Mentor Moments: Illinois State’s Brock Spack recalls his days with Spoo, Tiller
today at 5:30 am
The following is the first in a series that highlights each of the four Illinois FCS head coaches as they share thoughts and memories about their mentors. Today’s featured coach is Illinois State’s Brock Spack, in his 11th year leading the Redbirds.
Two names jump out immediately for Brock Spack when asked to name his coaching mentors: Bob Spoo and Joe Tiller.
“Those two guys were instrumental in my life,” Spack told Prairie State Pigskin. “Coach Spoo gave me a break early in my career. Coach Tiller really launched my career to where it is today. I was the youngest or one of the youngest coordinators back in 1995 (at age 32 under Tiller). Now guys are head coaches at that age, but back then that was pretty young (to be where I was at).”
Now 58, Spack recalls leaving his native Rockford to attend Purdue University where he met the two men who would help determine his life’s work.
Spoo, a Chicago native and former Purdue quarterback, first made a name for himself coaching in his hometown’s Catholic League. He later returned to West Lafayette, Ind. where he coached and developed quarterbacks for nine seasons.
Tiller, a native of Toledo, Ohio, became Purdue’s defensive coordinator under head coach Leon Burtnett in 1983. He had previously coached at Montana State and Washington State as well as in the Canadian Football League.
Spack reminisced about each man and the impact they had upon him.
“He was very organized; he was a deep thinker,” Spack said of Spoo. “He was an offensive coach. When I was at Purdue, he coached a lot of great quarterbacks there. “
Spack cited the likes of Boilermaker greats and future pro quarterbacks Mark Herrman, Jim Everett and Scott Campbell as examples.
But, Spack, first a linebacker and later a graduate assistant, saw Spoo as more than just a coach on the other side of the ball.
“I remember him going over a philosophy in front of our entire staff. He was really clear. He was well-read and had quotes from certain books that he shared. I remember the time he took to do that. He thought that was even more important than coaching football,” Spack said.
Yet, that doesn’t mean there weren’t conflicts.
“I remember Coach Spoo when I was a player,” Spack recalled. “It was a practice and the offense ran a crossing route and I dropped the receiver. God, he was so mad at me. I’ll never forget how mad he was at me. When I got older I figured it out. You’ve got to protect the guys who can’t protect themselves. I was a young player; I was an idiot. Obviously he never held a grudge because he hired me down the road.”
“I coached for both guys when they were head coaches. Coach Spoo was the first one to become a head coach, down at Eastern Illinois (in 1987). I was a GA (graduate assistant) at Purdue after I got done playing there. I went to Wabash (Ind.) College (as an assistant coach) my first year removed from being a GA,” Spack said. “About five months into it I got a call from Coach Tiller that Coach Spoo might be getting the job at Eastern and that I should be ready for a phone call. Sure enough, he did call and he hired me (as linebackers coach). It was a great experience for me.”
Spack spent four seasons at EIU under Spoo. The two later squared off against each other when Spack became Illinois State’s head coach and a traveling trophy was established for what became known as the Mid-America Classic, the annual rivalry game between the Redbirds and the Panthers.
“Then I went back to Purdue for a couple of years as a linebacker coach and then Coach Tiller called when he was the head coach at Wyoming,” he said.
Spack served as Tiller’s defensive coordinator at Wyoming before the duo returned to Purdue when Tiller was hired as Boilermakers’ head coach in 1997. Spack stayed with Tiller until he hired as Illinois State’s head coach for the 2009 season.
“I was around him the longest,” Spack said of Tiller. “I played underneath him my senior year, then I was a GA for two and I was a coordinator for 14 years under him (two at Wyoming and 12 at Purdue).
“He would probably be the most influential. He was also a deep thinker, a big picture guy. A very tough guy when it comes to believing in toughness. He could be stubborn to a point.”
Spack also found out quickly how to a point Tiller could be.
“I was at Wyoming and had just become a coordinator,” Spack shared. “I was conscientious; I wanted to do a really good job. This story kind of sums him up. He was reading the stock market report in USA Today one morning in his office. He did that every day. I walked into his office and said, ‘Hey, Coach, you got a minute?’ He looked up with his glasses down on the bridge of his nose. He had a grease board in his office. I said, ‘I’m really struggling with our goal line defense, something’s just not right. Here, let me draw it up for you.’
“He let me draw it up. Then he took his index finger and pushed his glasses up on his nose and said, ‘You know, if I have to help you with this decision, one of the two of us is unnecessary, and I’m not going anywhere.’ He picked his newspaper back up and started reading it again. In other words, ‘I hired you to do a job, I hired you to make decisions. You make that decision.’ I walked out. I got his message. Don’t be coming in here with all your problems. I hired you; you take care of them.”
The coach that Brock Spack is today — the one who has won 84 games along with two shares of the Missouri Valley Football Conference crown and a national championship game appearance — owes much to Spoo and Tiller.
Of Spoo Spack said, “I learned how to develop young coaches. You have to give them a break. He was really good that way to me . . . He also gave me the opportunity to finish my master’s (degree). He was empathic to my personal goals.”
As for Tiller, Spack said, “He was really good with personnel. He was a personnel director up in the Canadian Football League. That’s where he made his bread and butter. When we were at Wyoming and Purdue, that’s something that we did really well. We put the kids in the right spots. He got the playmakers in position to make plays. He would tell us, ‘If I tell you to play a guy, you’d better play him. I’m not going to ask you twice.’ He was big on that. I learned a lot about personnel from him.
“He was a great guy to work for. I spent a lot of time around him. He was a man’s man. He was tough now. These kids today would really struggle with him. He could probably coach today, but he’d have to have the right kids around him. These (modern) guys would not know what hit ‘em if they had to play for Joe Tiller right now. It would be a whole different deal for them.
“He wasn’t really a yeller and a screamer. Coach Spoo had a really deep voice. When he talked, everybody listened. Coach Tiller really didn’t raise his voice very often, but when he did people were like, ‘Whoa!’ He didn’t swear that often, but when he did it was like going to a drill sergeant in the Marines. He could swear with the best of them when he was none too happy. Pretty calm for the most part. You really had to work to get in this doghouse, but if you got there you had to really work to get out.”
The passing of two who meant so much
Both of Spack’s mentors have passed — each in the midst of a head football coach’s busiest time. Tiller went first in late September 2017, and Spoo followed in the following October.
“It was difficult because of the timing of everything,” Spack said. “Coach Spoo lived a pretty long life. He was 80 when he passed away. His daughter (Susie) is a vet up in my hometown and so he lived up there once he was done coaching. He coached for a very long time. He was a person who didn’t have a lot of hobbies outside of football. He liked reading. He liked going to movies. He wasn’t a big golfer or anything like that. He was a good athlete but didn’t really get into that.
“Coach Tiller had his place out in Wyoming and loved to work around his ranch. He died really young; to me, 74 is pretty young. He was only nine years removed from coaching. I wonder if he had to do it again if he would retire a little earlier and spend a little more time there. He fought a disease for a long time and kept it quiet from people. People didn’t realize how serious it was. Those days when those guys died were tough.”
Asked if seeing his two mentors die ever made him think about retiring from coaching sooner rather than later, Spack said, “Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I don’t have Coach Tiller’s money, but lessons well learned. Coach Tiller may have thought about that, but he never told me, but his wife has mentioned it. I don’t know if he really believed that or not.”
After pondering the last question, Spack concluded, “I would be curious to see how both those guys would react to where we’re at right now. I can’t imagine what they would do. They couldn’t believe that a virus brought college football to a stop. And all the stuff with players these days. Players are difficult; it’s not easy. Both of them were chain of command guys. I don’t know how they would respond to this stuff going on today.”