Saturday afternoons have been silent at Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Field this fall, yet there has been plenty of cheering at a number of Charleston homes and apartments.
Since the Panthers have not played a fall football schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the EIU coaching staff with ties to Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern program have had more time than usual to follow the Wildcats. And there has been much to get excited about as No. 19 NU has roared to a 4-0 start heading into Saturday’s key Big Ten showdown with 10th-ranked Wisconsin.
While EIU could only get in a 15-practice fall camp last month, second-year head coach Adam Cushing has found a purple lining in the clouds.
“It’s certainly been fun to watch (NU’s unbeaten start),” said Cushing, who spent 15 years as an NU assistant first under Randy Walker and then with Fitzgerald. “I’ve watched it all. It’s special. It’s a rare thing that a football coach gets to see every single game of his other favorite team.
“People ask football coaches all the time who else they are fans of. You’re not really a fan of other teams, not at least the ones you grew up being fans of. You’re a fan of people that you’re connected to. The ones you have great friendships with. That family bond that comes from this game.”
Cushing stays in regular communication with the Northwestern staff, particularly Fitzgerald.
“From being there (at NU) for such a long time, it’s just been an exceptional opportunity to be glued to the TV and have a rewind button and all the fun things that come along with watching it at home,” he said.
Cushing, who was hired at EIU two years ago next month at age 38, is a Chicago native who played at Mount Carmel High School and then for the University of Chicago.
Cushing’s staff includes five assistants — including both coordinators — that spent time in Evanston on the NU football staff. A sixth, director of football performance Joe Orozco also came from NU.
The 30-year-old Orozco, a native of Tinley Park who played collegiately at North Central College, died this past weekend.
Northwestern is expected to have a helmet decal honoring Orozco as well as a moment of silence at Ryan Field prior to Saturday’s kickoff.
Fitzgerald addressed his team Tuesday on Orozco’s passing; Northwestern football posted a video clip on YouTube.
Heavy hearts at practice today, surrounded by family fortunate to have known @eiufbstrength.
— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) November 17, 2020
The ties that bind
EIU defensive coordinator Chris Bowers was Northwestern’s director of player personnel. The Lima, Ohio native helped build the Northwestern roster that won the Big Ten West title in 2018.
“In a normal season I don’t really invest emotional energy in another program. You just don’t have it in you because you’re so caught up in yours,” Bowers said. “I don’t have the hate for the (NU) rivals that I once had. That part of me stayed in Evanston. But your love of the (NU) staff and players . . . you go back with some of these players to when they were juniors in high school (being recruited) . . . and now to watch them make plays on Saturdays is so fun to see. You also have really strong relationships with the coaches and want to see them have success.”
Offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski grew up around Northwestern football; his father Randy and uncle Ron played for the Wildcats in the 1970s. The senior Kuceyeski coached at Libertyville High School for more than three decades and won the 2004 Class 7A state championship.
“My oldest sister (Erin) was a student manager on the (1995) Rose Bowl team with Fitz, so she was the same age as him when they went to college together. That gave us another rooting interest,” Kuceyeski said. “I remember going to practice and getting hooked up with my first sweat suit, which is a big deal as a young kid. And since then I’ve had another sister go to school there, so we’ve got quite a few ties with Northwestern within our family.
“It was fun rooting for them growing up. They weren’t the perennial powerhouse, and then we had a chance to go to the Rose Bowl as a family, which was an incredible experience along with the Citrus Bowl the following year. They’ve always been that No. 1 team that we rooted for from a college standpoint.”
Like Cushing, Kuceyeski has viewed every Northwestern victory this season.
“It’s DVR if we were practicing, but I’ve had a chance to watch every single game start to finish,” he said. “Two weeks ago, I went home when we had really nice weather in Chicagoland and did a little bit of socially distanced tailgating with my dad and my sister out in the yard with some other Northwestern fans. As a coach you never get to tailgate like that.”
Kuceyeski plans on returning to watch the Wisconsin game with his father this weekend.
“That’s always on the top of my priority list when I can do it,” he said.
Other staff connections
EIU quarterbacks coach Chris Batti was an intern and graduate assistant at Northwestern for four seasons under Fitzgerald before later coaching at Harvard and Fordham. Batti is a Glenbrook South graduate.
In addition, EIU receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Mark Philmore II was a two-time All-Big Ten selection at wide receiver for the Wildcats.
Philmore caught 163 passes for 1,768 yards in his Northwestern playing career (2002-05). At the time his NU career ended, Philmore ranked fourth in receptions and fifth all-time in receiving yards.
Dan Hernandez (offensive line) and Neal Renna (safeties) also spent time on the Northwestern staff.
So when the clock shows 2:30 Saturday afternoon and the teams are taking the field in Evanston, TVs in Charleston will be tuned to the Wildcats. And perhaps for a day, the EIU staff will don a different shade of blue.
“Yeah, 15 years of it, we own a few,” Cushing said with a laugh. “I had one on last Saturday and the Saturday before that and the Saturday before that . . . it’s either Panther gear or ‘Cats gear. It consumes your house.”
Bowers did two different stints as a Wildcats assistant.
“I gave away thousands of dollars worth of Northwestern gear, but I still have a ton,” he said. “This fall is the closest I’ve been to being a fan in the last 21 years — and I don’t want to repeat a fall like this again because after all, I’m a coach — but it has been fun with Northwestern’s success.”