Asmussen | Ex-Illini's brother picked to lead EIU football

Asmussen | Ex-Illini's brother picked to lead EIU football

When his brother Adam went to work at Northwestern in 2004, Matt Cushing promised his support. With one stipulation: He wouldn't wear purple.

That was a step too far for the former Illinois football tight end, who spent four years trying to beat the Wildcats in the 1990s.

But Matt Cushing will happily sport blue, the color favored by Adam's new school, Eastern Illinois.

"I can wear some Eastern stuff," Matt said. "I'll be happy to put on some Panther gear when I go to support the team."

Adam Cushing was introduced Monday as the next Eastern Illinois coach after a long, successful stint on Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern staff.

Since 2009, Cushing has been the offensive line coach for Fitzgerald, helping the team become a bowl regular. This season, Northwestern won the Big Ten West title and played Ohio State in the conference championship game.

During his time in Evanston, Adam Cushing coached a unit that paved the way for star running back Justin Jackson.

Now, he gets to run his own program. Matt Cushing long thought his younger brother would get a chance.

"I'm incredibly excited for him," Matt said. "Incredibly proud of him. He's always worked incredibly hard. He's earned and deserves this opportunity."

Matt is five years older than Adam. Early in life, Matt admits he "probably picked on him a little bit more than I should have. We grew up into great friends."

"Next to my wife, he's my best friend."

Once he found out he was in the running for the Eastern Illinois job, Adam talked to his brother.

"He asked for my two cents," Matt said.

They both played for Frank Lenti at Chicago Mount Carmel. Adam, a tight end like his older brother, went to the University of Chicago. He finished among the Maroons' career leaders in receptions.

Adam began his coaching career in 2002, working with tight ends at the University of La Verne in California.

Starting in '04, he was a graduate assistant at Northwestern. He later coached superbacks and was the Wildcats' recruiting coordinator.

Work to do

At 38, Adam Cushing is on the younger side among head coaches. His brother thinks Adam is ready.

"He's always wanted to push himself to be better and to push his limits and really take the next step," Matt Cushing said. "That's what led him to this decision."

Adam inherits a 3-8 team from Kim Dameron, who went 27-30 in five seasons. Dameron's contract was not renewed after the 2018 season ended.

Matt has no doubt his brother will turn the Panthers into winners.

"I know how he is, and I know his focus on building a program is going to be about building a culture and recruiting kids with character," Matt said. "They're going to see success really quickly down there."

Matt won't tell any stories on his brother. Maybe later. His words are all positive.

"He's a high-energy guy, great character," Matt said. "I really think that the Eastern Illinois community is going to love him and welcome him with open arms."

Matt said Adam's family is "No. 1 to him."

Adam's wife, Jaime, is an Illinois graduate. The couple has two daughters and a son.

The Panthers are scheduled to open the 2019 season on Aug. 31 at Chattanooga. They travel to Indiana on Sept. 7.

Cushing's home debut is Sept. 14 against rival Illinois State.

In future seasons, Eastern Illinois has money games scheduled at Kentucky, Mississippi State, Northern Illinois and Illinois.

"My son (Luke) has already looked up all the future schedules and informed me who they were playing," Matt said.

The new boss

Adam Cushing is the first football hire for Eastern Illinois athletic director Tom Michael.

"Obviously, he comes from a great program that continues to get better and better," Michael said. "That was all very attractive. Him being an Illinois guy was important.

"When I got a chance to talk to him a number of times, his presence, his discipline, his command, those personality pieces, bringing organization and structure, focus and attention to detail to our program was very important. As I continued to have those conversations, it became clear this is a guy that's a head coach."

Before he went looking for a coach, the former Illini basketball standout sought the advice of EIU alums Mike Shanahan, Sean Payton, Ryan Pace and Tony Romo.

"They are very passionate about our program," Michael said. "I was able to find out what their feelings were."

Michael talked many times to Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, another UI graduate.

"Jim spoke extremely highly of Adam and his family and who he is," Michael said.

If it goes the way Michael hopes, the Panthers will win at a high level. Then, other schools might come after Cushing.

"If those things happen," Michael said, "he's done great things for our program."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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