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Beyond Basketball: How ISU Built A Winning Football Program

Carleigh Gray
The Redbird football team won a 37-21 victory over the Coyotes on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, on Homecoming in front of 12,113 fans at Hancock Stadium.

When Brock Spack was introduced as head football coach at Illinois State in 2009, only two coaches in the previous 100 years of the program had compiled winning records.

Since his arrival nine years ago, the Redbirds have amassed a 68-40 record and four appearances in the Football Championship Series playoffs, highlighted by a trip to the national championship game in 2015 and a second-place finish.

Prior to that time, ISU enjoyed only nine winning seasons during a 32-year span dating back to 1977. Is the program where Spack envisioned it would be nine years later?

“Yep, I still think there’s a lot of untapped potential here,” he said matter-of-factly. “As I said a year after I took the job, this is even a better job. There’s more ceiling to go. There’s more to be reached and more to be done to make it even better than it is today.”

Patti Viverito, who has been the only commissioner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference since its inception in 1985, said ISU had always been known as a basketball school before Todd Berry arrived as coach in 1996 and planted the slow-growing seed of success that Spack has cultivated during his tenure.

“Todd Berry when he was coach during that brief of time, I think he made that community believe that Illinois State could field a successful football team that the community would support,” she said. “I think he had folks excited about it.”

Credit Courtesy / Illinois State University
Illinois State University
Since Brock Spack's arrival nine years ago, the Redbirds have amassed a 68-40 record and four appearances in the Football Championship Series playoffs.

Viverito added that ISU had always been competitive in football to a certain degree, but could never get over the hump until then-athletic director Sheahon Zenger and former ISU president Al Bowman hired Spack.  

“They believed,” she continued. “Again there were flickers of hope that Illinois State could not just be a basketball school, but one that could excel across the board, including football.

“Sheahon, being a football guy, and Al Bowman, being the visionary that he is, was the perfect combination that the university needed to make a commitment to that program. And, of course, the stadium (renovation of Hancock Stadium) was a game-changer and hiring Brock was also a game-changer.”

The Value of Football

Bowman, who became president of the university in 2004, admits he had a different view of the football program when he was only a faculty member.

“I went to the occasional football game, but it didn’t resonate with me to a great degree, and I think that was true with most of my faculty colleagues,” he said. “ISU has been known as a basketball school for many, many years, and most of my faculty colleagues were avid basketball fans. ISU, for whatever reason, didn’t resonate with the campus like basketball has."

So what changed for Bowman when he became president?

“I began to recognize an elevated football program could bring visibility to the campus,” he added. “After hiring Sheahon Zenger as athletic director, we began to talk about what we could do really make football competitive. Make people engaged in our Saturday games and how we could use football as kind of a community outreach—get people in the community excited and get alumni coming back to the games.

“One of the things we did early on was change the rules on tailgating to allow people to consume alcohol and really create the kind of atmosphere people come to expect at college football games. And the fans have responded. People started coming back and we saw lots of improvement. I think Dr. Zenger and I saw it as an opportunity to showcase what Illinois State had," Bowman said.

Bowman admits there was some resistance from the faculty concerning the spending of more money on the football program

“There’s always resistance,” he said. “You always have to answer the question: How much are we spending? Are we spending too much? Are those expenditures taking away from what we could be doing on the academic side? And I think we had good answers for those questions."

"The success he's had at a school that didn't really have a history in football is really incredible."

“We don’t use any state money for athletics. There is some student fee money involved, but I think the expenditures for football and athletics in general at Illinois State are reasonable. You can certainly spend a lot more, and some institutions do, but for our size I think we’re at the right level.”

The Right Hire

Bowman gives all the credit for hiring Spack to Zenger, who became athletic director in 2005. Four years later, Zenger was ready to make a change in the head football coaching position hired Spack—a move Bowman said was the turning point.

“After talking with Brock for five minutes, I knew we had the right man for the job. He had the right values,” said Bowman. “He understood football’s place on a college campus; the expectations he had; and the expectation of the behavior of his players fit right in with the culture here. He’s done a remarkable job. The success he’s had at a school that didn’t really have a history in football is really incredible.”

Credit Carleigh Gray / WGLT
The crowd at the 2017 Homecoming game at Hancock Stadium.

What was Zenger’s vision for ISU football when he arrived?

“At Illinois State, basketball has always been at the tip of the spear, and I always thought football could be right there with it,” he said. “What I believe you are seeing now is that they are both in equal position.”

Zenger also said Bowman helped facilitate the rise of the program with the hiring of Spack.

“We kind of had a common mind on all things,” Zenger continued. “We found the right guy to lead the program. Brock was just such a good fit being from Rockford and having all those years of experience at Purdue, and even having some history at Eastern Illinois. He was such an Illinois guy and had such a great football background that it just all came together.

“He was the key, and give Todd Berry and Denver (Johnson) credit. They both had their moments, but Brock’s been able to build it and we were able to give him the facilities and resources he needed. After I left, Larry and company have been able to continue with that obviously.”

And what were Spack’s initial views of Illinois State?

“I felt ISU kind of apologized to who they were and Illinois State shouldn’t apologize for themselves to anybody,” he said. “This is a great place, particularly for football. It’s untapped. We don’t have to apologize. Now we played for a national championship. We’ve played for two Missouri Valley titles.”

One of the first things Spack did when hired to set the foundation for his program had nothing to do with X’s and O’s on the field.

“A culture needed to be cultivated here, particularly how Illinois State football players viewed their education,” he continued. “We needed to change our view of what our role was. Not just on the football field, but in the community and academic side.

“There was a standard that was going to be set that needed to be reached. Overall, our mentality needed to be that we needed to conform to what the university needs to see from us.

“I want guys who fit the blueprint of the university first in our football program. Our faculty needed to know that and our administration academically needed to know that and we were going to abide by the culture of Illinois State University and get kids in here that would live in that culture and thrive in that culture.

"I don't think you should win at all costs."

“The untapped resource here was the people who were already here and the community. What I like about Illinois State is we’re never going to sacrifice athletics over integrity for a championship or for a player. We’re going to always do the right thing. I don’t think you should win at all costs.”

So now is the program where Bowman envisioned it would when he hired Spack?

“It’s exactly where I thought it would be today,” he said. “What I hope continues in the future is the fan base grows. If the fan base grows then we can entertain the notion of adding seats. At some point, I’d like to get to the point where most of our games are a sellout and it’s a tough ticket to find.”

And the yearly top 25 national ranking?

“No I didn’t see that coming,” Bowman admits. “But once we saw what Coach Spack could do in terms of recruiting then it became clear that he could build something that would continue with success many, many years and that’s where we are.”

And Spack is by no means ready to rest on the programs laurels.

“I’m very happy for a lot of our accomplishments,” he said. “But I’m hungry for more.”

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