EIU mourns loss of longtime head coach Bob Spoo

EIU mourns loss of longtime head coach Bob Spoo
Former Eastern Illinois head coach Bob Spoo passed away Monday at age 80. (photo courtesy of Eastern Illinois University)

Former Eastern Illinois football coach Bob Spoo died early Monday morning in Rockford. 

Spoo, 80, was head coach at EIU from 1987-2011, amassing a school-record 144 victories. His 68 Ohio Valley Conference wins rank fourth all-time among conference head coaches.

While Spoo certainly can be measured in numbers, awards and conference championships, his legacy goes far beyond the playing field.

"For 50 years, Coach Spoo shared his life with others by serving as a coach and mentor to hundreds and thousands of football players and coaches. Many young men like me were given an opportunity by him to play at the next level and learn a from him about hard work, loyalty, sacrifice, and service to others. We also learned about football and had a great deal of success on the field. He focused on success in the classroom and in life as much or more as that on the field of play," said Tim Carver, Eastern's career leader in tackles.

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Spoo took a chance on Carver after receiving a video tape and "a beautifully composed letter with proper grammar" from the undersized linebacker from Urbandale, Iowa.  Long after his playing days ended, Carver maintained a special bond with Spoo. Carver, who drove from his home in Iowa for Spoo's retirement announcement, recently traveled to Rockford to assist Spoo's daughter Katie with her father's health issues.

"I will always be grateful that he took a chance on me that no one else did. He gave me an opportunity and believed in me. It mattered to him not just how I played as a linebacker but who I was as a person. He developed a relationship with me and showed that relationships matter. He got to know my family and care for them as people, too. He hired great coaches and trusted them to do their job and do it well. Those just some of the things that I take away and apply each day in my life as a leader in my work," said Carver, now a school administrator. "For all of reasons, I am grateful and thankful to have play for and gotten to know Coach Bob Spoo."

Coaching tree

The branches of Spoo's coaching tree are far-reaching.

Syracuse head coach Dino Babers, who followed his mentor as EIU head coach in 2012, spoke of Spoo at his Monday press conference.

"If you want to do something that is really cool and takes a very long time, start a tree of where all the coaches are coached under Bob Spoo from 1987-2012. The people that have coached under him and where they’re at now is truly, truly amazing. A father figure in every rite. A righteous man," Babers said.

Babers was the running backs coach on Spoo's first Eastern staff.

"I can remember going over to their house when I was still single and eating dinner in 1987," Babers said. 'It was just Bob and (wife) Sue and (daughter) Katie. Truly, truly amazing family. An amazing man. There’s no doubt that there is a lot of Bob Spoo in me. The way he does things is exactly right."

University of Buffalo defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator Roc Bellantoni gained his most coaching experience at EIU under Spoo where he helped the Panthers win five Ohio Valley Conference Championships and make six NCAA playoff appearances. 

"Words cannot begin to describe all that I have learned from Coach Spoo and what he has meant to me," Bellantoni messaged Prairie State Pigskin. "I was lucky to be hired as a young coach from Drake University to learn from him. I did not know what I did not know. Like most young coaches, I misunderstood what being a great coach consisted of. I learned quickly that coaching wasn’t just about the x’s and o’s and motivation. We are educators and mentors. We all want to win and Coach Spoo was no different. Winning is the top goal, but, if that is all we are trying to do, we are failing. Other than my dad, Coach Spoo had the biggest impact on my life, as he had for hundreds, if not thousands of other players and coaches over his career.

 

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"When my dad passed away, Coach became a second father to me. He was there to comfort me and get through it. He taught me how to be a better man, husband, father. He taught me how to be a better coach. The words humility, empathy, service, respect, honesty, integrity and CLASS are what come to mind when I think of Coach Spoo. His coaching tree branches out all over the country. To think of all of us who have learned from him and are now coaching, his impact has spread to thousands and thousands of people who will make a difference in the world. That is legacy! That is why we are here. That is what I have been trying to do and will do for the rest of my coaching career. I will carry on his legacy. That is how I can thank Coach Spoo for all he has done for me. He was a blessing to me and I will be a blessing in return to others."

Bellantoni further stated, "Coach Spoo was at the hospital for the birth of all four of my children. He welcomed them to the office and practice field with open arms. He loved them. He loved my wife. His wife, Susie, was such a blessing to my wife. Susie helped Jenny get through her cancer battle a couple of springs ago. She was in constant communication with Jenny and probably never knew how much she helped her understand what it was she was going through and how it helped her to get through that tough time.

"Some of my favorite memories are after some of the biggest wins we had at Eastern Illinois. Beating EKU in 2001 and 2002 to win the conference. Beating Jacksonville State in 2005 and 2006 to win the conference. Beating Eastern Michigan in 2004. Beating Samford in 2007 to make the playoffs and playing in the playoffs in his honor while he was sick. Winning the OVC in 2009 again. Just how happy he was and grateful to everyone when we won. It was awesome to see Coach happy after wins, like a proud father. Great memories. But so were the EIU Panther Club Golf Outings we played in. The football family gatherings and the team dinner at Thanksgiving when we were in the playoffs. Sitting in the office watching film with him. The smile he could bring to someone just with a kind word or a hug. I will never forget him and I hope that his legacy will carry on through me and so many others, that no one will ever be able to forget him either."

Retired Eastern administrator Dave Kidwell added, "Other than my dad, I admire Bob more than any person I know...a man of great character and integrity...and I emphasize GREAT...if everyone in the coaching profession had Bob's commitment to doing it the right way, you could print the NCAA rule book on a postage stamp...he's a classic example of 'nice guys finish first'...I'm a better person for knowing Bob Spoo.”

Community man

After growing up in Dolton, Matt Piescinski has lived in the Charleston area since his days as a student in the 1970s. He got to know Spoo well not only through his association with the Eastern athletic department but also as members of the same church.

"If you met him on the street you would never guess what he did for a living. He sang bass in the church choir and at the Easter Vigil would be used as the voice of God for the reading. Yet, humble, quiet and stoic," Piescinski said. "Simple guy. Gets his 100th victory at Homecoming 2002, and all he wants to do is go out and eat at spaghetti night at the Stadium Grill in Mattoon with family."

Rival reaction

Jerry Kill coached at Southern Illinois from 2001 to 2007. He and Spoo went head-to-head when the Salukis and Panthers played.

"Bob Spoo is certainly a legend in the coaching world," said Kill, now Special Assistant to Chancellor/Acting Athletic Director at SIU. "His teams were always well-coached. He always had good players and well-disciplined players. There's a reason they won there so much. And as good of a coach as he was, he was an even better person.

"The coaching profession lost a good man. I wish we had more Bob Spoos running around. He will be missed. He's influenced a ton of people's lives."

Joe Novak was another rival of Spoo, first when the two were assistants at Indiana and Purdue respectively.

”We both recruited Chicago, so we ran into each other quite a bit,” Novak said. “Indiana and Purdue were big-time rivals, but I’m going to tell you, he was always a gentleman. Sometimes it’s hard to like someone in that position when you’re on the other side, but he was as nice a guy as there was in the coaching profession.”

The pair faced each other as head coaches when Spoo brought his EIU Panthers to DeKalb to play Novak’s NIU Huskies in 1997.

”They came up and whipped us,” Novak said. “His concepts in the passing game were as good as anybody’s. They were always, always very difficult to defend.”

EIU legend

Spoo was inducted into the Ohio Valley Conference Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Eastern Illinois Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.

Spoo was runner-up for the FCS Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year in 2000. He was named the conference coach of the year four times, earning the honor three times in the OVC and once in the Gateway Football Conference. He led his team to nine FCS playoff appearances.

Spoo coached five conference championship teams and had 11 teams finish the season ranked in the top 25. He had seven players drafted and nine former EIU players appeared in an NFL game, including former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

As a prep coach in Chicago, he was named the National High School Coach of the Year in 1970 by the High School Coaches Association. Spoo was later an assistant coach at Wisconsin and Purdue before taking over as head coach at Eastern Illinois. He played quarterback at Purdue, graduating in 1960.

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