Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing talks time and again about turning negatives into positives and adversity into opportunity. With an empty campus and spring practice wiped out by the shelter in place order as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the second-year Panther leader has found a way to practice what he preaches.
"As I evaluated the offseason from a year ago, our first year, one of our absolute strengths as a football program is all these giants that we walk in every day and see hanging from O'Brien [Field]. We see the names in the lobby," Cushing said. "Our No. 1 goal this offseason has been to create connections.
"Obviously it starts within the football program, player to player, player to coach, support staff, etc. But talking with Adam Gristick, our linebackers coach who played here, we got to a point in time where we were ready to take the next step."
That next step for the staff is to share the benefits of Panther past with the team. Using modern-day technology such as Zoom, EIU's football program has experienced video conferences with a virtual who's who of not only Panther pride, but of names that resonate outside of Charleston.
One day it was former Panther quarterback/current New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton. Another day it was Mike Shanahan, who turned his collegiate career derailed by a life-threatening injury into three Super Bowl rings (two as a head coach and another as a offensive coordinator).
There was John Jurkovic, former two-time conference defensive player of the year who spent nearly a decade in the NFL and now can be heard daily on Chicago sports radio.
Before leading Naperville's North Central College to the Division III national championship this past season, head coach Jeff Thorne was a four-year starting quarterback at Eastern. Greg McMahon, a member of EIU's 1978 Division II national championship team, won a Super Bowl ring as a Payton assistant. This past fall he was the special teams coach for LSU's national champions.
"That's two national champions from EIU in 2019," Cushing noted, "that's really something special."
Last Tuesday, it was Jimmy Garoppolo, the highest NFL draft pick in school history who quarterbacked the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers to February's Super Bowl.
And so the list goes on with other guests the likes of former defensive backs Ray McElroy and Pete Houlihan to all-time leading tackler Tim Carver to FCS single-season receiving record holder Erik Lora to longtime EIU sports information director Dave Kidwell.
Like McMahon, there have been other members of the '78 championship team such as Randy Melvin, the Aurora native who has coached in the NCAA, NFL and CFL, or Scott McGhee, who now makes his living managing artists in the Nashville music scene.
There was Tim Kelly, a former Panther defensive tackle who is now the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans. Brian Callahan played in the offensive line at EIU and began his collegiate coaching career there as a restricted earnings coach in 1993 under Bob Spoo. Today, Callahan is an assistant coach for P.J. Fleck's University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.
And Roy Wittke, the man who convinced Spoo to offer Romo a scholarship. Wittke did two coaching stints at Eastern and is widely heralded for his work developing Romo and Garoppolo as quarterbacks. Today, he is the director of player development at Syracuse.
"It's really cool to see so many have so much pride in EIU," said Gristick, a Pennsylvania native who played for the Panthers from 2010 to 2014. Gristick knows success as a player; he played a key role in back-to-back conference champions and on the 2013 team that reached the FCS quarterfinals.
And the list just keeps going.
"We're adding video conferences nearly every day," said Cushing. "It's something we talked about doing for a long time, but given the circumstances we're in [with no spring practice and players not on campus], we're able to do a lot more. The guys don't have the same levels of structure. They still work, they just don't have the classtime like before."
But, enough of the past. What have the current players gotten out of it? Prairie State Pigskin asked a few players recently:
Anthony Manaves, redshirt freshman tight end, Chicago St. Patrick High School
"Learning about the past at Eastern. how much these guys did . . . what it means to us in the future. We're learning so much and I feel like it's building our connection as a team. We don't want to let people down . . . we're gaining more pride and knowledge in our school."
Aaron Woods, redshirt junior defensive lineman, Hinsdale South High School
"For me, it's a culture thing. We walk in that building every day and before this we thought Pat O'Brien was still alive [he died in 1990]. We're learning small things so that we can make big changes in the program. We're learning about our history and can connect more. Learning about the name of the guy who is associated with the building we walk into every day is a pretty significant thing. It's an honor to learn about that."
Trevon Brown, redshirt freshman wide receiver, Oak Park-River Forest High School
"It's an honor to be associated with the Eastern Illinois Panthers. Being a part of the culture that Sean Payton was a part of, Tony Romo was a part of, Jimmy Garoppolo. Having them speak to us is really getting our culture together. It's a pretty impactful moment in life right now. Like Jimmy Garoppolo said to us, not many people have the opportunity to be associated with an organization like this. It's pretty humbling and [we should] honor it."
Cameron Leach, sophomore defensive lineman, Nazareth Academy
"For me, knowing that we have basically the best history in all of FCS, so with that I think it's important that we get all the information we can. You've got to know where you came from to know what your limit is and what you can do in the future. That helps all of our players a lot to build on that and to build a better program than when we came in."
Nikola Wadsworth, redshirt senior linebacker, Oswego East High School
"A lot of the guys already covered it, but what I'm getting out of it is learning the history of the school, Eastern Illinois, itself. It's very humbling to know that the people walked down the same hallways and campus as us. We have pride walking down those halls and down the block to go to class. Instead of just going through the motions it gives us pride. I'm a transfer [from Idaho State], so the more I learn, the more I have for this school. That's what I'm getting out of it."
TJ Davis, redshirt freshman defensive back, St. Louis (Mo.) Trinity Catholic
"Learning about the tradition and the culture that was there before us. Knowing that guys like Sean Payton, Tony Romo, Jimmy G walked the same hallways as us, went to the same dining halls. That's cool."
Isaiah Hill, redshirt junior wide receiver, Minooka High School
"Out of high school, I had offers from bigger schools. I kind of got stuck on the FCS level [first at South Dakota State before transferring to EIU last summer]. I always felt like I belonged somewhere else, like I'm better than this. When you look at the history here, all the big names like Romo, Garoppolo, people like that, it gives you more hope that no matter what level of football you're playing or what school you're going to, you can make it. You can achieve your dreams wherever you're at. That's really powerful to me."