The Unique Suites Hotel lobby is empty.
The staff inside the Brickhouse Bar and Grill, located just a few feet past the hotel desk, is setting up, preparing for the lunchtime crowd.
Temperatures outside are in the mid-70s. Hardly a cloud in the sky. Picture-perfect weather on a Thursday morning where traffic along Illinois 16 just outside the lobby’s windows drifts by in no hurry.
Inside, it feels just as relaxed. Easy-listening songs by Mumford & Sons, Jason Mraz and The Lumineers filter in softly through the speakers when Dino Babers makes his entrance.
Wearing an untucked solid blue Eastern Illinois polo shirt, light khaki pants and brown dress shoes, Babers walks casually along the off-white tiled floors, shortly before 11 a.m., past the potted plants and leather chairs.
Holding hands with his wife of 25 years, Susan, he is the picture of relaxed confidence. The Eastern Illinois head football coach’s strides are purposeful, yet not too brisk. He’s not in any big hurry. His team already has finished a practice that started at 6 a.m. He doesn’t have a game to worry about this weekend. It’s a bye weekend for Eastern Illinois and its second-year head coach.
It must feel good to walk in Babers’ shoes on this morning.
He asks Susan earlier in the week about possibly heading to Champaign to see Illinois play Saturday. Once he learns, though, that the Illini are bound for Nebraska, he puts aside the thought.
Maybe he’ll see a movie instead. A 10-minute drive in the black SUV the couple arrived in this morning would put them at the AMC Showplace 10 in Mattoon. In front of the BP gas station just off the Charleston exit on Interstate 57. Surrounded by cornfields. Nothing better in Babers’ mind.
“That’s my hangout,” he says in his steadied, even-clip voice. “Guys know they’ve got to watch what they say in the movies because there’s a very good chance I’m in the back row. I go to good movies and bad movies. I just go to movies. The lights are down and nobody knows who’s next to you. It’s perfect.”
Or maybe he’ll cruise down Lincoln Avenue and stop at a local video store off Ninth Street.
“We always see his car at Family Video,” Eastern Illinois left guard Collin Seibert said.
Nobody stops by the booth Dino, his wife and a reporter share for an hour inside the restaurant.
A few other patrons stream in. None wander over to talk football. Or heap praise on what Babers has accomplished this fall, guiding Eastern Illinois to a 5-1 record so far and a Top 5 national ranking in both FCS polls.
But when lunch is finished and pleasantries exchanged, two elderly women are waiting near the front of the restaurant to be seated. They point and whisper among each other. Nod their heads in agreement. Yes, they realize, Dino Babers just walked by them.
“Well,” Susan says while she exits the restaurant’s doors, steps out again into the hotel lobby and turns to her husband, “we almost went the whole lunch with anyone recognizing you.”
Keep that thought, Susan. Anonymity is a fleeting moment for Dino Babers. At least for now. If the 52-year-old keeps winning football games, leads Eastern Illinois to another Ohio Valley Conference title, earns another OVC Coach of the Year accolade, enjoys a few playoff victories — if not the national championship — more people will know him.
As the head coach of an FBS program.
Eastern Illinois athletic director Barbara Burke said she has not received any calls from other schools inquiring about her head football coach. Yet.
“I will not be surprised if his name appears on others’ short list,” Burke said. “He is a quality football coach with characteristics that are important: integrity, knowledge of the game, a great coaching tree and an ability to lead. We are thrilled and honored to have him as our head coach.”
Mike Bradd has called more than 1,000 Eastern Illinois football and basketball games since 1988. The veteran radio play-by-play announcer who broadcast Tony Romo’s college games thinks the 2013 season is a first for him.
“This is about the 24th year I’ve been on campus,” he said, “and I’d say the buzz right now is about as high as I ever remember it being.”
Babers said he is not concerning himself with what next football season brings. This is the first time in his coaching career, he said, that he’s had more than a one-year contract. He’s currently in the second year of a three-year deal that pays him an annual salary of $170,000.
Bradd said he has no idea when or if Babers might leave for another job. It’s a hot topic in Coles County, where Babers got his start in college coaching more than 25 years ago.
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Bradd said. “To be honest with you, that should be Eastern’s role in the food chain is to hire a good coach, they have success and then move on. When it’s going good, that will happen. They won’t be here long.”
Babers takes a diplomatic approach when the topic is broached.
“The best job I’ve got is the one I’ve got right now,” he said. “I haven’t gotten any phone calls. I don’t anticipate getting any phone calls. I haven’t been contacted by anybody nor do I anticipate that happening. The last guy that had this job was here 25 years. I had to wait 25 years before I could get this job. I’ve got to at least try to do the same thing to the next guy.”
Bob Spoo still lives in Charleston. Still keeps tabs on how the football team he coached for 25 years and led to the playoffs 13 times is doing. Still goes to all the home games. Even made the trek north to DeKalb for Eastern Illinois’ 43-39 loss Sept. 21 at Northern Illinois.
“Dino makes me feel welcome,” the 75-year-old Spoo said of his one-time former assistant coach. “Last year on Senior Day, he asked me to come out on the field with him. I thought that was a remarkable thing to do. He’s fulfilled my expectations. There’s not enough good things to say about him. He’s just a class act. He loves the kids, and he’s got a vision of what he wants the program to be and what he wants to do with it.”
Bradd said Babers has helped make the transition easier by embracing what the Panthers’ former coach accomplished.
“Basically, Eastern had a two-year drought where it wasn’t very good,” Bradd said of the 2010 and 2011 seasons that saw the Panthers finish a combined 4-18. “It’s not like it had been bad for a long time. The easiest thing for a new coach is to come in and say, ‘We’re here to fix it.’ He didn’t do that. Bob is very highly respected in this community and this campus. We’re still playing with Bob’s guys. Most of them are players that Bob and his staff recruited. I’ve heard Dino say numerous times this year that a lot of the success they’re having is because of those players.”
Babers reached out to Spoo shortly after he landed the job.
“One of the first things I did was I called him and made sure he was going to stay in town,” Babers said. “He gave me a lot of great advice my first year. There were a lot of things I bounced off of him, and I was real lucky to have a resource like that.”
Babers isn’t just representing himself, either. When Burke hired him, he became the first African-American head football coach at a public state school in Illinois that plays in the FBS or FCS. Northwestern has had two (Dennis Green and Francis Peay), but Illinois, Illinois State, Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois and Western Illinois have never had a minority head coach. Neither had Eastern Illinois until less than two years ago.
“He had an opportunity to follow a legend, and he has done it with grace and humility,” Burke said. “My only priority was hiring the right person, regardless of race. There was no doubt in my mind he was the guy. While history is important, it was not the driving factor in the final decision. He earned the job.”
Babers is used to having folks stop him in Charleston. Having the success he’s had plays a part in that. So does the fact, too, that he goes on long walks almost daily around town.
Sometimes he steps out along Illinois 16.
“But I get tired of seeing the dead deer out there,” Babers said with a laugh.
He might head to Walmart on the north edge of town. Walk past Charleston High School, where his wife coaches the Trojans’ varsity volleyball team this fall. And meander through the back streets nestled in among various subdivisions spread throughout the city of 21,911.
“I mix it up,” he said. “But I stay on the outside of campus. I won’t walk through campus.”
He’d probably have a hard time getting back to his first-floor office at O’Brien Stadium or his house if he did. The reaction is overwhelmingly positive.
“I might as well just have my arm up the whole time waving with all the cars that honk at me,” he said.
Nearly all the honks result in shouts of encouragement or praise. With one exception.
“I had an old lady flip me off one time,” Babers said. “A youth coach stopped in the middle of the road with his truck, and he tried to get me to come to his team’s practices. She was behind him, honking her horn, and he wouldn’t go. Finally, he takes off. She looked at me and just gave me the bird.”
Babers didn’t take the rude gesture personally. He laughs after re-telling the story.
“I thought that was kind of cute,” he said.
Yes, his first name really is Dino.
“I never really questioned it because I had never heard any other name,” Susan Babers said. “But ever since we’ve been married, that’s the big question: ‘What’s his real name?’ ”
No one in the Babers family had the name Dino. The source of what people would know him by his entire life is a pretty simple set of circumstances.
“My dad was watching Zorro, probably the original Zorro,” Dino said. “There was a character actor in the movie that he really liked. His name wasn’t Dino in the movie. He watched for the credits at the end of the movie for the person that he liked, and his real name was Dino.”
Babers had a well-traveled childhood. Much like his adult life.
His father, Luther Babers Jr., served in the Navy.
“I was born in Hawaii, but we lived all over the place,” Dino said. “I started preschool in Norfolk, Va., graduated high school in San Diego and lived everywhere in between. That’s the short story.”
The story went full circle in late August when Babers made his way back to San Diego. Where he led the Panthers to a 40-19 upset win against San Diego State in the season opener that made his name more well-known across the country.
And he won with his mother, Patsy Ann Babers, in the Qualcomm Stadium stands.
“My mom doesn’t fly, so she had never seen me coach as a head coach, and it’s the only time she’s seen me coach as a head coach,” Babers said. “To go there and get the win in front of her, along with all my high school friends and college friends, that was really cool.”
Babers played college football at Hawaii under Dick Tomey in the early 1980s. Later served on his staff at Arizona. His stint in Tucson, Ariz., was one of 10 college assistant gigs he had before he landed the head coaching job at EIU.
His first full-time assistant coaching job came at EIU in 1987, coaching the running backs and special teams.
“First time I was here, I was eating all the specials (at the fast-food restaurants),” Babers said. “Kentucky Fried Chicken was Monday night, Long John Silver’s was Tuesday night and Hardee’s was Wednesday night. It got to the point where the people would know that I was coming in and they’d already have my order.”
His stops since have included UNLV (1988-89), Northern Arizona (1990), Purdue (1991-93), San Diego State (1994), Arizona (1995-2000), Texas A&M (2001-02), Pittsburgh (2003), UCLA (2004-07) and Baylor (2008-11).
Babers counts Tomey, Mike Martz, the late Homer Smith, who coached with Babers at Arizona and was noted for his offensive coordinator duties at Alabama and UCLA, June Jones and Art Briles among his biggest mentors.
“Between Art Briles and Homer Smith, those were the guys who had the biggest influences on me outside of June Jones,” Babers said. “Coach Briles’ philosophy is offense from a positive standpoint that I really held and grabbed onto.”
Babers had a chance to watch Robert Griffin III every day at Baylor. His final season with the Bears ended with RGIII winning the Heisman Trophy.
He now spends his days around another talented quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, who is considered a strong candidate to win the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman.
“Probably the most impressive thing is his leadership,” Garoppolo said. “He really has a presence about him. We all know who runs the team. Coach Babers is a little different in practice compared to games. He’s a little calmer in games. In practice, he’ll get after us at certain times. He’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks you need to do better. I really like that.”
Back to lunch. The offensive-minded coach known for creative play calls and an up-tempo style brings the same mind-set when settling on a burger. He makes his own concoction on a menu he has seen countless times. The Brickhouse Bar and Grill is where Babers has his weekly coaches’ show every Thursday night.
He orders a half-pound hamburger, cooked medium, with pepperjack cheese, bacon, a fried egg and avocado. Babers easily finishes the burger, and by the time he’s downed his third Arnold Palmer at lunch, the topic has shifted from football strategies and stories about RGIII to what his favorite movies are.
Which, he warns, will surprise people. Much like the varied ingredients he puts on his hamburger.
“ ‘West Side Story,’ ” Babers says when the question is asked. “I love ‘The Natural,’ too. Same thing with ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’ ”
All three are entirely different movies. Garoppolo said Babers doesn’t do too bad in picking out what movies the Panthers should watch when they have long bus rides to road games.
“Coach is one of the biggest movie buffs I’ve ever met in my life,” Garoppolo said. “He’ll always have some good ones. Even the ones we haven’t heard of, he’ll say, ‘I promise they’ll be good.’ Usually he’s right.”
Babers was one of four finalists brought in to replace Spoo. Eastern Illinois handles its coaching searches a bit differently than most schools, letting the finalists answer questions from residents, fans or media during a public session.
“His ability to communicate in a positive way was obvious from the very beginning,” Burke said. “He has strong family relationships that I felt created a sense of stability. His football background, including the individuals he had worked with, was outstanding. We both wanted the same thing for the Eastern Illinois program. We wanted to elevate expectations, and I believe that has and is being done.”
Seibert and Garoppolo remember watching Baylor play Washington in the 2011 Alamo Bowl. In a game that ended up with Baylor beating Washington 67-56.
Seibert, a first-team Ohio Valley All-Conference selection in 2012, isn’t your typical plodding offensive lineman. He was the starting center on the Oswego High School basketball team for two seasons. Went against athletes like Rayvonte Rice, Jeff Johnson and James Kinney during the 2009 Class 3A state title game, in which Centennial edged Oswego 61-59. In other words, he can move. Good thing, too, considering Babers wants his offense to play at a frantic pace.
“One of the first times I met him, he was talking about tempo and how fast the offense would be,” Seibert said. “We were all sitting there thinking the practices would be tough. They get easier as the year goes on. Running a no-huddle offense, you have to make it high-tempo and keep it going. Every play we run, we practice hundreds of times before we use it in games.”
Babers’ offensive philosophy has even created a shift high above the field on game days. Bradd and his color commentator, Jack Ashmore, have to speed up how they broadcast the game, too.
“At first, it was a real adjustment,” Bradd said. “You have this natural sort of rhythm when you’re calling a game. About the time they come out of the huddle, the color guy needs to be quiet. Now you take the huddle out of the equation. You take time out of the equation. I wrap up my call of the play sooner to let the color guy have his window sooner. He has to be much more succinct now.”
Brock Spack has known Babers for nearly half his life. The two were young assistant coaches on Spoo’s first staff at Eastern Illinois during the 1987 season, later worked on staff together at Purdue and have stayed in touch throughout the years.
“We played a lot of basketball together at Purdue and at Eastern,” said Spack, who is in his fourth season as Illinois State’s head coach. “At Purdue, we had a lot of regulars that would come and play with us. Dino and I played like football players, but we’d get three other really good players and go hold the court for about two hours. It was fun.”
Eastern Illinois and Illinois State have the longest in-state football rivalry. Babers and the Panthers beat Spack’s Redbirds 57-24, but Spack was able to come away with a 54-51 double-overtime win last year in Normal.
“We’re very good friends and always will be good friends,” Spack said. “Just for three hours on one day a year we can’t be good friends.”
Spack is eager to see what transpires for Babers after the season if Eastern Illinois keeps on winning. Even though Babers said he doesn’t anticipate getting calls from other programs, Spack said it will transpire.
“He’s at the age now where he has to look at that stuff because the window is very small,” Spack said. “I’m very proud of him and happy for him. We don’t talk a whole lot about his goals and aspirations, but I hope he gets what he wants. I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for him to do that because he has connections to other parts of the country. He’d be a strong candidate anywhere.”
Susan Babers has packed enough boxes for herself, her husband and the couple’s four daughters throughout the years.
The family — which includes 22-year-old Breeahnah, a senior at Eastern Illinois, 20-year-old Tasha, a junior at EIU who just completed a six-month mission in Cambodia, Taiwan and New Zealand, 19-year-old Jazzmin, a redshirt freshman who is a middle blocker on the Texas A&M volleyball team, and 16-year-old Paris, a junior at Charleston High School — has developed a routine because of all the moves the family has made in the last three decades.
“Our joke is always that if we’re here through November, we’re good, and then from November through February, we never know,” Susan said. “Once February goes by, we’re good until November. That’s how we live. I grew up in one house. I’ve seen the United States now.”
Shortly after Babers was hired almost 22 months ago, he walked into his new office, a modest setting full of blue paint on the walls, a sturdy wooden desk, a few chairs and a few pictures.
He had finished his news conference. Posed for pictures. Put on an Eastern Illinois hat. And took a moment for the situation to sink in.
“You go, ‘OK, now what?’ ” Babers recalled. “Really, I’d just waited so long. I don’t feel the stress or the strain. I had seen so many other guys do it. Things that they had done right. Things that I thought maybe they had done wrong. I really had a lot of time to know what kind of head coach I wanted to emulate.”
In the market ...
Dino Babers is in the second year of a three-year contract at Eastern Illinois. If he keeps winning and putting up points like he has this season, it doesn’t seem likely he’ll be around to coach the Panthers in 2014. Here are five FBS schools that should take a chance on him:
Three years ago the Huskies played Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Now they’re bordering on irrelevancy. What better way to forget the Paul Pasqualoni era and reinvigorate a program than with a high-powered offense like Babers could provide for the fans in Storrs.
Babers played there. Counts former Hawaii coaches Dick Tomey and June Jones among his greatest influences. Norm Chow is 3-14 in his second season. Babers has the laid-back personality to fit in well there along with the up-tempo offense the natives love to see.
Charlie Weis hasn’t endeared himself to fans in Lawrence, who already are lined up at Allen Fieldhouse to watch Andrew Wiggins. Weis is better suited for the NFL, and Babers could quietly turn KU into a juggernaut while Bill Self keeps making deep NCAA runs.
Paul Rhoads has led the Cyclones to three bowls in his first four seasons. But a 1-3 start, including a loss to FCS Northern Iowa, won’t have the folks in Ames happy, especially if the slide continues. Babers is familiar with the Big 12 and could light up the scoreboard.
Babers has left Chuck Vegas for Las Vegas before. Granted, it was 25 years ago. Bobby Hauck has hardly won in his four seasons with the Rebels (9-34), but the administration might want a more well-known name considering Hauck came from FCS powerhouse Montana.