Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing departs Charleston for FBS Duke

Former Northwestern assistant Adam Cushing has left his position as Eastern Illinois head coach. (Photo by Barry Bottino)

By Barry Bottino

Adam Cushing arrived at Eastern Illinois as its head football coach in December 2018 with 15 years of experience as an FBS assistant at Northwestern under his belt.

On Tuesday, those ties drew him back to NCAA football’s top division.

Cushing left the Panthers after a 3-26 record in three seasons to take over as the offensive line coach at Duke, where he will work under new Blue Devils offensive coordinator Kevin Johns, who spent seven seasons at NU with Cushing.

“This was hard,” Cushing told Prairie State Pigskin Tuesday morning after saying goodbye to his EIU team. “This was really hard. It’s a great place. I love these young men. These guys have come here and poured their hearts into this every single day.

“One of the things I said to the guys is that I can say with confidence that this is a much better place since we arrived and it’s not because of me,” Cushing said. “It’s because of the young men that have shown up and worked at it. It’s being left in a great place with great people that want to stand for excellence in all aspects of their life.”

Cushing called Johns “a really good friend of mine” and said the opportunity to work with a longtime colleague at a prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference university was a powerful draw.

But leaving Charleston involved “a lot of heartfelt discussions with my wife (Jaime),” Cushing said.

Cushing’s staff experienced major turnover this off-season.

After the fall campaign that featured a continuation of Eastern’s offensive struggles, Cushing dismissed all five offensive assistant coaches. On Dec. 23, EIU announced the hiring of new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Joe Davis from FCS Albany.

In recent weeks, cornerbacks coach Cliff Odom (New Mexico State) and safeties coach Neal Renna (Akron) departed for FBS jobs as position coaches.

Who’s next?

In a press release, EIU athletic director Tom Michael said the university would quickly begin a search for a new head coach. The timing of Cushing’s departure is less than ideal with just over three weeks until the NCAA’s second national signing day for recruits and with spring practices to begin in late March.

This could lead the Panthers to seek out a coach with EIU ties, according to an Eastern source.

In three seasons, current defensive coordinator Chris Bowers has guided a steadily improving unit that ranked second in total defense in the Ohio Valley Conference and first in pass defense during the fall.

Former EIU assistant coaches that could be on Michael’s radar include Syracuse running backs coach Mike Lynch, Buffalo Bills assistant special teams coach Matthew Smiley, University of Minnesota offensive line coach/run game coordinator Brian Callahan, Auburn defensive analyst Roc Bellantoni, Tennessee State offensive line coach Mark Hutson and University of Chicago head coach Chris Wilkerson.

Callahan and Wilkerson are among several former EIU players now in the coaching profession. That group also includes Auburn offensive analyst Bodie Reeder and North Central College head coach Jeff Thorne, who both played quarterback for the Panthers.

Winning off the field

Cushing said he was disappointed that the players’ level of commitment wasn’t matched with wins on the field during his tenure.

“Certainly, I wish I could’ve done more for these guys to get them that success on the field,” he said. “We won in so many places – in the community, in the classroom, building the team culture and camaraderie. You have to do that to build a program for lasting success. That was always the goal, to set something up that could have consistent success over time.”

The Panthers’ three victories under Cushing came in the Ohio Valley Conference, where his teams were 3-17. He said the current roster is prepared to break through.

“I’m very confident that the young men who are here are ready to do it,” he said. “I know we were incredibly close and they’re going to go do it this fall, and it’s going to be awesome. I’ll be sad to not be standing right there with them.”

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