Don't Rock the Cradle
Oct. 31, 2007
by Jeff Smith
When Joe Tiller arrived at Purdue in November of 1996, he vowed to bring winning back to a Boilermaker program that had just one season above .500 and no bowl game appearances since 1984. He brought in a spread offense attack from his days as coach at Wyoming and immediately put the emphasis on throwing the ball. That proved to be a smart move seeing Purdue is often referred to as the "Cradle of Quarterbacks."
Several notable signal callers have donned the Old Gold and Black throughout the years. The Cradle was built by Bob DeMoss in the mid-1940s, and has gone on to produce quarterback greats such as Dale Samuels, Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Mike Phipps, Gary Danielson, Mark Herrmann, Jim Everett, Drew Brees and Kyle Otron.
DeMoss, who played at Purdue from 1945-48, also served as an assistant coach with the Boilermakers from 1950-69 and was then promoted to head coach from 1970-72. When DeMoss first came to West Lafayette, his focus was on basketball, having just played in the Indiana/Kentucky High School All-Star Game. Due to a shortage of players because of World War II, head coach Cecil Isbell invited DeMoss to join the football team and immediately stuck him a quarterback, which proved to be a perfect fit.
"I had never been under center before, but Cecil taught me a number of things and we started the season off 5-0," said DeMoss.
While the forward pass was not weapon it is today, DeMoss described Isbell as a "passing coach who believed in throwing the football."
In 1947, Stuart Holcomb took over as head coach of the Boilermakers and invited DeMoss to join his staff to coach the quarterbacks. DeMoss served in that role for a number of years and produced several Cradle graduates. In 1950, Purdue had four freshmen start the season under center, one of which was Samuels.
"We had a lot of success with the quarterbacks early on and Samuels was a great kid to start with," DeMoss said. "He went up there and had a great game against Notre Dame, which broke their 39-game winning streak."
DeMoss admits that at that time, Purdue was one of only a few teams in the nation that focused on the passing game. And while the Boilermakers' current quarterback Curtis Painter averages nearly 40 pass attempts a game, DeMoss points out that the 10 passes that Samuels threw in the win at Notre Dame was simply unheard of.
"(Passing) was something that people just didn't do a whole lot of back then," he said. "Nowadays they have the spread formation, but we actually had a formation called `Texas' that was similar. We had two wideouts, two tight ends and a running back, which gave the defenses a different look. Teams were playing three deep and would often overload to one side, but our formation was balanced and threw them off."
Often times with a long-standing tradition at a particular position, coaches are asked to rank the individuals they once mentored. It is a question that DeMoss gets far too often. He is quick to say "they all stick out" to him.
"We just took the guys we had and tried to put them in the right spot," he said. "Len Dawson was a polished quarterback out of high school, but then you had a kid named Griese come in, and the Phipps and then Danielson."
Griese (1964-66) and Phipps (1967-69) still rank among the Boilermakers' top-10 career passers with 4,541 and 5,423 yards, respectively. Dawson (1954-56) is 13th all-time with 3,325 yards, followed by Samuels (1950-52) at 3,161.
Tom Kubat of the Lafayette Journal and Courier, who has been on the Boilermaker football beat since 1985 and has covered the team in general since 1981, recalls the progression of the quarterback position at Purdue over the years.
"If you go back and look at the Bob Grieses of the world and the number of passes they threw, it pales in comparison to what they do today," Kubat said. "I remember talking to Scott Campbell, who succeeded Herrmann, and he told me that one attraction to Purdue for him was that they were throwing the ball a lot more than any other teams. But if you go back, Phipps didn't throw the ball that much and Len Dawson and Griese didn't throw the ball a whole lot. There were heady players though that ran the system well."
Herrmann was able to throw the ball quite a bit when he arrived in West Lafayette. From 1977-80, Herrmann threw for 9,946 yards, which was a school record until Brees shattered the mark with his 11,792 yards from 1997-2000. Herrmann still holds the school record for single-season completion percentage, as he completed 242 of 368 attempts (.658) in the 1980 season.
According to Kubat, when he was covering Purdue, the philosophies of head coaches Fred Akers (1987-90) and Jim Colletto (1991-96) were not centered around the passing game.
"My first 12 years on the beat were losing seasons," he said. "It was sad to see (the lack of passing) because of the history of our quarterbacks here."
Kubat mentioned Eric Hunter when asked if there had been a Purdue quarterback during that time that didn't necessarily fit the mold the Cradle was producing.
Hunter, who played for both coaches, was described by Kubat as a "multi-dimensional quarterback with a world of talent," and even drew comparisons from Kubat to former quarterback Antwaan Randle-El and current leader Kellen Lewis at rival Indiana.
"He was an inconsistent quarterback, but I don't know how much of that was him struggling or the supporting cast he had," Kubat said.
Kubat added that when Tiller was hired in 1996, he not only rejuvenated the Purdue program, but he "brought out of hibernation the Cradle of Quarterbacks."
The spread offense was still relatively a new concept in college football in the mid-1990s. Tiller had found success with the attack as head coach of Wyoming and was quick to implement his system in West Lafayette. In talking with Tiller, Kubat explains that the new Boiler coach recruited Brees right out of the gate, but admitted he did not know what they had.
What they had in the end was the Big Ten's most prolific passer in conference history. Brees threw for nearly 12,000 yards during his career and still holds several game and single-season conference records for attempts, completions and yards.
Following Brees' graduation and selection in the NFL Draft, Orton was waiting in the wings - or the Cradle - to become Purdue's next greatest passer.
Orton, now with the Chicago Bears, played at Purdue from 2001-04 and threw for 9,337 passing yards in his career, which ranks third all-time in school history and fifth in Big Ten annals.
Think about the aerial dominance there. In Big Ten history, three of the top-five career passing leaders are Boilers.
And another might be joining the club soon.
Last year Painter surpassed Brees for the single-season Big Ten passing mark with 3,985 yards. To date, Painter has thrown for 7,337 career yards and is expected to pass Jim Everett (1981-85, 7,411 yards) for fifth all-time in Purdue passing this weekend.
"It's a huge honor to be mentioned with these guys that have been here before me," Painter said.
Painter, who is currently second in the conference with 268.9 passing yards per game, admits that accuracy nowadays is far more important than speed.
"I don't necessarily think you have be the most athletic. I'm not the fastest guy on the team," he said. "It's all about decision making and finding the right guy."
During his stint at Purdue, Tiller has found that good decision making to be a similar trait that Brees, Orton and Painter have displayed.
"They could all throw the football; it was a natural skill for them," Tiller said. "All three guys were bright guys and as they matured in the system, they really grasped what we were talking about and did a good job of executing it on Saturday. They were good Saturday players."
For Tiller, the evolution of the spread offense and throwing the ball around 40 times a game is simple. He feels that today's teams boast talented players that can run and catch, which also alleviates some stress that the offensive line would typically take on in an offense dominated by the run. But perhaps the main reason Tiller has always centered his offense on the passing game is strictly for entertainment value.
"My wife told me she couldn't see the ball when were handing it off to a back, so we at least pass it around the field a little more," Tiller joked.
It's kept his wife Arnette happy over the years, but there is no question the Boilermaker faithful have been happier.
Our apologies to Mike Alstott, the school's career rushing leader with 3,635 yards from 1992-95, but this school was meant to throw the football. Since Tiller brought his aerial attack to West Lafayette, the Boilermakers have competed in nine bowls games in 10 seasons.
That success, along with the school's tradition of prolific quarterbacks, should be a sign for all opponents to come.
Don't rock the Cradle.