Former EIU player, U of Chicago head coach Wilkerson tabbed to lead alma mater’s football program

Eastern Illinois has hired its first graduate to lead its football program. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Former Eastern Illinois defensive tackle and University of Chicago head coach Chris Wilkerson has been named to lead the football program at his alma mater, EIU announced Wednesday morning.

Wilkerson — who played for the Panthers from 1991 to ’94 and served as an EIU assistant coach from 1995 to 2001 —  replaces Adam Cushing, the former Northwestern assistant who coached at Eastern for three seasons.

Cushing, who ironically played at the University of Chicago, left EIU to accept an assistant position at Duke University Jan. 11.

Wilkerson becomes the 26th head coach in EIU history. The 49-year-old played for and coached under Bob Spoo, who led the Panthers for 25 seasons and is EIU’s all-time wins leader.

Wilkerson is the first Eastern Illinois graduate to be hired as the school’s head coach in the modern era. He met with the EIU players on Wednesday morning.

Wilkerson got his coaching start at his alma mater, coaching special teams and being a key member in the Panthers’ successful stretch in the late-1990s.

In his nine years and eight seasons at the University of Chicago — losing 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic — Wilkerson produced seven winning seasons. His Chicago teams twice won eight games, including an 8-2 record this past fall in which senior running back Nick D’Ambrose was named a First Team Division III All-American.

EIU officials and alumni are certainly hoping Wilkerson can revive the Panther program, which has not had a winning season since 2017. Eastern posted a dismal 3-26 record in its last three seasons. EIU last qualified for the FCS playoffs in 2015.

“I’m excited to welcome Chris Wilkerson back home as the next head football coach at Eastern Illinois,” EIU athletic director Tom Michael said in a release.  “The passion with which Chris played the game as a Panther, the passion with which he speaks about EIU, show what a truly special place EIU is.  He brings with him a proven track record of building a program with success on both sides of the football.  I have no doubt that Chris will bring that same passion back to this program on the field when the Panthers suit up this fall.”

Tony Romo, a College Football Hall of Fame member, knows Wilkerson from their time together in Charleston.

“Chris was on Coach Spoo’s staff when I was a student-athlete. I thought very highly of him at that time and have followed his coaching career,” Romo said in the release. “He has the football knowledge on both sides of the ball that will enable the EIU program to be successful. He is the right person to lead our program and I’m excited to have him back home as our next head football coach.”

Wilkerson, an Indianapolis native, coached special teams all seven years as an EIU assistant. He also served as defensive coordinator, linebackers coach and defensive line coach in his tenure with the Panthers.

EIU reached the NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) playoffs four times and won a pair of conference championships during that time. Wilkerson’s defenses and special teams were regularly ranked in the national top 20 in numerous categories.

Wilkerson is the first EIU hiree with head coaching experience since Al Molde in 1983. Spoo, Dino Babers, Kim Dameron and Cushing were all assistants elsewhere prior to being hired at EIU. Babers, now the head coach at Syracuse, also got his start in coaching under Spoo.

Wilkerson earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education from EIU in 1995. Chris and his wife, Sharna (a former EIU softball player), have three children: Isabella, Peyton and Charlotte.

According to the University of Chicago athletic website, Wilkerson’s 2021 Maroon offense broke six single-season school records, three single-game school records and seven individual records. D’Ambrose led the nation with a school-record 1,714 rushing yards, while setting new program bests for yards per carry (7.4), points scored (120) and rushing touchdowns (20).

The Maroons were highly ranked nationally in several categories on both sides of the ball.

Prior to coaching at the University of Chicago, Wilkerson was on staffs at Dartmouth and San Jose State. In 2003, he was a nominee for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach.

EIU, which plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, opens the season Sept. 3 at FBS member Northern Illinois. The Panthers’ first home game is Sept. 10 against Chattanooga.

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