Like some of the other Louisiana Tech receivers he later coached over the years, there was never a lot of flash or splash about Pat Tilley’s playing skills.
Tilley was more about overcoming the odds, something he continues to do to this day.
Standing at 5-10 with a smallish frame, Tilley – who continues to recover from a number of recent health issues – made his impact the blue-collar way, with determination, an intense work ethic and a desire to be the best he could be in everything he tried.
That determination earned Tilley a place in the Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2017.
Tilley starred as a Bulldogs wide receiver from 1972-75, picking up All-Southland Conference accolades in both his junior and senior seasons. His four-year totals as a Bulldog includes 107 receptions for 1,887 yards and 13 touchdowns.
But Tilley made as much of, if not more than, an impact on the pro level after graduating from Tech in 1975.
Tilley turned in an 11-year career as a receiver for the St. Louis Cardinals, who drafted him in the fourth round (114th overall) in the 1976 NFL Draft. He totaled 7,005 receiving yards on 468 receptions with 37 touchdowns. He made 68 of those catches in 1980, the season he was named an All-Pro.
Former Tech teammate Roger Carr played in the NFL from 1974-83 and remembers admiring the play of his fellow Bulldog on the pro level.
"He was so gritty,” Carr said. “You don't play all the years he played in the NFL without being a tough guy. Remember, the rules were different when we played. Those backs could knock you all over the place. I used to go work out with him and Joe Ferguson in Shreveport. He had such great balance, good hands and eye-hand coordination. Just a tough football player. I don't know if he gets all the credit he deserves. He's one of the finest receivers to come through Tech, and we've had plenty."
After playing a role in Tech’s 12-0 season and national championship in 1972, Tilley’s sophomore year saw him shine in one of Louisiana Tech’s biggest wins of all time as the Bulldogs blew out Western Kentucky, 34-0, in the NCAA’s first Division II national championship — the Camellia Bowl in Sacramento, California.
Tech’s defense dominated that game, holding the Hilltoppers to only 76 total yards of offense and minus12 rushing yards.
But the Bulldogs did their share on the other side of the ball, totaling 336 yards of offense. Tilley accounted for nearly a third of that yardage with 106 receiving yards on seven catches. He scored the game’s final touchdown on a 28-yard scoring strike from back-up quarterback Steve Haynes, who came in for mop-up duty for starting quarterback Denny Duron, another Class of 2017 Tech Hall of Famer.
Tilley ended up being Tech’s leading receiver in 1974 (29 catches for 497 yards and four scores) and 1975 (53 receptions for 926 yards and six touchdowns). He had a 200-yard receiving performance vs. Southeastern Louisiana in 1975 and broke the century mark five other times as a Bulldog.
Tilley played with some of the greatest receivers to ever don a Tech uniform, teammates like Carr, Billy Ryckman, Rod Foppe and Mike Barber.
Barber was drafted ahead of Tilley in the 1976 NFL Draft in the second round by the Houston Oilers. Barber remembers that it was his old teammate’s work ethic and mental game that helped Tilley beat the odds.
“On the field Pat was a very disciplined player,” Barber said. “Meaning, —and a quarterback always loves this — if a route was a 10-yard out, when he ran it, it was never nine-and-a-half yards. It was never 10-and-a-half yards. It was 10 yards and out. When you get a receiver like that, it creates great confidence for your quarterback, because that receiver is going to be where he’s supposed to be. A quarterback throws to a spot. He doesn’t necessarily throw at a receiver.
“That’s why Pat was so successful. He knew how to hit that spot. Not just in college, but he also went on to be an All-Pro in the NFL. He knew how to read a zone defense. He was just tremendous. He never lost a battle. Never made a mistake.”
Barber added that under different circumstances, Tilley could have become of the NFL’s all-time greats.
“I compare him often to Steve Largent,” Barber said. “My first year when I was drafted by Houston, they selected Steve in the fourth round. He got cut, but I remember him sitting on the end of a bed, telling me ‘Mike, I’m going to make them regret the day that they cut me.’
Well, the rest is history.
“All the records Jerry Rice later broke, they were Steve Largent’s. And Pat Tilley was every bit as good as Steve Largent. He was a great receiver, very reliable with glue hands. He’d go up for the ball. He didn’t hear footsteps.”
Former Tech linebacker Chris Richardson agreed that it was Tilley’s route-running skills that set him apart from the average receiver.
“I was a defensive player, and yes he ran incredible routes,” Richardson said. “I especially noticed it later on when he was in the pros. He wasn’t incredibly fast. We had a bunch of guys who would do 40s and 20s just to warm up before practice, and he was probably sixth on the team as far as doing a straight 20. But you couldn’t stay on him good when he made those cuts on those precision routes. Defenders would end up a step behind him. And he always caught it.”
Barber said Tilley could be as much fun off the field as he was to watch while on it.
“Off the field, he was a character deluxe,” Barber said with a chuckle. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Tilley, who signed out of Shreveport’s Fair Park High School, credits fellow Tech Hall of Famer Mickey Slaughter, who was an assistant coach for the Bulldogs when Tilley was in college, for helping him “flip the switch” and turn on his intense work ethic.
“Coach Slaughter’s favorite phrase was ‘can of corn,’ meaning an easy catch,” Tilley said. “I was running a deep route, dropped a perfect throw – a can of corn – and Coach Slaughter yelled, ‘If that ball had Budweiser written on it, you would have caught it.’
“He made me realize my priorities were out of order, and it was then that I decided to take football seriously. He made me better. I’ll always be grateful to him because of that. He had such a commanding presence. He was tough, but I know I was tough to deal with sometimes, too. But I don’t think I would have made it in the NFL had it wasn’t for everything Coach Slaughter taught me.”
Barber admits to being a fan when Tilley was in the NFL, even if it was when watching from the opposing sideline.
“When I came off the field, I sat down to rest,” Barber said, “except when I had a teammate from Louisiana Tech, like Pat, (playing in the game). Then I’d stand there and watch him.
“But I got sick of playing against Terry Bradshaw as much as I did in the NFL — he lost me a lot of money to this day,” Barber added, chuckling again.
Tilley began his NFL career in a pro set developed by Cardinals Head Coach Don Coryell that was based on vertical passing that became more successful when a team was forced to throw by providing one or even two backs to help protect the quarterback. Prior to Coryell, the pro set was generally a running offense that used play action fakes to set up deep passing attempts when defenses stacked up against the running game.
“Air Coryell was dynamite — it was explosive,” Tilley said. “And it was a lot of fun to play in that system. Then after two years, Bud Wilkinson became head coach for a couple of seasons before I had my best season in 1980 under Jim Hanifan.”
After retiring from the NFL, Tilley became the area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and gave motivational messages throughout northwest Louisiana.
But he eventually returned to the football field and Joe Aillet Stadium, beginning as a volunteer coach under Joe Raymond before coming a full-time receivers coach and later the offensive coordinator for the Bulldogs.
“I thought those were really exciting times,” Tilley said. “I mean you had Joe Raymond Peace as head coach. Joe Ferguson and Petey Perot were also coaching there. So we had a really good team of coaches.”
Tilley coached three of the top Tech receivers off all time. Bobby Slaughter, son of Mickey Slaughter, and Eddie Brown in the late 1980s and then Troy Edwards in the 1990s.
Tilley said he remembers the time fondly because of his relationships with the Slaughters and the fact Bobby was a slightly smaller version of himself.
“It was great coaching Bobby,” Tilley said. “I felt like I had a tremendous influence on him as a player, so getting to coach him was great.”
Edwards still stands atop the Tech receiving records book, and Tilley played a big role in helping lure the standout of Shreveport’s Huntington High School to Ruston.
“Pat Tilley and I spent several nights over in Shreveport recruiting him,” Peace said of Edwards, who was the NCAA’s 1998 Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top wide receiver.
Tilley would later serve as head coach of the Shreveport Battlewings AF2 arena football league team. And even later, he played a role coaching another of Tech’s all-time leading receiver in Trent Taylor.
“I met Trent Taylor when he was in the fifth grade,” said Tilley. “I was actually coaching at Evangel and he was on a fifth-grade team. And he was already pretty awesome. I saw something in him even then.”
But after such an outstanding career as a player and a coach, Pat Tilley has recently found himself in the biggest fight of his life after a number of recent health problems.
“He’s had a heart attack, two strokes at least, and we could have lost him more than once, quite frankly,” Barber said. “But he’s got a great help-mate in his wife, and he’s a fighter. Always has been. That’s what made him such a great player. Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog. Once a fighter, always a fighter. So I’m very honored to have played with him in college, and against him on the pro level.”
“Right now I’m pretty much focused on my recovery,” Tilley said. “I’ve been left with a speech impediment, and sometimes my memory can get a little scrambled and the words might not always come out right.
“But no matter what, being inducted into the Louisiana Tech Hall of Fame means more to me than I could ever say. Tech has been such an important part of my life, both as a student-athlete and then later in life when I was fortunate enough to return as a coach.”
Tilley has spent his life beating the odds. Now his mental “route-running skills” help him slowly recover every day as he enters the Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame.
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