When 49-year-old Chris Wilkerson was introduced Friday in Charleston as the new Eastern Illinois head football coach, he recalled a life-altering moment from high school.
“Thirty-two years ago this Wednesday, I made a decision that changed my life forever,” he said. “I signed my national letter of intent to attend Eastern Illinois University. Man did that change the trajectory of my life. This is an amazing place with amazing people and boy does it feel good to be home.”
Friday’s homecoming for Wilkerson comes after the former EIU defensive lineman, who played from 1991-1994, last worked in Charleston on the Panthers’ coaching staff from 1995 to 2001.
Wilkerson’s desire to return was evident when he met with EIU president David Glassman last weekend as one of two finalists who made a visit to Charleston.
“He told me during that meeting that his life’s goal, starting in 1995, was to be the head coach of EIU,” Glassman said. “That desire, that dream, that vision has never changed. Now he gets to live it. This is going to be a terrific adventure with Chris and EIU football.”
Wilkerson replaces Adam Cushing, who departed EIU Jan. 11 for a job coaching the offensive line at FBS Duke University. In his three seasons, Cushing’s teams won three games.
In nine years as head coach at NCAA Division III University of Chicago, Wilkerson’s teams went 51-27 with only one losing season.
Wilkerson is the first EIU graduate to lead the Panthers’ football program and is the first hire with previous head coaching experience since Al Molde in 1983. Wilkerson’s wife, Sharna, is a former EIU softball player.
Eastern athletic director Tom Michael said Wilkerson stood out to former members of the football program who served as a sounding board during the hiring process. Michael specifically mentioned former EIU and NFL quarterback Tony Romo, ex-Panther defensive lineman and NFL general manager Ryan Pace, former longtime EIU assistant coach Roy Wittke and ex-Eastern player and current University of Minnesota offensive line coach Brian Callahan.
“I can’t overstate the importance of their involvement in this process,” Michael said.
Wilkerson said Friday that the EIU program is open to all who played in Charleston going forward.
“To the former players, I need you to understand that I’m a servant to you now,” he said. “We all need you, and we want you to reconnect with the Panther football family.
“We want your help. We need your help in restoring our proud program. I want it to be a place that you’re proud of, and your involvement is super important to us,” Wilkerson said. “I want it to be a place that you know that you’re always welcome to come back home.”
As for Eastern’s current players, Wilkerson said the program will focus on recruiting, player support and player development.
“Our priority is going to be to adjust our schemes offensively, defensively and on special teams to play to the strengths of our players and give them a chance to be successful,” he said. “Our mission is to help each one of them reach their fullest potential.”
Wilkerson was emotional when talking about late EIU head coach Bob Spoo, who guided the Panthers for 25 years. Wilkerson played and coached in Charleston under Spoo, who died in 2018 at age 80.
“I’ve had many role models along the way,” Wilkerson said of his 27-year coaching career. “I want to give a special thanks to a man that changed my life forever, Bob Spoo. He completely transformed my life. Coach was like a father to me, and I know he’s going to be watching every single day.
“My goal is that we make him proud,” Wilkerson said.