In the FCS Huddle: EIU learning what Babers can do toward winning

Antonio Taylor served as the player representative during Eastern Illinois University's final interviews with head football coaching candidates this past fall.

His thoroughness as an interviewer impressed the eventual choice, Dino Babers.

"To me it was more about the presentation," Babers remembers, "how you were going to work for him and he wasn't coming to work for you."

There was plenty Taylor wanted to learn about Babers - his coaching style, plans to restore a traditionally strong program that has fallen off the last two seasons, how he would be different than the previous coaching staff ...

Taylor got his answers that day. Or at least he thought he did.

It's since Dec. 9, when Babers was introduced as the Panthers' 22nd head coach, that Taylor has witnessed the answers at work.

"It's a 180-degree change, if I could say that," said Taylor, an outside linebacker who will be a redshirt junior this fall. "Coach Babers lit a fire under this community like he said he would, starting off with the team. I feel like the team has a new-found motivation. Everyone's working a little bit harder than they were. I see more hunger out of this team. Everybody is trying to get on one page and one goal, and I credit that to Coach Babers."

People at EIU knew the day would come when legendary head coach Bob Spoo would not be patrolling the sidelines anymore, and it has arrived after 25 years. But few foresaw the disappointing ending the last two seasons, back-to-back 2-9 records and a last-place finish in the Ohio Valley Conference this past season.

The 50-year-old Babers has re-energized the Panthers. He's embracing Spoo's legacy at EIU, especially after having spent his first season as a paid coach under him in 1987. Babers, though, is adding a lot to what he has learned since then, including the last four seasons at Baylor, where he helped contribute to the success of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Babers was the wide receivers coach and special teams coordinator.

"You can't replace Coach Spoo, you can't replace Bob Spoo," said Babers, who has coached at 13 different schools and in 12 bowl games. "I can still remember in 1987 when he would come in the office and say good morning, his voice would just echo through the building. Guys would spill coffee in their laps. It was like a 'Top Gun' fly-by with Tom Cruise.

"I think what needs to stay the same is there's been a great tradition here. We have alumni, we have the starting quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys (Tony Romo). We've got guys that have played quarterback here that have won Super Bowls, coaches who have coached here - Mike Shanahan, Sean Payton, Brad Childress - who have run NFL football teams. We've got some major shakers that have gone through these doors. The history and the tradition of the alumni of this school, that needs to stay the same. There needs to be a connection from the past to the present going into the future, that's what's great about Eastern Illinois. The things that need to change is we need to get back to work, we need to get back to that blue-collar work ethic."

Until the last two seasons, EIU had come to be the top gun in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Panthers finished first or second in the conference and made the FCS playoffs in seven different seasons under Spoos from 2000.

The offense then struggled while Spoo neared the end of his career and it's the offensive-minded Babers who is in charge of retooling it.

His Panthers will spread out teams with their key returnees in the skills positions. Junior-to-be quarterback Jimmy Garopollo threw for 2,644 yards and 20 touchdowns with 14 interceptions last season and can look to two wide receivers, seniors Chris Wright (735 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Kenny Whittaker, who caught 42 passes each plus the All-OVC second-team tight end, senior Von Wise (32 receptions). Also, Jake Walker is coming off a redshirt freshman season in which he rushed for 580 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"I believe in trying to score points and giving yourself as many opportunities to do that," Babers said. "I believe in up-tempo, I believe in the speed and the problems that that speed causes. We're to going to try to play as fast as we can as much as we can.

"We have to come out and build a foundation, so we can build all the stuff on top of it. People see the final product of the Baylor-Washington bowl win and as exciting as that offense was, (with) RG3 (Robert Griffin III) and all the bells and whistles that go along with it. But that was the icing on the cake. That cake was built four years ago and three years ago by the things that we did in laying the foundation - the same foundation that we're going to lay here at EIU. We'll start with the basics and we'll build that stuff up. And then once we've got that imbedded in all of our young people in this football team, they'll start to teach the young guys as they come in, and we can get back to that point where everything looks easy and not as difficult as I'm sure our struggles are going to be earlier running the system."

Babers, whose 11-player recruiting class was the smallest in the OVC, is emphasizing physicality throughout his team. Defensively, EIU will utilize multiple formations, but be simpler so the unit can play a lot faster.

The Panthers will feature senior defensive end Artavious Dowdell, who made the All-OVC second team last year, and Taylor, their top returning tackler.

Ironically, Taylor learned on his first day of classes this semester that he shares a class with Babers' daughter, Tasha. Babers joked with Taylor that he doesn't care if he ever gets on the field, his job is to watch over his daughter.

So if it appeared in the interview process that Taylor was wondering how Babers could work for him, it turns out Taylor doesn't mind working for Babers after all.

"I feel like we're getting our swagger back," Taylor said. "When I say that, I feel like people are playing with confidence and walking around campus like, you know what, we're football players, we've had 2-9 seasons in the past, but we're going to win for our campus, for our community."