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Reminiscing, With Joe Tiller

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After twelve years, Joe Tiller has one last go-round as the longest-tenured non-zombie coach in the Big Ten. Here, he reminisces on some of his favorite moments on the sideline with the Black and Gold.
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Nov. 13, 2003: #4 Ohio State 16, #11 Purdue 13. 
Toughest Loss: "When we lost in overtime at Ohio State in 2003. I thought we took as good a team as we had into Columbus that day. To this day, that's the loudest game I ever have been at. I could not hear anything in my headset."

Yeah, I knew Columbus. We got around every so often. Even then, I’d learned to hate it, like you hated getting out of your warm bed as a kid and waiting for the bus in a rainstorm to take you to a place you didn’t want to go to begin with. I knew Columbus all right. It was a cold place, always, and black. This time of year, in the middle of the afternoon, the clouds gave the sense of a kind of impending disaster that would reveal itself slowly, morbidly, like you were playing at the delta of the Styx and Cocytus and Charon could come jaunting through the desperate wind and howling souls any second to dot the ‘i’ and drag off some poor backup quarterback for his bounty. I’d never want to see the ghouls that emerged at night.

Even the attendance that day set my whiskers bristling: 105,666. Just in case, I kept a couple lucky pennies handy, and a Beretta inside one of the Powerade jugs. Call me superstitious.

My father, I thought, would have been laid the leather to me for some of these thoughts. He had no patience for superstition or fate or anything else that didn’t directly or indirectly concern quality control at the insulation plant. A man makes his own fate, my dad used to say, when he could talk, before his voice gave way to a half century of inhaling Toledo’s most affordable fiberglass. A man knows how to handle himself with his own two hands. I knew what I signed up for, didn’t I? The day comes when you close your eyes, say a little prayer, stick your mug straight into that acrid air, breathe it in deep, and take fate by the ass. I wouldn’t see anything a little Van Winkle Rye can’t put out of my mind, would I? But Dad wasn’t a foolish man; he never visited Columbus. Here, I wasn’t so sure.

Cold and composed, on the outside.
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The air over the great arena was evil yellow and empty, eerie, but for the rhythmic chanting of the bloodthirsty multitudes. The grass knew what was coming, and hid under the dirt. At times, I swore there were locusts in the dust, preparing to swarm the sideline. More than once, I started for the pistol. But doom is impervious to bullets, you know: it is, as in the myths, an unstoppable river. It dragged our offense under – we punted seven times, and fumbled twice. It threw us against the rocks, when that sonofabitch Kudla picked up a loose ball in the end zone and the heathens awoke. They hissed and rocked and summoned the executioner. Their screeching exhortations clawed at our hearts. It was a ritual slaughter. Late in the fourth quarter, we were down a touchdown and ready for the hole.

People don’t believe it anymore, but at one time I had a tremendous amount of faith in Kyle Orton. You would, too, if you’d been at Wisconsin. Through the screams riding the ominous wind all around us, I whispered the Twenty-Third Psalm and set Number 18 loose. In his current state, I wouldn’t trust Kyle in a lazy April shower, much less the eye of a demonic hurricane that threatened its wrath at any moment. But the look in his eye then was not what it is now. It wouldn’t be for another year, against Wisconsin, the night of which we do not speak. This night, in Columbus, after three-and-a-half quarters of pressure and brimstone, he was steely, unafraid, sober. We sent the battle to overtime on a Statue of Liberty play: Kyle mocked the hordes on their own turf. What was left of it.

It was the way Kyle punched that made me feel at ease. The way he told 100,000 rabid bastards to go to hell, as if they weren’t already there, prisoners of their damned Horseshoe. In a few minutes, he took the awful spirit from that wretched place and held it like a dense, black orb that might destroy us all at any second. I think sometimes, maybe this is the feeling he’s trying to find at the bottom of those bottles. If he ever finds it, the search will be worth his liver.

There is pain in defeat, particularly in defeat via kicker. A field goal is a kind of technicality, almost as bad as a coin flip. I thought of the pennies. Tails for us, this time, but we still had them. Suck it up, breathe it down. The air still filled your lungs with chaos, but we were still breathing it, rather than the muddy river that held the bones of Akers and Colletto for eternity. The ululating mob had a victory, technically, but not submission. It hadn’t had its fill of our humiliation, and yet we were leaving their altar, scratched, limping, but in one piece, heads high.

Yes, Columbus’ demons were alive after dark, my friends. We heard them cackle and lurch as the bus sped away from their lair. They moaned like we still had something they wanted, that they hadn’t yet picked from our bodies. Or our souls. Something deep and fundamental that I can’t define, that fueled their grotesque spectacle.

I walked to the front of the bus as the anguished groans of the night echoed all around us, and told the driver to slow down. Take your time, I said. Pull over if you need to. We’re not in any hurry. They can’t hurt us out here.