Knox graduates Matt McQuade ’88 and Bob Monroe ’88 did not know what to do as they left Jack Trice Stadium on a cool November evening last football season.
They came to watch an old college teammate, Todd Monken ’89, perform in one of the biggest games of his career. Monken, a 21-year coaching veteran, had been hired as Oklahoma State football offensive coordinator just nine months earlier.
Despite one of the most explosive passing attacks in college football, the heavily favored Cowboys had just lost to unranked Iowa St. in double-overtime with a trip to the BCS title on the line.
“We were walking out and we’re like, ‘Do you want to go to the bus to see Todd?” McQuade said. “I said, “No, let’s just give him some space.”
Monken, 46, is among the brightest spots in the long history of Knox football. He was named a Pizza Hut Division III All-American as a quarterback his senior season in 1988 and has coached under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, Les Miles at LSU and in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But he had been away from the game for two years when he arrived at Knox.
Monken had originally attended Western Illinois University, but felt he was undersized to be a Division I passer. He transferred to College of Dupage and played baseball for two seasons before coming to Knox. Monken said he would have never made it to Galesburg had it not been for the recruiting by former Siwash football Head Coach Randy Oberembt.
“I don’t know why the hell Coach O. took the time to do it, but it made me realize I still wanted to play football — and coach it,” Monken said. “I was probably like a lot of guys. I just wanted to be recruited.”
Oberembt said he still watches old game-tapes and has zero doubt that Monken could have played at a higher level than Division III.
“He was fearless and tough. He wasn’t an imposing guy physically, but the way he managed our young offensive line at the time was superior,” Oberembt said.
Monken set multiple Knox passing records his senior season, completing 218 passes on 358 attempts, along with 2,400 yards and 23 touchdowns. He led the nation in yards, completions and attempts while finishing second in touchdown passes.
“It was just a fantastic opportunity to be able to play with a quarterback of that caliber,” Illinois State Senator and former Knox offensive lineman Don Harmon ‘88 said. “Todd was terrific. He had an incredible arm.”
Monken, however, was not the only talented quarterback on the Knox roster.
Monroe, the starting quarterback when Monken arrived, was named pre- and post-season All-American and had been recognized in Sports Illustrated for having one of the most outstanding single game passing performances (532 yards) in the history of college football.
The pair split time evenly at quarterback in 1987, with Monroe playing during the first and third quarters and Monken in the second and fourth. The tandem led Knox to a 6-3 finish, the team’s best in ten years.
Former Knox football Coach and Knox-Lombard Athletic Hall of Fame member Harley Knosher said he was at first skeptical that the two could play with one another.
“The remarkable thing to me was that two athletes of that caliber could accept that kind of decision on the part of their coach and not only live with it, but thrive,” Knosher said. “It was something I thought required a great deal of maturity and a great commitment to the wellbeing of the team.”
Athletic director and football Head Coach Chad Eisele ‘93, Monken’s teammate and lifting partner, said Monken led more by example than words.
“Todd was someone you knew was always going to go out and give 100 percent, and guys respected that and his ability to get the job done,” he said.
Monken finished his Knox football career with nearly 4,000 passing yards and 38 touchdowns.
“Todd helped me win six games my senior year. He was always the reason we would win. And it was fun,” McQuade said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Success did not always come easy to Monken, an economics major. He often struggled in the classroom, but said that Oberembt made it a “personal mission” that he passed all his classes.
“The son-of-a-gun always knew what grades I was getting and when I missed class,” Monken said. “But the reality was, if you were any kind of human being, you didn’t want to let the guy down. He was doing everything in his power to try and help us be successful.”
Oberembt invited Monken and other players to house twice a week for dinner and study sessions.
“Our job was to make sure that we’re doing everything to help our players succeed,” Oberembt said. “That’s all it was.”
“He just had it,” McQuade said. “None of this is a surprise. I don’t think any of it is. This is what he wanted to do. I think he’s very driven and his pursuit of excellence is spectacular. He wants to be the best at what he does and he is.”
Knosher agreed that Monken’s success is no surprise.
“He’s had wonderful fortune in finding spots that fit his skills and has had the work ethic, talent and personality to succeed,” Knosher said. “Todd’s always had an incredible desire to succeed”
Before Oklahoma St., Monken served as the Jaguars Wide Receivers coach from 2007-2010, as well as the LSU Passing Game coordinator from 2005-2006. He has coached in nine bowl games and has directed NFL pro-bowlers such as Torry Holt, Mike Sims-Walker and Dwayne Bowe.
“Some of them think Knox is in Knoxville, Tenn.,” Monken said. “I joke with players sometimes that I went to a Division-16 school just to break the ice.”
He noted former Jaguars quarterback David Garrard as one player who recognized his alma mater.
“The one thing you try to tell people is that ‘big-time’ is where you’re at,” Monken said. “The biggest wins we had at Knox felt the same as when I was with the Jaguars and we beat the Steelers in the playoffs, or this past year when we beat Oklahoma. The reality is, the relationships are the same and the bonds you build are the same.”
Advice for current athletes
Knox football, which has finished a combined 1-19 the past two seasons, hopes to channel some of Monken’s success on the gridiron. For that, Monken has some advice:
“The only way to make things better is to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Everybody likes to win, but not everybody like the process. Not everybody likes to take it upon themselves when a kid visits campus to tell him that, ‘This is a great place and you need to come here … that this coaching staff is as good as any in the country and that you’re not going to get a better education than the one at Knox’ — and believe it. And if you don’t, then you’re part of the problem.”
Monken said it is often the tendency of struggling programs to focus on negatives and place blame elsewhere. Improvements, he said, start from the ground up.
“”The reality is, there’s only one way to make things change, and that’s to all go in the same direction and understand that it starts with you as an individual.”
Looking to the future
Monken called McQuade and Monroe to touch base after the loss to Iowa St. It was not how the season was supposed to have played out, but he knew the 10-1 finish was not bad for a Big 12 offensive coordinator in his first year. By all accounts, the future is bright for the Knox graduate.
In November, he was rumored to be in the running for University of Illinois football head coaching job after Ron Zook was fired mid-season.
Wherever he winds up next, Monken will be ready.
“He’ll be a great head coach someday. It’s going happen. And when it does, it’s going to be a lot of fun to wear whatever colors he’s wearing,” McQuade said.