FARGO — The Illinois State program was sailing along, with the exception of the final 98 seconds in the 2014 Division I FCS national title game when Carson Wentz stuck a heartbreaking loss on the Redbirds. That was the first season of a two-year period that saw the Redbirds go 23-5.
ISU had its quarterback with Tre Roberson and program momentum that was expected to keep it near the top of the Missouri Valley Football Conference for years to come. It didn’t happen.
The Redbirds had three straight years of 6-6, 6-5 and 6-5 from 2016-18.
“If you look at those years, we went on some bad losing streaks,” said Illinois State athletic director Larry Lyons.
In 2016, the Redbirds followed an upset win at Big Ten Conference opponent Northwestern with four straight losses. Three straight losses closed the 2017 season and what once looked like a potential playoff team was left out.
It was at that point Redbirds head coach Brock Spack made some staffing changes.
“You’re always trying to get better whether it’s the coaching staff or the administration,” Lyons said. “I would probably say that factored into it.”
It factored into this year’s turnaround, which has the 10-4 Redbirds coming to Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome for Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup with North Dakota State. The last time these teams played in postseason was when Wentz engineered a game-winning drive for a 29-27 win in Frisco, Texas.
“I wish we had 30 more seconds or used 30 more seconds,” Lyons said. “It was a great game to participate in. Both fan bases represented themselves well. It was a cool environment and we want to go back and do it again. We want to make a deep playoff run and validate the program.”
Spack made some serious adjustments to help re-validate the program, bringing in six new assistant coaches for the 2018 season. That included offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard and defensive coordinator Travis Niekamp, both with Illinois State ties.
Former Redbirds players Kye Stewart and Mike Banks were named linebackers and secondary assistants respectively. Former ISU offensive line coach Harold Etheridge returned to that same role with the Redbirds. Linebackers coach Brian Hendricks came from Montana, where he worked with Niekamp.
In other words, Spack brought in Illinois State guys.
“We kind of lost who we were,” Spack said on Dom Izzo’s WDAY-AM radio show Hot Mic on Thursday. “I wanted guys who would regurgitate my philosophy and it got to be more about the individuals then it did about the team so I thought it was important to get back to what we were before and I had to make some changes. It’s hard to do, I had been around some of those people for a long time, but they were changes that needed to be made and it’s all worked out very well.”
It took until this year before the changes worked on the field. The 6-5 record last year ended with four straight losses.
“You can’t go on losing streaks like that, our league is too good,” Lyons said.
Lyons was part of some infrastructure changes that needed to be made. A $26 million renovation to Hancock Stadium was finished a few years ago. The Hancock Stadium Club has room for 300 guests that has hosted everything from weddings to meetings.
“It’s become a community asset, a popular place to entertain,” Lyons said.
The artificial turf playing surface was recently upgraded two years ago. This year, the football team upgraded behind running back James Robinson. Perhaps the final piece is an indoor facility that is currently in the design phase.
Temperatures the last couple of weeks in Normal, Ill., have been OK enough to practice outside. But if the Redbirds keep playing in December every year, at some point there will be issues.
“That has to be our highest priority now,” Lyons said. “We need that one gift to get us over the hump. We’re still looking for it. We’re having a lot of conversations but we’re not quite there yet.”