Wilkerson’s return home is already making a difference


Rob Le Cates

Eastern Illinois University’s Head Football Coach Chris Wilkerson (front), runs out with players Jay Vallie (80), a graduate tight end, and Jordan Vincent (1), a sophomore safety, before the start of the Panther’s first home game of the 2022 season Saturday evening at O’Brien Field. The Panthers lost against the University of Tennessee- Chattanooga Mocs 38-20.

Kate Stevens, Assistant Sports Editor

Head Eastern football coach Chris Wilkerson is finally home. He has bled blue since his time at Eastern began thirty years ago and has already made a difference in the Eastern culture in his 11 months back in Charleston.

He said he has fond memories of being a student-athlete at EIU. For him, it all started in the summer of 1989 when he attended a recruiting camp at the University of Illinois where he got to know coach Brock Spack who was the position coach for his group at that camp. At that time Spack was the linebackers coach at EIU.

After visiting and exploring other options for college as he finished high school, Wilkerson had the official visit at EIU.

“From the moment that I came to campus for the visit, I knew there was just something very different about this place,” Wilkerson said. “And it was something that certainly was a massive, influential moment in my life.”

Wilkerson went on to play for EIU football in from 1991-1994 under coach Spoo. He recorded 136 total tackles and 11 sacks in his time at Eastern.

As he fell more in love with the sport of football, he also fell in love with Eastern softball catcher named Sharna McEwan.

“I met my wife here and that’s the greatest gift of all,” Wilkerson said.

Sharna said she and Wilkerson met in the halls of the Lantz building and talking to each other between classes ultimately led to their first date.

“He had lots of PE classes in the Lantz building, and I had class in the Lantz building also, because I was community health [major] at the time and we would just cross paths every day,” Sharna said. “We went on our first date to the Will Rogers movie theater uptown.”

Sharna is in the record books as one of the best EIU has had. She earned many honors and held records in her time playing for Eastern. She was an all-conference player all three years and remains on the top ten lists for most doubles and best batting averages in EIU history.

“Senior softball player Sharna McEwan, in just three years, has established herself as possibly the best catcher in Panther history,” wrote Tony Nasella in a Daily Eastern News article from April 7, 1995.

She said in that article that she was unable to play her fifth year due to a financial aid mix-up, but she said she was more focused on her future career and her wedding that was coming up in the summer.

At the time they got married, Wilkerson was an assistant on coach Spoo’s staff where he coached special teams, he also served as defensive coordinator, linebackers coach, and defensive line coach at various times during the next seven years.

Wilkerson said coaching at the collegiate level was not always the plan. He had his education degree and planned to teach and coach at the high school level.

“I thought I’d get a job,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve already passed the Illinois examination. I thought I’d get a job teaching or coaching in the suburbs.”

He said Spoo had asked him to come back and help them out for spring football and he thought he’d give it a try.

“He [Spoo] said, ‘I think you’d have a bright future coaching college football,’” Wilkerson said. “I’m a believer in ‘things happen for a reason.’ I’ve done nothing other than coaching college football.”

In his time as an assistant at Eastern, the Panthers went on to reach the NCAA FCS playoffs four different times and won two conference championships.

In 2002, he was given a chance to coach defense and the special teams units at San Jose State until 2005 when he was hired by Dartmouth College as the associate head coach until 2012.

In 2013, he made his head coaching debut for the University of Chicago where he stayed for the next nine years. He had a successful reign there as he had a 53-31 overall record as he led the team to seven winning seasons and a conference title in 2014.

On Jan. 26, Wilkerson was announced as the 26th head football coach of Eastern Illinois after former head coach Adam Cushing resigned from his position. Cushing had gone 3-26 over three seasons at Eastern.

From left, Chris Wilkerson, Eastern’s newest head football coach, receives a jersey from EIU Athletic Director Tom Michael for becoming the football team’s new head coach at WIlkerson’s press conference on Friday in the Hall of Champions in Lantz Arena. (Rob Le Cates | The Daily Eastern News)

After gaining years of experiences in different coaching positions at different colleges, Wilkerson had finally returned home.

Over the years there had been vacancies in the head coaching position for EIU that had sparked his interest, but he felt they were not the right timing for him. This time it was different.

“I’ve always, always been very interested in the position, but it just wasn’t the right time,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson said he was at a national coaches’ convention in early January 2022 when he heard that Cushing had resigned as head coach. As he talked to different people with EIU connections, he said he made them aware of his interest.

“It didn’t take much longer until I was on the airplane about to go back to Chicago from San Antonio, and I had received a couple of calls from some people that I had coached, that were involved in the search process, about my interest level. Certainly, I made them aware that I was very interested,” Wilkerson said.

He then had conversations with athletic director Tom Michael where they discussed his interest in the job and him coming home to Eastern. He then went through the formal application process.

Just a few weeks later, he was officially named the head coach of the Eastern Illinois football team.

“It’s the greatest single decision I ever made,” Wilkerson said. “It was a no brainer for me to come back and restore our place.”

He knew he was leaving a good program behind in Chicago, but he was determined to come back home to EIU to ultimately make the program better because it has meant so much to him.

“Coaching for me is as it was for coach Spoo,” Wilkerson said. “It wasn’t just a profession. It’s a calling. It’s about helping people be the best versions of themselves. And so, when this opportunity did present itself, I was in a pretty good situation at the University of Chicago and I probably could have stayed there for 20 more years and had won quite a few games, but again this place means so much to me. When this opportunity had did present itself, it was just something I could not say no to.”

He said is happy to be back in Charleston because he said he owes so much to so many people at Eastern and in the area. He also wants to give back to the players the things and experiences he was able to have at Eastern.

“Yes, we have some work to do, and we have a lot of challenges,” Wilkerson said. “But we will get there. I have no doubt in my mind. At its core, this is still just an amazing place with amazing people, and I just want it to happen fast for the players because of the experiences I had.”

Wilkerson has the loyalty to Eastern that just does not compare. In his short time here as head coach, he has shown a love for EIU and EIU football and has made positive changes in the program.

He has already experienced some memorable things in his first season as a Division I coach.

Thirty years later, coach Wilkerson and coach Spack met again and faced each other in the 2022 annual Mid-America Classic between Eastern Illinois and Illinois State, where Spack is currently the head coach.

He also was able to coach in the NFL’s Tennessee Titans stadium when Eastern traveled to play Tennessee State who was coached by former Titans star Eddie George.

Wilkerson also led the Panthers to their first home game win in the fall since 2018.

Players have already picked up on his love for the game and the team and have enjoyed having him here.

“It’s been fun,” junior kicker Stone Galloway said. “Ever since he got here, he’s been bringing a really good mood and a good atmosphere to the program, and I think that’s been awesome. He’s a really good guy. It also helps with him being an alum from here, bringing a different sense of pride for the school and the success of the program”

Sophomore linebacker Colin Bohanek also said he is happy that Wilkerson is an EIU alum and has enjoyed having him be at the head coaching position.

“The first year is really just getting to know him as a person, as a coach, just trying to create that relationship,” Bohanek said. “I feel like for a first year, we have done that really well, he’s a player’s coach. And him being a former Eastern football player helps a lot. We relate so much.”

He is loved by his team already. They respond well to him and have shown on the field the impacts of Wilkerson’s coaching.

A while back, Wilkerson referred to his players as extra sons to him. He said that coach Spoo was influential in his life in more ways than just football, so he is emulating Spoo in that way. He wants the players to know that they are cared for and there is more to life than playing on the field.

Bohanek said he has established a good relationship with Wilkerson and likes that he can chat with him about life as well as football at any time.

“He definitely pushes me to be a better person and player every day, you know, I’ll go into his office, and we’ll talk about things,” Bohanek said.

Galloway referred to himself and his teammates as pandas because are known to be clumsy and need guidance at times. He likes that Wilkerson is there to help them on and off the field.

“It’s kind of like he’s coming in and getting us, because as college students, we’re all kind of dumb and we do our own little things, like pandas falling off of trees,” Galloway said as he laughed. “One of the things he does is get us together and make sure that we’re fit for the real world and not just football.”

Sharna said she sees the love Wilkerson has for the team as he sees them like his own son.

“He loves those guys, and he will do whatever he can for them,” Sharna said. “He went and jumped somebody’s car the other day.”

Sharna also said Wilkerson wants to see the guys thrive on and off the field and will do what he can to help them out.

“And he knows, there’s more to this than wins and losses, but no doubt that is the ultimate goal, to nurture these young men and have them be successful on the field as well as in life,” Sharna said.

Wilkerson’s son, Peyton, recently committed to play football for EIU next fall as he is currently a senior in high school. He said this is something new for him as he has just watched his son play football.

“It’ll be the first time that I’ve had the chance to coach my son,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve helped him with some drills and things in the house, but I’ve never actually been around him day-to-day as a coach.”

Wilkerson said he’s looking forward to spending more time with Peyton and to instill the things in him as he does every other player he coaches.

“He asked me point blank, ‘well, are you going to be my dad or are you going to be my coach?’ and I said ‘buddy, I’m going to be both,’” Wilkerson said. “It’s something that I’m looking forward to, just to be able to spend more time with him, but more importantly, watching him just continue to grow and having that same relationship with him that I’ve had with so many other guys.”

Both Wilkerson and Sharna said that while there are always challenges with coaching a son and having a father as a coach, they are both excited for the next four years. Sharna is happy that she will get to watch both Wilkerson and Peyton at O’Brien Field each Saturday.

This is only the beginning of the Wilkerson head coaching era at Eastern. He said he truly feels at home and is looking forward to making the football program the best that it can be.

“It’s like going full circle and truly coming home for me,” Wilkerson said. “It was one of the greatest decisions that I ever made as far as influencing my life.

Kate Stevens can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]