Tiller, Hope energized for Boilermakers' 2008 campaign

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Joe Tiller's subconscious doesn't bother him on the practice field.
It knows that is sacred space.

Thoughts of an impending retirement don't infiltrate Tiller's mind as he puts Purdue through spring drills for the 12th and final time. He continues to coach at full throttle, and Boilermakers quarterback Curtis Painter has noticed a heightened enthusiasm in the 65-year-old.

It's not until after practice that Tiller realizes why he's walking away.

"I feel my energy level slipping a little bit," Tiller said Monday after Purdue's workout at the Mollenkopf Athletic Center. "I still feel like I have energy, and I look forward to these practices and coming out here, but I don't mind going home anymore. I used to want to stay up all night, watching tape. So if that's slipping, then that's me.

"That's part of it when you say, 'It's time.'"

As Tiller spoke, his successor pedaled away on a stationary bike near the field entrance. Despite putting Purdue's offensive linemen through a full practice, Danny Hope wasn't drained. Not even close.

If Tiller needs a shot in the arm this spring, he'll get one from Hope, who will take over as Purdue's head coach in 2009.

"He's a highly energized guy," Tiller said.

That became clear on the first day of spring drills.

Hope, who will coach the offensive linemen this season, assembled the group to practice cut-blocking techniques on blocking dummies. Rather than dictate, Hope demonstrated.

"He got down, threw the whistle behind his neck, turned his hat backward and just went after it," guard Justin Pierce said. "We were like, 'This man is crazy.'"

Said tackle Ryan Prater: "I've never seen a coach line up and tee off on a cutting dummy before. I thought he was going to hurt himself."

Hope's hands-on style was among the reasons Tiller immediately considered the 49-year-old as a potential successor.

The two coaches first linked up in 1996, when Tiller hired Hope for his staff at Wyoming. They moved to Purdue the next season, and Hope coached the offensive line for the then-revolutionary "basketball on grass" spread offense. Purdue won nine games in each of Tiller's first two seasons and claimed the Big Ten championship in 2000.

Hope left Purdue for Louisville in 2001 and a year later became the head coach at Eastern Kentucky, his alma mater. He never made it back to Purdue during the next five years and spoke to Tiller just twice, but when the possibility of returning presented itself, Hope jumped at it.

"It's something a competitive person can't turn down," he said.

Despite Hope's time away, the place hasn't changed much.

"Everything's familiar," he said. "Most of the athletic administration is the same, the strength coaches are the same, the trainers are the same, the managers are the same. It's unbelievable.

"We loved it here the last time. That's what makes it so special to come back."

The past three months have been a blur for Hope, who attended Eastern Kentucky's football banquet Jan. 10, then flew to Purdue the next morning for his introductory news conference.

He spent the next few weeks on the road, mostly meeting with recruits who were planning to sign with Purdue in February. After returning to campus, Hope divided his days between scouting 2009 recruiting targets and studying every snap from last season.

His wife and son remain in Kentucky and eventually will join him.

"I just closed on a house last week, moved in by myself," Hope said. "I've got a bed and one chair. That's about it."

However, he inherits a fully furnished program from Tiller, who owns an 83-54 record at Purdue and has taken teams to 10 of the 15 bowls in school history. Hope took Tiller's spread offense with him to Eastern Kentucky and won't make major changes to the Boilermakers' system next season.

"There's plenty of comfort between the two of us," said Hope, who signed a six-year contract. "When we reflect on the future and the past, we're on the same page. It's a pretty unique situation."

Tiller has had only one losing season at Purdue, but his inability to crack the Big Ten's upper crust has drawn criticism. Despite strong starts to seasons, the Boilermakers have reached just one New Year's Day bowl game since 2001, and there was speculation last season that Tiller had fallen out of favor.

Both Tiller and Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke denied any infighting and said they agreed on a transition strategy.

"I was pretty set in my mind how I wanted to go out," Tiller said. "I wanted to have a hand in who was coming in. … Two years ago, I said, 'Morgan, I'm going to do this one more year and maybe three, but in all probability, we're going to settle on two.'"

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was a leading candidate to succeed Tiller, but Purdue settled on Hope, who went 35-22 at Eastern Kentucky. Tiller felt head-coaching experience was paramount and relayed his sentiment to Burke.

Hope had planned to retire at Eastern Kentucky until Purdue called.

"Danny came to me and said, 'I don't think they're going to ask me. I don't think I'm the person they'll be looking for, but just wanted to let you know,'" Eastern Kentucky athletic director Mark Sandy said. "From there, just step one, step two, step three, and he was the guy. It wasn't like he had plotted that he was going to be a Big Ten coach some day."

The coaching jump from Division I-AA to the Big Ten can't be overlooked. At Eastern Kentucky, Hope had to find sponsors for his coach's TV show and led the fundraising for a $300,000 synthetic turf practice field and locker room renovations.

"You manufactured everything from the ground up," he said. "If you want to buy new lockers, you become a subcontractor. At [Purdue's] level, you're able to focus a lot more on the actual coaching and development of your team and the recruitment of your athletes."

Hope is locked in on the team this spring. The linemen knew he would be.

Pierce had been warned about Hope's hyper-intense style by former Boilermakers center Nick Hardwick, whom Hope coached during his first go-round in West Lafayette. Prater said there was anxiety among the linemen about their future coach.

Hope hasn't toned things down, but his approach is catching on.

"In meetings, he's shooting out words, scribbling on the board, you can't read his handwriting or anything," Pierce said. "He's 100 miles an hour, 100 percent of the time."

Hope was the same way when he played guard at Eastern Kentucky for Hall of Famer Roy Kidd, whom he eventually succeeded as Colonels coach.

"He didn't have a whole lot of natural ability, but he was just really a hard worker," Kidd said. "Determination -- he had it."

And Tiller still has plenty for his final season.

He needs just two victories to surpass Jack Mollenkopf as Purdue's all-time winningest coach. The current seniors are the last class he promised to remain with through the end of their careers.

"I want to be a little more energized," Tiller said. "That'd be good for our football team. Maybe subconsciously, the finality of it has sunk in, so I'm thinking, 'Hey, I've got to maximize while I'm here this year.'

"It's important to have fun with these players and enjoy the season, enjoy the moment."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.