Aggressive, driven to succeed and focused, Brock Spack embraced his first coaching position with a zeal that led some to question his methods.
His players were girls on the junior class powder puff football team at Rockford East High School preparing for the annual homecoming week matchup with the seniors. Spack wanted to lead. Even more than that, he wanted to win.
“I was named head coach because I was such a football nut. I loved it. People were tapping me on the shoulder saying ‘You need to back off.’ I said ‘No, we’re setting a tempo,’” recalled Spack, a Rockford native who at the time was a standout linebacker on the high school team.
“The juniors never won. We should have won. Our girls were crying. The next year we won by the worst score ever. Girls used to write in my annual ‘You will be a coach someday, no doubt about it.’ That’s how it all started.”
Spack was far from done playing at the time, as he went on to excel as a linebacker at Purdue University. Yet that high school experience only cemented his desire to coach one day. And coach he has.
Arriving at Illinois State in 2009, Spack has transformed the Redbird program into a championship subdivision power that came tantalizingly close to its first national championship earlier this year in Frisco, Texas.
ISU set a school record for victories in a 13-2 season, earned a share of its first conference championship since 1999, and finished the season at No. 2 in national FCS rankings after a 29-27 loss to North Dakota State in the title contest.
The current Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year, Spack has a 46-26 record over six seasons at ISU. His 19 predecessors were a combined 71 games under .500.
“I don’t want to come across as arrogant. It’s not me, it’s this place. This place is special,” said Spack, who referred to the ISU football program as a “sleeping giant” upon his hire.
“It’s 10 times what I thought it would be,” Spack said of ISU’s potential. “I think there’s a lot more left in the tank.”
Spack began molding the Redbirds by setting a higher academic standard off the field, and enforcing a credo of work ethic and toughness on it. “The bar was going to rise academically,” he said. True to his word, Spack’s student-athletes are showing strength in the classroom.
The football team finished the fall semester with a 2.86 grade point average and half of the players named to the honor roll for the best fall semester on record—even as players also focused on bringing home the University’s first national championship. It is the third consecutive fall semester that the team has improved its in-season GPA.
“It is important to recruit to the model of the University. We hold our players to that. You can’t be disciplined in one form of your life and undisciplined in another.”
Spack also instituted an intense winter conditioning program that featured 5:30 a.m. start times. While he refers to it as “County Fair,” the more common term among Redbird players is “Hell Week.”
But it was more than just individual players pushing themselves mentally and physically that consistently stopped opponents during the 2014 season. Spack views the team’s success as a combination of talent and intangibles.
“I thought our leadership was very good,” he said. “The players have a deep respect for each other. They did not want to let each other down.”
Spack is equally determined to support his players in his first head coaching job. He is not surprised in the least that he ended up at ISU after a long stint as defensive coordinator at Purdue.
His two greatest influences at Rockford East—football coach Craig Stalcup and assistant football and head track coach Gary Giardini—both graduated from Illinois State in 1967. Stalcup died at 37 of melanoma when Spack was a senior at Purdue.
“They were best friends. I had such a great experience in high school,” Spack said. “We’re getting ready to play the FCS national championship game, and Gary Giardini sends me a text saying how proud Craig would have been if he was still alive. That meant a lot because he meant a lot to me. In some strange way, this is my way of paying back Coach Stalcup for getting me into football and opening my eyes to what I could be.”
Spack also kept an eye on the Redbirds, especially during his first full-time Division I coaching job as an assistant at Eastern Illinois from 1987-1990.
“When we played here, I would think ‘Why aren’t they winning.’ I thought what a great place, my home state and look where it’s located,” Spack said. “I thought I would be a really good fit here. I speak the language of Chicago, Rockford and Peoria. I know the Midwest.”
Spack also knows football. He watched older neighborhood kids play the game in a nearby empty lot before joining the fray of an 8-and-up league a year early.
“They let me play at 7. I was illegal,” Spack recalled with a grin. “I was the first football player in my immediate family. I absolutely loved it. My whole life has been a football life. No one really prodded me.”
Although his father, Jack, played basketball and tennis, he passed on to his son a love for the Chicago Bears.
“We would hurry back from church and put the Bears on,” Spack said. “He propped me in front of the TV and said ‘This is the best linebacker in all of football, Dick Butkus.’ I turned into a huge Bears fan. You didn’t do anything else when the Bears were on.”
Television also introduced Spack to a lifelong companion—college football.
“There was one game on Saturdays, the college game of the week on ABC,” Spack said. “I plopped my butt down and watched it from start to finish. My dream was to play on ABC and be the Chevrolet Player of the Game. Guess what? I won that twice when I was in college. That was kind of cool.”
His passion for the game has not waned, especially given the opportunities at Illinois State. His team has won every game in Hancock Stadium since renovations were completed in 2013. Spack looks forward to many more battles on the field, as he agreed to remain as ISU’s head coach through 2021.
“I can hardly wait to start all over again,” Spack said, turning his thoughts to the upcoming season. “We have some good players coming back, but there are no guarantees. We’ve also got some good players we have to replace at really important positions.”
After a record-setting offensive season, the Redbirds welcome back Missouri Valley Newcomer of the Year Tre Roberson at quarterback and the Missouri Valley Offensive Player of the Year in tailback Marshaun Coprich.
Roberson set a school record for total offense with 4,250 yards, while Coprich smashed previous ISU marks with 2,274 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns.
Also returning are key defenders in ends Teddy Corwin and David Perkins and linebackers Pat Meehan, Alex Donnelly and Oshay Dunmore—who may be shifted to safety.
As Spack has done in the past to address certain areas of his squad, the Redbirds have added potentially significant Bowl Subdivision transfers to their defense in lineman David Kenney from Indiana, linebacker Reggie Spearman from Iowa and cornerback Stephen Amoako from Oregon.
Spack believes the playoff run provided an obvious boost to putting together the 2015 recruiting class. He expects the benefits to manifest themselves even more in 2016, as current high school juniors prepare to make their college choices.
“This is a really neat place from the faculty to the administrators to the athletic department to the town to the alumni to the students,” Spack said. “To see how much impact this has had on the ISU community, it’s awesome. No amount of money can buy the appreciation of something that has never been done.”
Spack views this year’s trip to Frisco and the resulting tsunami of Redbird pride as much more of a beginning than a destination.
“I hope our fans feel like we can do this. We absolutely can do this,” he said of the Redbirds establishing a winning tradition. “This is not what we can be, but what we should be. It’s who we are.”
“He gave me the chance I needed. I came to him when I transferred (from Illinois) and he didn’t make any promises. He said if you give it everything you’ve got, you could get your picture up there (Spack’s gallery of former players in the NFL) someday.”
Former ISU player Nate Palmer ’13 of the Green Bay Packers
“A coach like him, especially in college, it’s sort of rare how truthful and genuine he is. He’s very upfront with you. It’s great to see that leadership. Everybody has respect for him. It’s really fun to compete every single day when you have a lot of respect for who you’re doing it with and who you’re doing it for.”
Former ISU player Colton Underwood of the San Diego Chargers
“He has had a great influence on me. He taught me how to be a real professional. He brings that sense to ISU. He runs a first class program. He couldn’t be a better role model for everybody in that program. He’s a real special guy to me. I owe a lot of my success to him.”
Former ISU player Mike Zimmer ’13 of the Seattle Seahawks
“Brock’s impact has been significant. He came here believing that a high ceiling exists for Illinois State football. He has recruited student-athletes capable of competing in a very strong academic environment and capable of competing for championships at the conference and national levels. As a result, the Redbird football program has energized the campus, community and alumni in Illinois and around the country.”
ISU Director of Athletics Larry Lyons ’86