Mentor Moments: EIU’s Cushing influenced by family & friends
today at 5:30 am
The following is the second 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 Adam Cushing of Eastern Illinois.
Adam Cushing views teaching and coaching as forever linked. After all, his list of mentors begins that way.
“There’s easy ones that jump out,” Cushing told Prairie State Pigskin recently. “What was really significant for me was growing up with a mom, who was a teacher, and a dad who coached me through all my Little League baseball and was my basketball coach all the way through elementary school. And then he was a rugby coach at the collegiate level forever. I was around coaching and teaching and education my entire life. So to talk about my mentors and not mention the two that I saw on a day-to-day basis . . . the amount of sacrifices I saw my mom make every day for her students and my dad make for his players. They always made sure that the people they were serving were always in the best possible situations . . . where I really get it from is back home.”
Back home also included brother Matt, who was five years older than Adam and played collegiately at the University of Illinois and professionally in the NFL for six seasons.
“To this day he’s my best friend because I watch him excel at what he does and struggle (too). He and I have an incredible connection,” Cushing said. “I respect so much how deeply he cares what he does because he wants a stamp of excellence on everything that he touches. He knows this, but he outplayed his ability by playing six years in the National Football League. He stamps excellence in every tiny thing that he touches and that made a longstanding impact on me as well.”
Mount Carmel memories
Like his older brother, Adam Cushing attended Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School where he played football for Frank Lenti.
“Coach Lenti’s staff were not only great teachers, and that’s what’s taken for granted at times in coaching is that it’s teaching first, but they were also just caring individuals. They understood how to make somebody better at the end of the day than when they woke up. That’s the message I can always carry when people ask why I’m in coaching.”
Along with that came some tough love.
“It’s Mom and Dad at home and then it’s the high school football coach that picked me up by my facemask when I wasn’t playing very physical and sharing that I was just coasting by. I was giving just enough to not fall behind but never enough to excel. That was a life-changing day that a human being cared about me enough to embrace the friction because he wanted me to go to bed better that day,” Cushing shared. “And it wasn’t just that day, it was every day after. I think, ‘ Man, if that guy did this for me at 16 or whatever age I was, if I just get one person that way that’s a pretty good life for me.’ And so I wanted to be able to give that back.”
Following his collegiate playing career at the University of Chicago, Cushing began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at a small private school in California.
“I was extremely fortunate to start out at the University of La Verne, which is often the footnote in my career,” Cushing said. “I got into it there because my brother’s best friend was the offensive coordinator at that time. It was that Mt. Carmel connection and background that got me there.
“I had a couple of options coming out of college, but I wanted to be with somebody who was doing it for the right reasons.”
That somebody was Don Morel, now the head coach at Wabash (Ind.) College.
“Seeing Don and his family give so much of their lives for an individual (was impactful),” Cushing said. “I remember a very specific example where a football player lost a family member and didn’t have the money to get home. Don pulled the money out of his pocket and said, ‘hey, we’ll figure this out and get you home.’ Obviously the player had to pay it back (because of NCAA rules), but Don didn’t blink doing it. It’s things like that (situation) that showed me the path.”
Cushing’s next stop was Evanston, where he was a Northwestern assistant from 2004 until being hired as Eastern Illinois head coach in December 2018.
“I get to Northwestern and to get to work with Randy Walker and then Pat Fitzgerald, unequivocally two of the best people to ever do it,” Cushing said.
“Randy Walker was as hard on the players that he coached as anyone, but no one questioned his love. One of the players from that time is coaching here (Mark Philmore II) and we reminisce so much about Coach Walk and his lessons. Even as hard as those lessons were — and he was as equally as demanding on his coaches as on his players — you knew how much he cared for you as an individual,” Cushing said. “You go back and look at his staffs, and Coach Walker would say this himself: he was loyal to a fault, and if the worst thing that anybody ever said about him was that he was too loyal, he was doing pretty well. If you look at his staffs, almost everybody either played for him or GA’d for him. Anybody that he was around, he just couldn’t help but care for them and wanted to help them.”
The 52-year-old Walker died unexpectedly in June 2006, sending shockwaves throughout not only the Northwestern community but college football as a whole.
“I still keep in touch with Tammy, his wife, and his son Jamie was on our (NU) staff for awhile. At one point Tammy was living in the same condo building as my wife (Jaime) and me. Tammy and my wife are still close,” Cushing said.
In Cushing’s first season as Eastern Illinois head coach last fall, his Panthers won only one time. EIU erased a 14-point deficit and knocked off Tennessee State 49-38 to earn that victory. A key play in the Panther comeback was an onside kick late in the third quarter — a trick straight out of Walker’s playbook.
Cushing received numerous texts and calls of congratulations following his first head coaching victory. One of them came from Tammy Walker.
“I told her that Coach Walk is up there looking down on us and smiling about that play,” said Cushing in the week following the victory.
‘I could talk forever about Pat Fitzgerald’
Pat Fitzgerald took over as Northwestern head coach following Walker’s untimely death. Cushing remained on the NU staff.
“How much time you got because I could talk forever about Pat Fitzgerald. So much that there aren’t enough words to explain what Coach Fitz has meant to my life,” Cushing said. “He was the linebackers coach when I was the tight ends coach. When he became the head coach he was just as vested in my development as Coach Walk was in trying to make me be the best that I could possibly be. He continued to find ways to push me out of my comfort zone while coaching for him to serve the student-athletes the best.
“He cared about me as a human being. You can’t please all the people all the time, but if you were to walk into any locker room in America and you walked into Northwestern’s locker room, the players understand that same thing — how much he cares about them and that at the end of the day when he puts his head on his pillow he wants them to be one day better. That extends to now. Of all the people that I talk to to gain perspective on my role, I talk to Coach Fitz more than anybody else. It doesn’t just end here (at NU). It’s not like, ‘hey, you’re gone’. He really, truly cares about my success. And it’s not just me; we’ve got a bunch of Northwestern connections here in the building. I’m so grateful for his leadership.”
Evanston to Charleston
As previously noted, Cushing spent 15 seasons as a Northwestern assistant. Many questioned why he would leave the comforts of being a Big Ten assistant at a school that has invested so much into its facilities in recent years for an FCS head coaching job with far fewer resources.
“I’ve been asked many times since I got here, why would you leave Northwestern and Pat Fitzgerald? It’s the model of how to do it right academically and also compete at a really high level. He’s also a great family man, so when you’re in this position as college football coach that takes every second of your time, you can do it. You’ve got to be 100 percent in every situation, 100 percent at work, 100 percent when you’re at home. You could do it well,” Cushing said.
Yet, Cushing did leave. He was hired as the 25th head football coach in EIU’s history. And two more mentors played large roles in his decision.
“There are also two individuals who aren’t in that coaching tree that have guided me so much,” Cushing said. “Jim Phillips, the athletic director at Northwestern, and Tom Michael, the AD here at Eastern.”
Cushing raved about Phillips’ leadership as Northwestern’s athletic department grew and prospered.
“His leadership is at the macro level to establish that culture to be all about the student-athlete,” Cushing said. “His direct influence on me to point toward my mentor that I’m working for now (is evidence of that). He and I had a couple of long conversations of going through the process of interviewing for the job here.”
One conversation stands out above all others.
“Jim said, ‘Adam, I love you. I love Jaime, and I would never have you go somewhere that I wasn’t 100 percent on who you were working with. On a scale of 1-10, Tom Michael is a 12.’”
As a result, the people who have influenced Adam Cushing’s coaching career and life are best summed up in these words.
“At the end of the day, when you take all those human beings together, I want to know that when I put my head on the pillow that I made everybody better,” he said.