When Brock Spack took over the Illinois State head coaching position in December 2008, the former Purdue linebacker and defensive coordinator spoke of waking the “sleeping giant” of Redbird football.
Thirteen seasons later, Spack is poised to rewrite the Illinois State record book.
When ISU opens its season Saturday at Hancock Stadium in Normal against Butler, Spack is set to tie Edwin Struck for the most coaching victories (86) in school history.
Though a win is never guaranteed, the odds are heavily in ISU’s favor. Butler, the Indianapolis-based program, is picked to finish last in the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer League.
On the day that fall camp officially opened, Spack was seen wearing a shirt recognizing 125 years of Illinois State football. That symbol seems fitting for a man who has helped orchestrate what could easily be termed the “Golden Age of Redbird football”.
“He’s done a lot, that’s for darn sure,” said Ted Schmitz, a former ISU assistant in the 1970s who has served as the radio analyst on Redbird broadcasts in recent years.
“Right from day one you could see there was improvement,” added Schmitz, who regularly attends practice. “He’s a true football man all the way, top to bottom, A to Z. I just love being around him.”
Secrets to success
What has fueled that the success that Schmitz — a man who coached in the Canadian Football League as well as the collegiate level — saw from the first day of Spack’s tenure in Normal?
“At the time he came in they really needed some defense. They had been decent on offense, but they were awful on defense. He got that corrected right away,” Schmitz said. “He’s hired very well. His people and his staff have done very well. And he’s done a great job of recruiting, that’s where it really comes in.
“You gauge new coaches’ success by that third year, and his proved to be a success story. “
ISU finished Spack’s third season with a 7-4 overall record, securing the team’s third-straight winning season.
“It was also the year he took over the defensive coordinator duties as well as head coach,” Schmitz said.
A year later, Spack’s Redbirds landed in the FCS playoffs. Moreover, ISU shocked Appalachian State on the road in the second round. The Redbirds advanced to the quarterfinals for the third time in school history.
Fast forward to the present and Spack’s resume has continued to grow. According to his biographical sketch on the official ISU athletic website, Spack “has changed the culture of Redbird football.”
Creating a culture
Chris Highland played his prep football in ISU’s backyard at Bloomington’s Central Catholic High School. He was one of Spack’s first recruits and went on to earn All-American status as a long snapper.
“The thing that I remember from my freshman and sophomore years (of college) is there was a lot of turnover from older guys who had decided to leave the program for whatever reason, and I think a lot of that had to do with the culture that Coach Spack was trying to build,” Highland said.
“I don’t think I’m breaking any news that to say that Coach Spack is a hard-nosed man,” Highland added. “He’s a tough guy to play for. If you buy in, you can have some success. So, I think it was a matter of getting guys to buy in to what he was preaching in saying ‘hey, we’re going to be a tough, physical football team. We’re going to be fundamentally sound. We’re going to be fast.’ And those are the kinds of things that he hangs his hat on.”
Like Schmitz, Highland also see Spack’s success is linked to making the entire program strong.
“I’m a firm believer that you’re only as good as the people you put around you, and it’s not only the student-athletes you put around you, but also the assistant coaches,” Highland said. “He’s done a great job of putting the right people in the right spots on the field and off the field to help the entire program to succeed.”
Under Spack, Illinois State has made five playoff appearances, won back-to-back Missouri Valley Football Conference championships in 2014-15 and within seconds of winning a national title game in a narrow loss to perennial powerhouse North Dakota State.
Craig Bertsche has covered ISU in numerous capacities since the 1990s. He also grew up just down the road from Bloomington-Normal in nearby Chenoa.
“Brock brought toughness and stability to an ISU program when it was needed most. Brock’s predecessor, Denver Johnson, experienced some success. But when Denver took over the ISU program, the Redbirds were a national semi-finalist in 1999 and had a large corps of key players returning,” Bertsche said. “When Brock was introduced as head coach, he called the Redbird football program a sleeping giant — and you could tell he meant it. In my time of covering Redbird football, only one coach has left the post on his own — Todd Berry left to become the head coach at Army after the 1999 season. I think the job was attractive nationally due in large part to the Gateway and Missouri Valley Football conferences.”
Bertsche sees Spack’s legacy unfolding.
“When the time comes for Brock to retire, there will be a lot of national interest in the job. There’s a culture of success, both on the field and in the classroom, along with markedly improved facilities — and an indoor practice facility in the works,” Bertsche said.
“His longevity in Normal can’t be overlooked,” Bertsche said. “This program has a history of turnover. In college football, when you win other programs will show interest. I would think for a younger coach, it would be tempting to leave a successful FCS program to take a head coaching position at a Group of 5 conference with hopes that it will launch you to a Power 5 job. But recent history suggests that approach rarely happens. Perhaps since Brock was in his 40s when he took over at ISU, he wasn’t tempted to jump at the first opening since he appreciated the stability he was afforded as head coach of the Redbirds.
“Finally, Brock helped raise the profile of the MVFC by getting players in the NFL — four have been drafted. Even undrafted players like former Bears wide receiver Cameron Meredith and current Jaguars running back James Robinson achieved a high level of success in the league. I’ve had several occasions to visit with NFL scouts who visited Hancock Stadium —something I didn’t see very often in the ’90s.”
“Brock Spack has been a strong leader among Missouri Valley Football Conference coaches since the first minute he became head coach at Illinois State. No matter the challenge, we can always count on Brock to bring wisdom and common sense to every solution. It’s certainly no surprise that his leadership has translated to success on the field to make him the all-time winningest coach at Illinois State,” league commissioner Patty Viverito said in an e-mail.
Kelly Burke has covered in Missouri Valley athletics in a variety of ways — play-by-play, color analyst and reporter. She has gotten to know Spack over the years.
“When I think of Coach Spack, I think of an old-school, tough-minded coach who loves defense,” Burke said. “He’s been a great fit for the Valley coming over from the Big Ten, and the MVFC’s reputation as a defensive league considered the ‘SEC of the FCS.’ While this will certainly be a pivotal season for the Redbirds, after opting out of the remaining spring season and the flurry of transfers following that announcement, I don’t ever count out Illinois State or Brock.”
Burke added that Spack and ISU have also had the benefit of support.
“More than any other MVFC school in the state, the resources and support that their athletic programs receive from the administration are unmatched,” she said.
Burke also expressed admiration for Spack outside of football.
“I’ve gotten to know him over the years, and I have a ton of respect for him,” Burke said. “I appreciate his directness, and it’s been really fun in recent years to see him become a grandpa. There’s a softer side of him that most fans don’t get to see. He has a wonderful relationship with his daughter Alicia Mays, and she was previously on the staff as the Director of Football Operations. To see them interact was always special and now more so, to see the way he talks about his two granddaughters. There is so much pure joy there.
“One of the other things I really enjoy is seeing the friendship between Coach Spack and South Dakota State head football coach John Stiegelmeier. They’ve been close for years, and there is a strong mutual respect and friendship there. Coach Stig is considered one of the nicest guys in college football, so the fact he feels so highly about Coach Spack says everything.
“Coach Spack is in a different phase of his life and coaching career than when he first game to Bloomington-Normal, and that human side is more important than ever for today’s student-athlete. Given the way NIL is changing the landscape of college football and a greater emphasis and openness about mental health, today’s head football coaches have to be able to relate to their players and invest in them as young men off the field, even more than football players on it.”
Finally, Spack’s own perspective
Spack enters his 13th season at ISU with an 85-53 career coaching record. Prairie State Pigskin asked his thoughts on tying and then surpassing Hancock as the Redbirds’ all-time wins leader.
“I wish it had been done in 2020 so that I don’t have to talk about it now and we could move on,” Spack said with a chuckle in reference to the pandemic-interrupted seasons of the most recent fall and spring.
Then, Spack — the Rockford native — turned introspective.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s a credit to the players that have been here and the coaches that have gone through, a credit to the program that we’ve been able to win over time.
“Didn’t expect that when I came here. I just wanted to win games. Been fortunate to win games. Great players make good coaches, that’s what I hear,” Spack said as the chuckle returned.
Where to find the game
Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game versus Butler will be televised on Marquee Sports Network, ESPN3 and heard on the ISU Redbird Radio Network.