When the news broke Jan. 11 that Eastern Illinois was suddenly without a head coach, alumni across the nation felt the sting and wondered aloud if the Panthers had indeed hit rock bottom.
“We weren’t feeling great, for sure,” said EIU’s all-time leader tackler Tim Carver, who resides in Iowa.
For on that wintry Tuesday, Adam Cushing announced he was leaving EIU after three seasons to take a job as offensive line coach at Duke University. Moreover, this came on the tails of three straight one-win seasons.
EIU officials — led by president David Glassman and athletic director Tom Michael — moved quickly and found their man in former Panther defensive lineman Chris Wilkerson, who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater under Eastern legend Bob Spoo.
Wilkerson, who spent seven seasons on the Panther staff, compiled a 51-27 record in nine seasons as the University of Chicago head coach. He previously was an assistant coach at Dartmouth and San Jose State.
Wilkerson’s former teammates and contemporaries alike are delighted with EIU’s choice.
“Our moods completely flipped,” Carver said. “Chris was an integral part of what Coach Spoo built and we’re thrilled that he’s back.”
Ray D’Alessio was a senior when Wilkerson came to Eastern as a freshman in 1990.
“You could just see right away that Chris was a competitor; he was feisty. There were a lot of guys in front of him (on the depth chart) that were seasoned veterans and he was out there every day competing,” D’Alessio said.
D’Alessio, who has enjoyed a successful career in the media including time as a CNN sports anchor and correspondent since graduating from EIU, has remained friends with Wilkerson over the years.
“Chris just pours out passion,” D’Alessio said from his Georgia home. “That’s the thing you’ll hear over and over. Chris has that passion.”
Wilkerson is the first Eastern Illinois graduate to be hired as the school’s head coach.
Flashback to Friday
Ten of Wilkerson’s former EIU teammates from the early 1990s found their way back to Charleston for Friday’s introductory address held in the Baker Warmoth Hall of Champions in Lantz Arena.
“We were all in shock two weeks ago; now we’re energized. The excitement level is off the charts right now,” said Brad Fichtel, who flew in from Texas to be there for his former teammate.
Fitchel, a member of the EIU Hall of Fame who spent time with the Los Angeles Rams, has even more reason to celebrate. His son Carson signed a letter of intent to play for the Panthers in December.
“It makes me feel better. I have no problems or worries sending my son over 1,000 miles from Texas to play for Coach Wilkerson. I’ve got the head coach’s phone number if I ever need to get on my kid,” Fichtel said with chuckle.
To a man, the former Panthers see Wilkerson as an extension of Spoo, their mentor and to many, father figure.
In fact, the last time most of the former players saw one another in person was at the memorial service and funeral of Spoo, who passed away in 2018.
“You can just picture him (Spoo) with that big grin on his face and that deep voice saying, ‘You’re going to do a great job!’ (to Chris),” Carver said.
Carver exchanged texts with Spoo’s daughter Katie when word broke about Wilkerson’s hiring.
Fichtel said, “It all goes back to Coach Spoo. He brought us in as a group and we were all close. We’re still connected today. We’ve got a 20-person text message group of former players. We still talk. We’re all excited about Chris (being hired). He’s going to unite us again with his love for Eastern Illinois.”
Roy Wittke spent 19 seasons at EIU, 17 as the offensive coordinator in two separate stints under Spoo. Today, he is the director of player personnel at Syracuse under head coach Dino Babers, another Spoo disciple who coached EIU for two successful seasons after Spoo retired.
“I am thrilled to learn of Chris Wilkerson being hired as head football coach at Eastern Illinois University,” Wittke said in a statement. “There is not anyone who has more invested in Panther football than Chris — having been a player; graduate assistant; full-time assistant; and defensive coordinator for the Panthers, Chris not only has an unparalleled knowledge of what it takes to be successful at EIU, his love and loyalty for Eastern athletics is real and authentic.
“Simply put, Chris Wilkerson is the right guy, with the right skill set, at the right time to lead Panther football,” Wittke said. “Chris, his wife Sharna and family will be wonderful representatives of Eastern Illinois University and Panther athletics as the ‘first family’ of Panther football.”
Wittke is best known for developing Tony Romo, who starred at EIU from 1999 to 2002 en route to the College Football Hall of Fame and All-Pro status with the Dallas Cowboys.
“Chris was on Coach Spoo’s staff when I was a student-athlete. I thought very highly of him at that time and have followed his coaching career,“ Romo said in a statement. “He has the football knowledge on both sides of the ball that will enable the EIU program to be successful. He is the right person to lead our program and I’m excited to have him back home as our next head football coach.”