- A little-known FCS program is responsible for producing some of the best arms and minds in the NFL, including Super Bowl LIV starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
- Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, and longtime Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan all played college football for the Eastern Illinois Panthers.
- Business Insider spoke with several people closely affiliated with Eastern Illinois football teams to learn more about how the Panthers’ program has cultivated premiere NFL talent.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Alabama. Clemson. LSU. Ohio State. Oklahoma. Penn State.
These are the premier college football programs from which we expect top-tier NFL talent to originate.
Eastern Illinois? Not so much.
The little-known FCS program, which competes in the Ohio Valley Conference, has produced some of the greatest minds and arms of professional football past and present. The impressive list of former Panthers stars-turned-NFL staples includes Super Bowl-bound San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Dallas Cowboys quarterback-turned-broadcaster Tony Romo, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, and longtime Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan.
“It’s pretty rare when you get a school the size of Eastern that has a Shanahan, a Payton, a Romo, and a Garoppolo,” longtime EIU sports information director Dave Kidwell told me.
So how did a small midwestern football team at a school with fewer than 10,000 students wind up generating a roster of future NFL stars? According to Kidwell and others in and around the program, a unique combination of luck, skill, and grit did the trick.
Lightning strikes Eastern Illinois over and over
Mike Bragg, the 17-year radio announcer for Eastern Illinois football who has covered the team since Tony Romo’s first year as starting quarterback, described the program’s history of churning out NFL talent as “remarkable.”
“It’s kind of a case of lightning striking in the same place over and over, to be honest,” he said over the phone.
“I supposed there’s a little bit of luck involved,” he said. “Somehow, the gods are shining on Eastern. We have to pinch ourselves a little bit.”
“I don’t know if there’s any special sauce or anything like that going on here,” Bragg added. “But there are a couple of things I think I would point to.”
Bragg suggested that the interconnectedness of the team’s alumni was one of the ways past players have found their ways into the pros, citing Romo’s winding path to the NFL as an example. After graduating from Eastern Illinois, the San Diego, California, native went undrafted in the 2003 NFL Draft despite significant interest from two teams: the Denver Broncos and the Dallas Cowboys.
At the time, Eastern alum Mike Shanahan sat at the helm for the Broncos. Like Romo, the head coach played quarterback for the Panthers. Unlike Romo, his career under centre was cut short thanks to a shot to the kidney that nearly killed him during one practice in 1972. And even though Denver didn’t select a quarterback that year, it’s more than likely that Romo was on the team’s radar thanks to Shanahan’s connection to his alma mater.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, had a rising star on their hands in quarterbacks coach Sean Payton. A fellow former Eastern star who, to that point, claimed ownership of most of the school’s major quarterback records, Payton “knew about Romo a lot because of the EIU connection” and “pushed for [Dallas] to sign him,” according to Bragg. Eventually, the Cowboys’ leadership agreed, and the rest is history.
“Those are connections that have helped out in some of those cases,” Bragg said.
Players at Eastern Illinois have to outwork everybody
But to position themselves for those opportunities, Kidwell said a willingness to outwork everyone in front of them is a must-have attribute.
“At our level, being a so called mid-major, we’re recruiting athletes that aren’t on the Power-5 radar screen,” Kidwell said. “These athletes come here as 18-year-olds and rarely do they have an eye towards going to the NFL. They’re not bringing press clips with them out of high school, so they have got something to prove.”
Rich Moser – the current Associate Athletic Director for the program – said that that chip-on-your-shoulder mentality almost certainly motivated these guys to work their way to the top.
“I don’t think by any means they were top recruits out of high school,” Moser said. “In some cases, this was their only offer to play Division I football, and they made the most of the opportunity that was presented to them. You have to give them credit for putting in the work themselves.”
“Like anybody else, there’s no shortcut to success,” Kidwell added. “They just have to outwork the next guy and show what they can do over four years here. Hopefully, they get some coaching that brings them along, and then they get a shot.”
Eastern Illinois had the right coaches to bring out the best in their quarterbacks
Bragg spoke highly of the coaching, crediting longtime Panthers head coach Bob Spoo and former offensive coordinator Roy Wittke with identifying and cultivating Romo’s and Garoppolo’s talent.
“I think those two, particularly with Garoppolo and Romo, had a lot to do with them getting a chance to play in college and developing the way they did,” Bragg said. “[Spoo] was Tony’s head coach and Jimmy’s head coach for his first two years before retiring. Bob’s offensive coordinator was Roy Wittke. Roy recruited both Tony and Jimmy, and both were kind of under the radar.”
In fact, Wittke had never seen Romo play football in person. Instead, he learned of the future Dallas Cowboy’s decision-making abilities and raw talent through studying film and watching him play basketball before extending an offer for him to join the Panthers.
The gamble paid off in spades. Romo immediately brought the program into the upper echelons of the FCS.
“Romo won the national player of the year his senior year, so he certainly was well known at the FCS level,” Bragg said. “I mean, we knew about him. He was a local hero, but he flew under the radar early in his NFL career, and then once he got his chance really made the most of it.”
“We were fortunate that, for many years, Tony Romo was the face of the Dallas Cowboys,” Moser added. “Whether you’re a fan of the Cowboys or not, they’re considered America’s Team, and so people knew Tony Romo. When he goes into the broadcast booth, that success there not only shows what the football part of it can do for you at Eastern but the degree part of it as well – look where you can get with a degree from Eastern Illinois.”
And while Garoppolo had raw talent that was evident early on, Bragg noted that he didn’t “play quarterback until kind of late in his high school career, so he was sort of a low-level, under the radar type recruit that Roy brought in.” It was this knack for identifying diamonds in the rough that moved Wittke through the coaching pipeline and eventually brought him to Syracuse as the Orange’s Director of Player Development.
Spoo, too, “just knew how to handle quarterbacks,” according to Bragg.
“Bob Spoo, who was a quarterback when he played, was always kind of a quarterback whisperer if there is such a thing,” he said. “Early in his career, Jimmy struggled a lot, and Bob was very supportive. There was a day when Jimmy got pulled from the game because he threw several interceptions, and I know the next Monday Bob said right away ‘Jimmy Garoppolo will be our quarterback on Saturday’ and showed some confidence in him.”
In his four years with the program, Garoppolo managed to break nearly every quarterback record the school had. Though, by Bragg’s admission, “it was pretty rough at first with him,” Garoppolo grew into himself under the watchful eyes of Spoo, Wittke, and Dino Babers – who took over the helm after Spoo’s retirement in 2011. By his senior season, the hometown hero was putting up “video game numbers.”
Garoppolo threw for a whopping 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns with just nine interceptions that final season in Charleston, Illinois. He bested Payton’s numbers by a long shot and, according to Bragg, had broken all of his records by early in his senior year.
“Before Jimmy got there, I don’t think we ever thought that the Sean Payton quarterback records would ever be broken,” Bragg said. “Jimmy actually broke more of Sean Payton’s records than he did Romo’s. Those Payton numbers seemed to be out of reach, and Jimmy just chewed those up … The numbers his senior year are incredible.”
There is a difference in producing NFL players and producing NFL quarterbacks
Now Garoppolo is headed to the Super Bowl, and while Moser noted that the 28-year-old already has two Super Bowl rings to his name, this one is different. This time, Garoppolo will be front and centre. He’s the face of the 49ers’ franchise, and on the sport’s biggest stage, his name will ring out after nearly every play San Francisco runs on offence.
“We’ve been fortunate. Not only have we had guys in the NFL, but we’ve had guys in the NFL in the preeminent positions to benefit us,” Moser said. “If Jimmy Garoppolo is the starting right guard for the 49ers this weekend, we’re probably not getting a lot of publicity. It’s not the same as him being the starting quarterback for the 49ers.”
“I’m sure there’s going to be multiple references to the fact that he’s from a small school in eastern Illinois,” he added. “Those are the types of things a school of our size – we can’t buy that publicity.
And while Garoppolo’s and Romo’s success has undoubtedly helped to shine a favourable light on Eastern while simultaneously helping to build their respective brands, Bragg and Kidwell both spoke very highly of their character. Bragg said both Garoppolo and Romo still maintain a connection to the school and have not allowed fame to get to their heads.
“Both Tony and Jimmy are really good guys,” Bragg said. “That’s another thing that makes you really happy for them. They were really great guys here and very easy to get along with, and everybody liked them. They were never in any trouble and never had any attitude or ego or anything like that. It’s good to see what we would consider to be really good people go on to have that much success.”
Panthers quarterbacks’ achievement in both the Ohio Valley Conference and the NFL has been and continues to be “a real point of pride” for everyone in the Eastern Illinois community.
“People who are older and went to Eastern in the ’50s and ’60s take a lot of pride in the fact that these football players have come along and done so well and made a national mark,” Bragg said. “It certainly brings a lot of pride to the people that work there and the people who have gone to school there.”
And when it comes to securing the next wave of talent for EIU, Bragg, Kidwell, and Moser all noted how much influence these big-name alums can have.
“I’m certain that our coaches, when they recruit, they obviously bring up Tony Romo, they bring up Jimmy Garoppolo,” Kidwell said. “I think anybody who’s trying to evaluate Mid Majors is going ‘Holy cow, they have had two guys over the last 20 years that have not only made a pro team but have been a significant factor.'”
“I would certainly think that when you’re recruiting quarterbacks, it’s a pretty good sell to be able to say ‘Well, here’s some guys you may have heard of,'” Bragg added.
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