The Unexpected NFL Pipeline From Eastern Illinois

CHARLESTON, Illinois — If a football player comes to Eastern Illinois on a recruiting visit, he’ll often get flown into Indianapolis, then be driven two hours West through cornfields, more cornfields, and a billboard that says “Welcome to Illinois Amish Country.” The school was founded as a two-year teacher’s college; the student body has never surpassed 9,000. The football program has had flashes of success, but isn’t rooted in championship tradition; the Panthers had just one winning season in a 30-year stretch before 1977.

None of this help explains how Eastern Illinois University has become the source of the NFL’s unlikeliest pipeline. In Week 1, it was the only school to claim a starting quarterback (New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo), a head coach (the Saints’ Sean Payton) and a general manager (Chicago’s Ryan Pace). Had Tony Romo been healthy, the Panthers would have been the only college program to claim two Week 1 starting quarterbacks.

Is there something in the water in Charleston? “Well,” says Chiefs offensive coordinator and former Vikings head coach Brad Childress, who attended EIU for a year. “I don’t know if there’s something in the water, but maybe it’s something in the beer, because there’s only about two places to drink down there.”

“It’s really remarkable when you think about it,” says former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan, two-time Super Bowl champion and EIU class of 1974. “We’re just a very modest school. And nothing has really changed much since I’ve been around.”

Perhaps there’s an EIU experience each of these men shared that led to their success. Last week, I drove down to Charleston in an attempt to identify it. With the help of long-time Panthers radio play-by-play man Mike Bradd, we looked back at the time spent on campus for some of the NFL’s biggest headliners.

• FROM WESTERN MICHIGAN TO ROUND 1: He nearly missed out on college altogeher, but now record-setting wideout Corey Davis could join Randy Moss as the only MAC receivers ever taken in the NFL draft’s first round.

Photo: Courtesy of Eastern Illinois

We began with the three quarterbacks: Garropolo, Romo and Payton. Though Bob Spoo had a 25-year tenure as head coach that spanned from 1987-2011—covering Romo and the recruitment and first two seasons of Garropolo—each man played under different head coaches and in completely different systems. Payton was a tad short, at 5′ 11″, and the program was running a West Coast offense that fit his skill set. Under Spoo, Romo got to play as a true drop-back passer. Garoppolo began his career in that mold. But when Spoo retired the school hired Dino Babers, fresh off a stint as a Baylor assistant, where the offense put up huge numbers with quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III. “Everyone assumed Babers would have preferred a running quarterback, like RG3,” Bradd says. “But he went with Garropolo,” who ended up adapting to a hybrid up-tempo, no-huddle offense.

One thing all three quarterbacks shared: None were awarded the starting job right away. There’s no enablement at a school like EIU, and certainly no entitlement. Payton actually came in with another freshman quarterback, who he roomed with, and that player started for a full season before Payton won the job. Romo, famously, was only offered a partial scholarship—“Shows how much we knew, huh,” Spoo quips—and even was a member of a fraternity as he sat out his freshman season. Garoppolo didn’t earn a start until four games in, as a JUCO transfer won the job in training camp. That’s another thing about EIU: By virtue of being in the FCS, it attracts transfers every year, and if they come from a bigger, FBS program, they can play (and start) right away. So each of these quarterbacks, who were lightly recruited out of high school, had to compete for their job again each summer.

Bradd notes that all of them were football junkies. When the bus would stop at rest stops to road games—EIU busses to nearly every away game—Romo would often get off and throw passes in the gas station parking lot. Garoppolo regularly stayed 30 minutes after every practice to do extra drills.

“There’s something about being at a school like Eastern Illinois where you have a chip on your shoulder and feel you need to earn everything,” says Spoo. “Some of these kids wanted to go to the state institution at Illinois and just weren’t good enough at the time to be recruited. But they would work every day to prove they were.”

Photo: Courtesy of Eastern Illinois

“You weren’t that empowered as a football player,” Childress says. “You didn’t get a false sense of self.”

As for the coaches, Childress, a transfer from Illinois, would have played quarterback or safety but suffered an injury before he ever played a game. “For the people who just aren’t good enough, you learn a little bit more about yourself, and sometimes that makes the best coach,” he says. “Those are the guys who have a burning desire just to get a paycheck in football.” Shanahan sustained a devastating injury in practice; a hard hit ruptured his kidney ruptured and his heart stopped for nearly 30 seconds (a priest was brought to the hospital to administer last rites). After that abrupt stop to his playing career, Shanahan moved on to coaching. Pace, an undersized defensive end who graduated one year before Romo, knew he didn’t have the skill set to play professionally. The day after graduation he drove a beat-up car from Charleston to New Orleans for a scouting internship with the Saints.

Of course, when the players made the NFL they looked out for the EIU fraternity. Romo, undrafted, could have gone to any team but signed with the Cowboys at the urging of their then-quarterbacks coach, Payton. “Well, I actually tried signing him first,” says Shanahan, coaching in Denver at the time. “I obviously had followed Tony’s career at EIU and wanted him on our squad. The Cowboys offered him $10,000, we offered $20,000. But he chose the Cowboys because they had fewer quarterbacks and he’d be higher up on the depth chart…. kind of hurts though when you offer him double the money.”

Photo: Courtesy of Eastern Illinois

It ended up working out for Romo. And things are working out for EIU. Though the state of Illinois is undergoing immense budget cuts (in June the university president wrote a public letter reaffirming the school would not close, even during a state funding crisis) EIU’s famous alumni have given the school a boost.

In the Sunday Night Football opener pitting Garoppolo against the Arizona Cardinals, Bob Costas narrated a two and a half minute video about the quarterback’s ascent.

“I was told that a 30-second ad in that game cost $665,000,” says EIU’s athletic director Tom Michael. “The game is in 23 million households. You do the math. What I know is that there’s no way we could afford that type of advertising, or exposure.”

• DESHONE KIZER AND THE ND QB FRATERNITY: Former Fighting Irish signal callers weighed in on the pressures of South Bend, and why Kizer might be the one to become Notre Dame’s first great NFL quarterback since Joe Montana.

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A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Bears defensive end Jonathan Bullard hyping his former teammate at Florida, linebacker Jarrad Davis.

“He’s physical, and he’s smart. He can diagnose plays way before they happen. He would tell us things and get us lined up, a great communicator on the field. He’s always prepared, watching extra film—you never have to worry about a guy like that. He’s an exciting player to play with. I can’t remember exactly what game it was, but my favorite play of his was when he jumped over the pile, and he was in the air for what seemed like forever going for the tackle. And that just shows his teammates that he’s all-in on every play. He has this little kick move when he tackles, some kind of little karate thing. It’s kind of tacky, but you know whatever he likes… and as long as he makes the play, which he does often. No question he can play at this level; he’s going to fit in right away. He’s going to do great once he gets to the NFL, but let it be known: He could never beat me at video games.”

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Photo: Steven King/Icon Sportswire

A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…

Jake Butt, TE, Michigan: The No. 1 tight end in college football, in my opinion. Great route runner, wide receiver-like separation skills. Needs some refining in run blocking, but seems to be coachable.

Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt: Long arms. Explosive with sideline-to-sideline speed. Natural when he drops into coverage. Converts speed into power as a tackler, but could use some improvement in finishing tackles.

Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Brother of Panthers’ Star Lotulelei. Strong at point of attack, but often relies on sheer power and strength. He’s listed as 6-foot-2, 310. Needs to improve handwork. Run stuffer, not every down player, future is nose tackle.

• IN SEARCH OF ‘THE NEXT CARSON WENTZ’: Combing the FCS ranks for the next top QB prospect, the search came across Brady Gustafson, a 6’7″ passer from Montana who beat Wentz in his first career start.

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Apologies that I’m late to the party on this—probably about two years too late—but this fact is too good not to share. As colleague Robert Klemko and I were taking in the Bears-Lions game on Sunday, we chatted with smart Chicago media personality Jarrett Payton about a few of the draft eligible quarterbacks because, well, you know…

Miami’s Brad Kaaya came up. Kaaya has the NFL’s prototypical pocket passer size and skill-set. “And,” Payton told us, “you know his mother was in the movie Friday.”

Klemko and I were blown away. Not only did Angela Means have a role in the 1995 comedy, but she plays the character Felicia—yes, namesake of the ubiquitous “Bye Felicia” meme.

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Saturday unless noted, all times Eastern…

No. 9 Tennessee at No. 8 Texas AM (3:30 p.m.): O.K., maybe the Volunteers are for real this year. I’ll say that with authority if Tennessee knocks off Texas AM, in College Station. In back-to-back weeks, the Vols have rallied from 21- and 17-point deficits to beat Florida and Georgia, respectively (and if you haven’t seen the Hail Mary that knocked off the Bulldogs, do so immediately). Hopeful Texas AM star defensive lineman Myles Garrett heals from the lower leg injury that forced him to miss last week’s game against South Carolina. But Garrett isn’t the only top-tier defensive talent for the Aggies: Keep an eye on strong safety Justin Evans.

No. 23 Florida State at No. 10 Miami (8 p.m.): I’m fully on Brad Kaaya watch. Games like this—primetime, national stage, legit competition—won’t make or break a quarterback’s draft stock, but they sure do factor in highly. Here’s an interesting stat about Miami’s 4-0 start: The Hurricanes haven’t allowed points in either the first or fourth quarter in any game. They also haven’t played a team as good as Florida State. Though the Seminoles have fallen off a bit, their playoff hopes vanishing with a ridiculous 54-yard walk-off field goal by North Carolina last week, Jimbo Fisher’s squad does have talent. I want to see redshirt freshman QB Deondre Francois develop and flourish as both a runner and a passer.

Washington State at No. 15 Stanford (9:30 p.m.): The Cardinal flopped in Seattle last week (which proved, if nothing else, that Washington’s preseason hype had legitimate basis). I’m curious how Stanford rebounds, but I’ll be honest: I’m more intrigued by Cougars quarterback Luke Falk. Scouts have been buzzing about Falk this season, complimenting his quick release and touch. Mike Leach’s pass-happy quarterbacks have rarely translated into NFL passers, but I feel like something about Falk is different.

• EVERYTHING LEONARD FOURNETTE DOES… EXCEPT RUN: You already know that Fournette is outstanding as a runner. But what else do scouts want to see from the star tailback? I asked, and then I spent a Saturday watching Fournette do everything else but run.

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Photo: Michael Chang/Getty Images

Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior match-ups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.

Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs vs. Texas AM QB Trevor Knight: Despite the fact that these two senior signal-callers won’t be going against each other directly, this matchup is one to watch as NFL scouts try to sort out which quarterback has the best chance to make it in professional football. Dobbs is a classic dual-threat, spread option QB who has completed 57.9% of his passes for 1,035 yards, 13 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, while rushing for 267 yards on 65 carries (4.1avg) and 5 more touchdowns. He will be facing legitimate pass rushers in this game, so keeping his eyes downfield is a must. Knight has filled a leadership void for the Aggies and is enjoying a rebirth in College Station after transferring as a graduate from Oklahoma. Through five games, he has completed 54.1% of his passes for 1,261 yards, 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, while averaging 7.8 yards per carry on 50 attempts with 6 additional scores. The OU coaches always raved about his athleticism and he is playing the best football of his career right now.

Best of the Rest:

Clemson DE Jordan Leggett vs. Boston College DS John Johnson
Iowa TE George Kittle vs. Minnesota FS Damarius Travis
BYU RB Jamaal Williams vs. Michigan State ILB Riley Bullough (questionable)
Alabama OLB Ryan Anderson vs. Arkansas TE Jeremy Sprinkle
Alabama OLB Tim Williams vs. Arkansas OT Dan Skipper

• SABAN SAYS: The Alabama coach sounds off on his time in the NFL, the growing gap between college and pro offenses, ideas to improve the NFL draft and the future of football.

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Charleston’s food claim to fame is that it’s home to the original Jimmy John’s franchise. But the go-to-spot among students is Joey’s Place, which features menu items like Joey’s Best Beef BBQ Sandwich (“This ain’t no dainty sandwich”) for $4.30. When Romo returned to campus a few years ago, he apparently insisted on only eating at Joey’s. It’s a mom and pop kind of establishment, quite literally. The mother of the owner works the register every day. Adjacent to that is a neighborhood bulletin board, and of course when I stopped by, there was evidence of one of EIU’s famous alum: A printed out photo of a loyal customer and Garoppolo from training camp. And here’s how you know you’re in a small town. On the take out menu it identifies its location as: “Located at 9th Lincoln—Big Parking Lot.”

Oh, and Childress was right about the two places to drink. The most popular is Marty Pattin’s—named after the EIU alum and ex-MLB player—which sits quite literally across from the athletic complex. I can see why it’s a good time based off the drink specials, which I will not repeat in this family-friendly column. Apparently the thing to do is get drunk and take a photo on the mini Panther statue outside their patio. I’ll save that for next time.

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