CHARLESTON — When star player Erik Lora called his Eastern Illinois football coach a puppet master, he was giving a compliment.
“Coach Babers is just the puppeteer,” Lora said. “He moves the strings and knows how to get people together.
“He’s a puppet master. He knows how to get people together. I guess maybe you’d say he’s more of a chess master.”
Babers pulled enough right strings or made the right chess moves to be named Ohio Valley Conference Roy Kidd Coach of the Year on Tuesday.
He took over a program that had gone 2-9 the previous two seasons and now has the Panthers 7-4 with a league championship heading into a 2 p.m. Saturday NCAA Football Championship Subdivision first-round playoff game at South Dakota State.
Babers emphasized that his first season as a college head coach has been more than just a case of a puppet master pulling strings.
“The teamwork,” he said of his Panthers. “They pull for each other. They love each other and don’t want to let each other down. Truth is important. It’s based on honesty. You can with without profanity. You can with without a lot of fighting each other. We took a team that maybe was individuals and made them a team.”
With Babers installing an up-tempo spread offense, EIU became the fourth team in the Ohio Valley Conference’s 65-year football history to go from last place to champion in one year.
“Coach Babers came in her and changed our mindsets that losing wasn’t acceptable,” junior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said.
Babers credits returning players as well.
“I had a senior stand up and say ‘we don’t want this to be a rebuilding year,’ ” the new coach said. “I said ‘you are saying that. I may have to move some people. I may have to demote some of your buddies.’ The seniors accepted that. That’s what made us go from worst to first.”
That also made Babers the OVC Coach of the Year, an award his predecessor Bob Spoo earned in 2001, 2005, 2009.
Retiring after 25 years as Eastern’s coach, Spoo had Babers on his staff in his first season with the Panthers in 1987 before Babers moved on to stints as an assistant at UNVL, Northern Arizona, Purdue, San Diego State, Arizona, Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, UCLA and most recently Baylor.
Through the course of this season Babers has credited Spoo for setting the foundation of the program and helping him in the transition.
Now Babers has the Coach of the Year award.
“What that means to me is I think of (Athletic Director) Barbara Burke and President (William) Perry for the opportunity they gave me here to fulfill my vision,” Babers said.
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