This Saturday, Eastern Illinois and Illinois State will take the field for the 108th time, continuing the oldest Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) rivalry in Illinois history.
For ISU head coach Brock Spack, this weekend's clash will mark his 11th game in the rivalry. It started against one of his mentors, legendary Eastern Illinois head coach Bob Spoo, who prowled the Panther sideline for 25 seasons.
Both men knew each other from their days at Purdue. Spoo, who quarterbacked the Boilermakers in the late 1950s, served as quarterbacks coach at his alma mater from 1978 to 1986. His time overlapped with Spack, who played linebacker for Purdue from 1980 through 1983.
After his playing days ended, Spack spent the 1984 and '85 seasons as a graduate assistant in West Lafayette. Then, after a season as an assistant at Wabash (Ind.) College, Spack rejoined Spoo when the latter was hired as EIU head coach in 1987. Spack stayed four seasons under Spoo in Charleston before returning to Purdue as a defensive assistant.
Over the years the two kept in touch; Spoo remaining at Eastern while Spack climbed the coaching ladder where he served as defensive coordinator under Joe Tiller at both Wyoming and Purdue.
Then in 2009, after a 12-year stay in the Big Ten, Spack was hired as Illinois State head coach.
When the 100th game in the series rolled around, representatives from the two schools met and decided to give the rivalry its present moniker: the Mid-America Classic.
The two schools also collaborated on a traveling trophy, which holds the results of the previous 100 games in the series and contains room to engrave the results of future games in the series.
While Spoo and his Panthers won that 100th meeting 33-26 in Charleston, Spack and his Redbirds have enjoyed five wins since the trophy was established. Moreover, ISU has dominated the past two years, winning by a combined score of 92-23. Overall, Spack has a 6-4 record against EIU.
Since Spoo retired at the end of the 2011 season, Spack has faced two other Panther head coaches: Dino Babers (2012-2013) followed by Kim Dameron (2014-2018).
A fresh face
First-year head coach Adam Cushing will square off against Spack for the first time Saturday afternoon at O'Brien Field in Charleston. When the pair shake hands at midfield, it won't have the history that Spack had with Spoo.
"I don't know Adam real well, I know of him," Spack said Cushing, the former Northwestern assistant. "I know Fitz [NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald] and a couple of the assistants really well. He [Cushing] must be smart if he went to the University of Chicago. My grandfather went to the University of Chicago, and he's the smartest human being I've ever known, I know Coach Cushing must be really bright."
Cushing, who spent 15 seasons in Evanston before taking the EIU head position, said, "I competed against him when he was at Purdue and when ISU came up to play us (in 2017). I’ve spent some time with him, but I wouldn’t say that we’re close friends. I do know him, we can interact personally.
"Brock has done a great job building that program over time. I certainly respect the way that he’s put it together. We’re excited to build our program to go out and do what we need to do against them."
Illinois State holds a 56–42–9 advantage in the all-time series.
Spoo passed away on Oct. 15, 2018, in Rockford, which just happens to be Spack's hometown.
"A very cerebral man and a family-oriented man," Spack said of Spoo. "I owe him a lot."
Brock Spack vs. Eastern Illinois
6 wins, 4 losses
1-2 vs. Bob Spoo (2009-2011)
1-1 vs. Dino Babers (2012-2013)
4-1 vs. Kim Dameron (2014-2018)
What does this game mean?
The obvious answer is bragging rights and the chance to hold the traveling trophy up while parading around for friends, family and photographers.
Beyond that, a third straight Illinois State victory would be the series longest winning streak since the Redbirds took six in a row from 2003 to 2007 (the teams played twice in 2006 including a 24-13 ISU playoff win).
A win by the Panthers would not only snap EIU's losing string in the series, but would be a major achievement in Cushing's inaugural season.
Where can I find the game?
Illinois State (1-1) at Eastern Illinois (0-2). (Radio: ISU Radio Network AM 1230, 33.7 FM & Tune-In App; EIU Radio Network 88.9 FM, Charleston (WEIU.net/HitMix; TV: ESPN-Plus).
Kickoff is 2 p.m.