The Coaches That Lead Purdue Football And Bowl Predictions

By: Ken Thompson

In my lifetime, Purdue athletic officials have hired 11 football coaches. One would be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Several would have busts in a College Football Hall of Shame if there were such a place.

Therefore, many Boilermaker fans will be cautiously optimistic when Ryan Walters leads Purdue on to the Ross-Ade Stadium turf for the first time Sept. 2 against Fresno State.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll take a look back at the most successful first-year coaches in Boilermaker history and those who struggled mightily.

Let’s start with the seven most successful and coming in at No. 1 is the gold standard for rookie Boilermaker head coaches.

When Joe Tiller was introduced at a press conference inside Mackey Arena on Nov. 24, 1996, Purdue was coming off the most fallow period in its football history. Starting in 1982, when Leon Burtnett was promoted to replace Jim Young, Boilermaker football combined for a 54-107-5 record with one bowl appearance (a Peach Bowl loss to Virginia).

So naturally, there was a lot of skepticism when athletic director Morgan Burke hired Burtnett’s former defensive coordinator, a guy who found an offensive system that turned Wyoming from an also ran into a 10-game winner in 1996.

That equals the number of 10-win seasons Purdue has had since 1887.

“We’re here to win a championship. We’ve won in the past and we will win again in the future,” Tiller said that day.

“We’re not going to wait four years to figure this thing out. If I were to wait four more years to figure it out, I wouldn’t hardly have any hair left.”

It took Tiller less than four weeks to “figure this thing out.”

After a here-we-go-again loss at Toledo in Tiller’s debut, a national TV upset of No. 16 Notre Dame launched a six-game winning streak. In that span was an entertaining 59-43 victory at Minnesota and a 45-20 whipping of No. 24 Wisconsin in Ross-Ade.

But the game that defined the 1997 season was the stunning 22-21 victory against Michigan State and soon-to-be Alabama legendary coach Nick Saban.

Trailing 21-10 with two minutes to go, Purdue stunned the Spartans when Rosevelt Colvin returned a blocked field goal 62 yards for a touchdown. A recovered onside kick set up Edwin Watson’s go-ahead 3-yard TD run.

Purdue would complete a 9-3 season with a 33-20 victory over Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.

“My wife described it best,” Tiller said. “She said, ‘every Saturday was like Christmas.’ ”

Noble Kizer had a tough act to follow in 1930, replacing James Phelan after the Boilermakers went 8-0 and won the Big Ten Championship the year before.

Kizer nearly matched that undefeated season. A pair of one-point losses denied the Boilermakers (6-2) a repeat championship but a .750 winning percentage would be Kizer’s worst during the next four seasons that produced two Big Ten championships.

When Kizer died at the age of 40 in 1940, Journal and Courier sports editor Gordon Graham wrote, “God rest the soul of the finest man I ever met in the world of sports.”

Mal Elward replaced a seriously ill Kizer in 1937 and achieved a 4-3-1 record thanks to a 13-7 victory at No. 20 Indiana.

While not a “win one for the Gipper” speech, Kizer inspired the Boilermakers with a telephone call before they took the field.

“Tears were streaming down many faces as a great Purdue eleven took the field,” Graham wrote. Poetic license, sure, but that was sports writing in the first half of the 20th century.

The tragic train wreck that killed 14 players and 17 persons in all cut short a 4-2 debut season for Oliver Cutts in 1903.

Cutts went 8-3 the following season before giving up coaching to practice law. He would return to Purdue in 1915 as athletic director.

Andy Smith flashed the brilliance that would lead to his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame during his first season in 1913. Lured away from Penn, where he went 30-10-3, Smith’s Boilermakers tied for second in the Big Ten and went 4-1-2 overall.

After going 12-6-3 in West Lafayette, Smith departed for the University of California. From 1920 to 1924, Smith’s Bears posted records of 9-0, 9-0-1, 9-0, 9-0-1 and 8-0-2 while winning four national championships.

As a member of the Army coaching staff that won three national championships between 1944 and 1946, Stu Holcomb was the choice of athletic director Red Mackey and president Frederick Hovde to replace Cecil Isbell in 1947.

While Holcomb had no one resembling Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis on the Purdue roster, he still managed to put together a 5-4 record. To his dismay, Holcomb discovered that a 16-14 loss at Indiana overshadowed a season that included a 14-7 upset of fifth-ranked Illinois.

Vowing never to lose to the Hoosiers again, Holcomb would win eight in a row to launch a span that saw the Old Oaken Bucket remain in West Lafayette from 1948 to 1962.

With apathy disguised as empty seats in Ross-Ade Stadium during the disastrous tenure of Darrell Hazell, new Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski breathed life once again into Boilermaker football with his first major hire on Dec. 5, 2016.

Jeff Brohm came to West Lafayette coming off 12- and 10-win seasons at Western Kentucky. There were some who thought Brohm was committing career suicide. One Louisville columnist called Purdue “a coaches graveyard.”

It didn’t take three days for Purdue football to rise from the dead. Just four quarters.

Promising fans to make Boilermaker football “exciting to watch,” Brohm wasted little time. An exciting debut, a 35-28 loss to No. 16 Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson at Lucas Oil Stadium, encouraged a crowd of 45,633 to check out Purdue in its first night game under permanent lights at Ross-Ade Stadium against Ohio.

The Boilermakers slammed the Bobcats 44-21, then won convincingly at Missouri the following week. Purdue closed Brohm’s debut season with victories at Iowa, vs. Indiana and against Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl to finish 7-6.


Let’s go bowling

Feeding the daily hunger for college football news, it’s not surprising that one outlet, 247 Sports, has already put out its first bowl projections for the 2024 season.

How anyone can make a forecast when there’s so many question marks about teams not named Georgia, Alabama, Michigan or Ohio State is difficult to fathom.

Surprisingly, 247 Sports has some faith in Ryan Walters and Purdue, slotting the Boilermakers in Detroit’s Quick Lane Bowl against Western Michigan.

“Winning six games would be a big deal for Ryan Walters at Purdue given what he has inherited. September could determine where this team stands under its new regime. There are winnable games in the first month and then there are games that could push Purdue to the next level nearing the midseason junction.”

The other two first-year Big Ten coaches also are projected to lead their teams to bowl games. Luke Fickell and Wisconsin get a New Year’s Bowl nod against Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Nebraska and coach Matt Rhule are matched up against Mississippi State in the Gasparilla Bowl.

As for the usual Big Ten powers, Michigan and Ohio State somehow will both reach the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines are the four seed against No. 1 Georgia at the Sugar Bowl, while Ohio State is the 2 seed against Texas in the Rose Bowl. Also, Penn State draws Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Other Big Ten bowl projections include Michigan State vs. Kansas State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, Iowa vs. Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl, Illinois vs. Pittsburgh in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Maryland vs. Arkansas in the Music City Bowl and Minnesota against South Carolina in the ReliaQuest Bowl.

-Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Courier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.