense was led by senior quarterback Billy Dicken and senior wide receiver Brian Alford. Dicken threw over 3,100 yards and 21 touchdowns and Alford caught 63 balls for 1,228 yards and crossed the goal line 10 times.
Usually a team would be in a tough position after losing two offensive guns, but Tiller reloaded with the excitable Brees and a handful of quality receivers.
“He’s a very competitive guy and a very bright guy,” Tiller said of Brees. “He understands this offense at this stage of his career as well as Billy Dicken did last year.”
Minnesota has shown some signs of improvement over Mason’s 15-game regime so far. His defense is spearheaded by strong safety Tyrone Carter, the leading returning tackler among defensive backs in the nation.
But the Gophers’ offense continues to be a question mark. Junior quarterback Billy Cockerham is prone to mediocrity, while junior running back Thomas Hamner shows only flashes of brilliance.
Despite the backfield duo’s shortcomings, Tiller said he and his team respect Cockerham, Hamner and the rest of the Gophers.
“They are playing very good football,” he said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence. They’re undefeated and leading the league in run defense. They’re very aggressive defensively and I think their combination of quarterback and tailback presents some real problems to anyone that is going to play them.”
But while Tiller compliments the Gophers, it’s clear Minnesota is a step behind the Boilermakers at this point, and Mason said he knows the importance of Saturday’s game.
“This is a big game for us, lets face it,” Mason said. “Yeah we’re 3-0, we beat Arkansas State, we beat Houston and we beat Memphis, but what does that mean if we don’t play well and beat Purdue?
“I don’t want to minimize the importance of winning, that’s what it’s all about,” Mason said. “I mean, I’m a major college football coach, and I know that if you don’t win you get fired. It doesn’t matter what kind of guy you are, or what kind of speeches you make, or what kind of community service you do, or what kind of character you have, or how many kids you graduate. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t win you get fired, so that’s important to me and I never lose sight of that.”