No one was really willing to take a chance on Tim Carver when he was coming out of Urbandale High School in Iowa -- that is, until Bob Spoo contacted him. Carver admits Spoo took a risk on him.
It was a gamble that paid off. Carver went on to be named the Gateway Conference Player of the Year in his senior season and the linebacker became Eastern Illinois University's all-time leading tackler.
Carver said he wasn't the only one Spoo took a chance on during his 25-year coaching career at Charleston's EIU. The most famous name is Tony Romo. Those "risky players" helped Spoo finish with 144 wins in his 25 years from 1986-2011. His 68 Ohio Valley Conference wins are the fourth most in the conference's history.
"He gave me a chance. He took a calculated risk. Guys like me or guys better than me like Tony Romo -- people didn't see a lot of us in high school but he saw what kind of person I was and that it wasn't just about making plays, and the chances he took worked out," Carver said. "I wouldn't be where I am at now if not for the opportunity that he gave me."
But it was more than his wins that motivated his players. It was Spoo's integrity, faith and his love for his players that stand out the most.
"He really meant everything to me in terms of not only a coach but also as an example of what it meant to be a leader and how to lead a program and care for people," said Carver, who returned home and is the principal at Urbandale High School. "Loyalty. Focusing on character and the right things. It was never just about the X's and O's. Those things were important but we needed to be doing the right things off the field. That was a big thing to him."
On Monday morning in Rockford, Spoo died at the age of 80.
"He's everything that you would want as a coach and a player. He was strict but he had a sensitive side and really cared about you," former EIU kicker Ray D'Alessio said. "The man would work you hard and you wanted to work your tail off for him. You sometimes forgot about him as a coach because he was focused about the men he turned us into. He was a blessing and I can't say enough about him as a mentor and father figure."
Spoo was inducted into the OVC Hall of Fame in 2012 and the EIU Hall of Fame in 2015. His last season as a coach at EIU was in 2011; he then retired and moved to Rockford with his wife, Susan, so they could be closer to their daughter, Katie.
"It was family first with coach. His wonderful wife and daughter were number one in his life, there is no question about that," Carver said. "He was a very faithful man and practiced it on a daily basis and that was evident. He just did things the right way. He could've sacrificed or cut corners to get another win but he never did that. He was a hard worker and tough and caring. I will take Bob Spoo any day of the week just because of how he did things and the people he impacted."
D'Alessio said he does take solace in the fact that Bob is reunited with Susan, who died in April of 2017.
"We all loved Mrs. Spoo and the fact that they are together again, you are happy for that," said D'Alessio, who formerly worked at CNN and is now a senior producer/co-host for the Georgia Farm Monitor. "One of the last things he ever said that I will always remember, at his Hall of Fame induction, I went up to him and he grabbed me by the face and looked me in the eyes and said 'I am so proud of you and the man you became and I love you like a son.' That meant the world to me."
Information on funeral services for Spoo will be released when it is available, EIU reported in a press release.
Spoo was the runner-up for the FCS Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year in 2000. He was named the conference coach of the year four times and he led his team to nine FCS playoff appearances, which ranks seventh on the FCS all-time list. Eleven of his teams finished in the top 25 and he won five conference championships. He had seven players drafted and nine former EIU players appeared in an NFL game.
Spoo's coaching tree runs deep, too. Illinois State football coach Brock Spack was an assistant under Spoo. University of Buffalo assistant coach Roc Bellantoni got his start under Spoo. Former EIU coach and current Syracuse coach Dino Babers was an assistant at EIU under Spoo.
Current EIU head coach Kim Dameron was hired by Spoo as an assistant for the Panthers back in 2000.
"He set the standard as far as the level of play and the level of integrity as a coach. I can't say enough as far as his dedication to EIU and just how much work he put into this place. He was consistent on putting good teams on the field and making it to the playoffs," Dameron said. "I learned a lot from him on how to run an FCS program and recruiting and all of that. I've been fortunate to work under some great head coaches and obviously he was one of those. He loved the kids and that stood out to me."
Not only did Chris Wilkerson play for Spoo at EIU from 1990 to 1994, he went right into coaching and Spoo brought him on as a graduate assistant in 1995. Wilkerson stayed at EIU until 2001 before going to San Jose State. Wilkerson is the head coach at NCAA Division III University of Chicago and he is currently in his seventh year.
Wilkerson said he models his coaching style after Spoo.
"He inspired so many people, not just as a coach, and he was a man of the highest integrity. He did things the right way," Wilkerson said. "Culture. He created a strong culture and I've carried that with me. Bob did the special teams and I've continued to do the special teams here. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him and what I learned and the time I spent in Charleston with him. So many guys under him have gotten into coaching and teaching positions and Tim (Carver) is one of the best principals in the country and runs his school like Bob Spoo."
Spoo was a quarterback at Purdue in 1960. He started as a high school coach in Chicago and he was named the National High School Coach of the Year in 1970. Spoo was later an assistant coach in the Big Ten at Wisconsin and Purdue before taking over as the head coach at EIU.
"I've never heard anyone say a bad word about Bob Spoo and they always loved working with him," Dameron said. "He was Eastern Illinois."
D'Alessio, who is also the special teams coach at Creekside Christian Academy, always remembers a moment at Western Illinois where he botched a kickoff. Spoo had harsh words for D'Alessio but the head coach still had a smile for D'Alessio when he got back on the bus.
"He told me to kick it to the ground. I didn't do my job and the ball popped up into the air and they returned it to our 40-yard line. I knew I was going to get the wrath. He came down and reamed me, shook my facemask. I messed up and I had every right of what was coming to me," D'Alessio said. "The thing that hurt most is that I disappointed him. As I am getting on the bus, he's up front. He has this big grin on his face and he said 'Hi Ray.' I told coach he got this crick in my neck out and he said 'My pleasure,' and squeezed my hands and had this big smile. That's my favorite story."
D'Alessio credits Spoo for making him a better man. Many of his players do. Wilkerson said he everything he has today he owes to Spoo.
"He gave a young man from Indianapolis a chance and an education. I met my wife there and when I graduated, he gave me my first opportunity. My wife, my children, my education and my career, I owe it all to coach. I will never be able to thank him, his wife, his daughter enough," Wilkerson said. "They don't make them like coach Spoo anymore. He's an unbelievable man and words cannot describe how thankful that he was part of my life. He is part of something bigger and he will be terribly missed."