When coaches were players: Illinois FCS leaders recall their most memorable games

When coaches were players:  Illinois FCS leaders recall their most memorable games
Illinois State head coach Brock Spack played linebacker at Purdue in the early 1980s. (photo courtesy Purdue Athletics)

Today we see them on the sidelines. Sometimes they stand in one spot; other times they stalk about with a clipboard or laminated sheets in their hands. They wear caps and, more often than not, a headset.

We know them now as head coaches:  Brock Spack at Illinois State, Nick Hill at Southern, Jared Elliott at Western and Adam Cushing at Eastern.

But, once upon a time they stood on the sideline until it was time to run onto the field wearing their helmets and shoulder pads. Yes, they all played from their youth through their high school days right into college.

Prairie State Pigskin asked each of the coaches to identify his most memorable game as a player, not as a coach. The question was wide-open; the responses could be from Pop Warner all the way up. Interestingly, each of the four chose a game from his collegiate years.

Brock Spack, Purdue linebacker (1980-1983)

(photo courtesy Purdue Athletics)

(photo courtesy Purdue Athletics)

Spack, a Rockford native, earned first-team All-Big Ten and honorable mention All-America honors as a sophomore. He was a three-year starter and still ranks fifth on the Boilermakers’ career tackles list with 384 stops.

The 57-year-old Spack chose the 1981 matchup between Purdue and 13th-ranked Notre Dame.

After the Irish took a 14-7 lead with 2:57 left to play, the Boilermakers moved the ball down the field on their final drive. Steve Bryant, who would finish the year as the Big Ten’s leading receiver, hauled in a seven-yard touchdown pass from Scott Campbell on fourth down with only 19 seconds remaining.

Purdue head coach Jim Young made the decision to go for the two-point conversion and the win. His gamble paid off as Campbell again found Bryant for the conversion. Purdue’s 15-14 victory marked the first time since 1972 that Notre Dame had lost two straight games.

That was a pretty big thrill. I was a sophomore linebacker in that game. We played very well. I don’t think they crossed the 50-yard line at all that day. It was an old-fashioned defensive struggle. That was pretty fun. I don’t think anybody saw that coming, so I enjoyed that,” Spack said.

According to the official box score, Spack registered eight tackles–three of them solo–in Purdue’s victory witnessed by 70,007 spectators.

Nick Hill, SIU quarterback (2004-2007)

(photo courtesy SIU Athletics)

(photo courtesy SIU Athletics)

Hill, a Du Quoin native, first began his college career as a basketball player at Western Kentucky University. After transferring back home to Southern Illinois, Hill developed into a record-setting quarterback for the Salukis.

“I took a leap of faith with Coach (Jerry) Kill,” Hill recalls on his SIU athletic website profile. “Everyone needs someone who believes in him and for me, that someone was Coach Kill.” 

Initially Hill backed up Joel Sambursky (the conference player of the year) before taking over the starting job in 2006. In two seasons as the starter, Hill posted a 21-6 record and set the school mark for passing yards in 2007. He still holds the best completion percentage (68.3) in school history.

In Southern Illinois Salukis Football, the book that chronicles the history of the program, Hill recalls guiding SIU to a stunning 35-28 upset over Indiana University of the Big Ten. Hill threw four touchdowns to four different receivers and was not intercepted. He took only one sack.

“That postgame was incredible. I remember our fans celebrating in a small corner of the end zone,” Hill said.

SIU became the first Gateway Conference (now the Missouri Valley Football Conference) team to defeat a Big Ten opponent.

The recap on the SIU website describes a key Hill connection with wide receiver Justin Allen that set up the game’s decisive score.

SIU faced a third-and-11 at its own 34 during its final drive of the game when Allen made a spectacular, over-the-shoulder, 33-yard grab to give the Salukis a first down at the IU 33.

“Justin got jammed at the line and I knew I had to hold on the ball a little bit longer,” Hill described the play after the game. “I knew they were going to blitz, so I just took a hit and put the ball up in the air. It was all Justin after that.”

Two plays later, running back Arkee Whitlock sliced his way into the end zone from nine yards out to give SIU a 35-28 lead with 5:50 left.

Jared Elliott, Miami (Ohio) quarterback & wide receiver (2004-2007)

(photo courtesy Miami Athletics)

(photo courtesy Miami Athletics)

As a coach, the Franklin, Tenn. native can readily identify with players facing tough times.

“If I had to sum up my career, I was a highly recruited quarterback who went to college and battled a lot of injuries,” Elliott said. “I was one of those players, like a lot are, where things don’t go as planned and you experience a lot of adversity. I can reflect on those days now as a coach and draw so many things from my experience.”

How much adversity did Elliott face? Unlike Spack and Hill, his most memorable game didn’t come from a big upset or impressive statistical day that others easily recall.

Elliott said, “I had to transition from a quarterback to a hybrid tight end. It wasn’t an ideal position that I thought I’d be playing, but a memory that always sticks out to me was in my last year. We’re playing at Colorado, in Boulder, and I ran like a high-climb over route and got my first college catch.”

For the record, the reception went for 35 yards and came in a one-sided loss. It was also Elliott’s only catch of the day. Yet, sometimes in life, the most seemingly insignificant moments prove to be unforgettable. 

“It was a very memorable moment for me. I’d battled so much adversity and finally was able to find a role where I was able to help contribute to my team. That’s a moment that just stays with you. It makes it all worth it, everything that you went through, all the hard times, all the good times, all the hard work. It will always be etched in my memory,” he said.

Despite the injuries and hardships he encountered, Elliott was part of three Mid-American Conference championship teams. 

Adam Cushing, University of Chicago tight end (1998-2001)

(photo courtesy University of Chicago Athletics)

(photo courtesy University of Chicago Athletics)

A Chicago native and Mt. Carmel High School graduate, Cushing spent 15 seasons as a Northwestern assistant under first Randy Walker and then Pat Fitzgerald before being hired as Eastern Illinois head coach last winter.

Cushing’s most memorable game occurred on Halloween 21 years ago. 

It came against rival Washington University-St. Louis. The game was dubbed as the Founders Cup in 1987 to commemorate the first football game played between University Athletic Association schools during the league’s initial year of existence.

“Being for the Founders Cup, it was a big deal. We won the game which ultimately led us to win the conference that year. That was the first time in a really, really long time,” Cushing recalled.

In fact, it was the first time Chicago had beaten Washington in five years and only the third win by the Maroons in 12 attempts.

The final score was 16-6.

“It was one of those great football games, physical back and forth. Two really good teams that weren’t budging, weren’t giving an inch,” Cushing said. “Really fun to be part of that experience to help us achieve that goal, a goal the whole program had been talking about forever and just not gotten over that hump.”

The Maroons finished the year with a 7-2 record and were 4-0 in conference games.

By the end of his collegiate career, Cushing and his teammates won two conference championships. Moreover, Cushing earned all-conference honors at tight end three times.  He would finish his collegiate career with 72 receptions, which ranks 10th on the University of Chicago career list.

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