Western welcomes 2002 Gateway title team back for 20-year reunion, home opener

Former Western Illinois head coach Don Patterson and his former players will celebrate their 2002 Gateway conference title Saturday in Macomb. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)

By Barry Bottino

When Don Patterson steps onto Hanson Field in Macomb this Saturday, he will do so alongside players from one of the greatest teams in Western Illinois history.

“Some of these guys I haven’t seen in 20 years,” said Patterson, who coached WIU to the 2002 Gateway Football Conference title. “There will be a tremendous sense of pride in what we accomplished. History says it’s not easy to win a championship at Western Illinois. It’s been 20 years.”

Patterson, the former WIU head coach, and more than two dozen of his players will be honored during the Leathernecks’ season opener against Southern Utah as the school celebrates the 20th anniversary of that championship team. The events will include a pregame tailgate, recognition during the game and a postgame celebration.

During that season, Patterson and the Leathernecks finished 11-2 and rose to as high as No. 2 in the national rankings after being voted to place fourth in a preseason conference poll.

Their season ended with a 31-28, second-round playoff loss to Western Kentucky, which went on to win the national championship in what was then known as Division I-AA.

“They were mentally tough,” Patterson said of his players. “They had high character. There was a real sense of unity. The offense and defense got along really well.”

In the second game of the season, Western shut out Western Kentucky, 14-0, then defeated Division I-A Northern Illinois the following week. Western thrived with an offense that included 3,000-yard passer Russ Michna, 1,100-yard receiver Stacy Coleman and running backs Attley Lawson and Travis Glasford, who combined for nearly 1,600 yards.

The defense collected 17 fumbles and 15 interceptions as three different players has 117 or more tackles, led by linebackers Cornell Middlebrook and Lee Russell. Linemen Brian Ceaser piled up 24 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.

Then there was the kicking game, highlighted by future NFL punter Mike Scifres. “He was only one of the best punters in college football,” Patterson said.

On Nov. 30, 2002, Western started the playoffs by overwhelming Eastern Illinois, 48-9, ending the college career of Walter Payton Award winner Tony Romo on a windy, wet day in Macomb.

“I think they had more players from Florida than we did,” Patterson joked. “We knew that our league was simply a stronger league than the Ohio Valley. We knew nobody would be able to pressure (Romo) like we were going to pressure him.”

Patterson is retired and now lives with his wife, Lisa, about 125 miles northwest of WIU in Iowa City, Iowa, where he was an assistant coach for 20 seasons under legendary Iowa Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry.

“At the end of 37 years of coaching, we asked, ‘Where do we go?’” he said. “Iowa City seemed more like home than anywhere else. Our daughter was born across the street from Kinnick Stadium, and she lives across town from us right now, about 7 miles away.”

This week’s opponent

Southern Utah (1-1) is in its first season in the Western Athletic Conference after departing the Big Sky. First-year head coach Delane Fitzgerald spent the past eight years as head coach at Division II Frostburg State in Maryland. Defensive end Francis Bemiy was a preseason All-WAC first-team selection, yet defensive tackle Payton Payne leads the team with two sacks. The Thunderbirds are averaging only 287 yards of total offense through two games.

(Kickoff: 3 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: Q981FM.com)

Key matchup to watch

WIU vs. turnovers: Through two games this season, WIU (0-2) has been intercepted three times and lost a fumble. Turnovers could be costly against Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds have turned four turnovers gained this season into 23 points.

What’s at stake?

Western is seeking its first win of the season in the team’s final non-conference game before the Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule begins Sept. 24 against Northern Iowa.

Quick hits

The Leathernecks have yet to record a sack this season, but linebacker Juan DelaCruz has piled up six of the team’s 10 quarterback hurries. … Naseim Brantley is WIU’s top wide receiver with nine catches, 221 yards and 110.5 yards per game. His four touchdown catches is tied for the national FCS lead. All four TDs have come via passes from quarterback Nick Davenport. … The team’s leader in rushing attempts so far this season is Davenport, with 13 rushes for 81 yards, a 5.1 per carry average.

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