The Redbirds and Salukis have met every season on the field (with the exception of during Covid) since 1970. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Dan Verdun
Alumni and fans of Illinois State and Southern Illinois witnessed a down-to-the-wire finish Saturday night in Normal, befitting of their rivalry.
However, they won’t see it again until 2025.
With Murray State joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference next season, the league — now with 12 members — has restructured the schedule. One downside to the new slate is the interruption of the ISU-SIU series for the next two years.
The official MVFC release from August stated that league members will play eight conference games each year, but not a full round-robin each season.
Thus, Saturday’s 19-14 SIU victory over the Redbirds at Hancock Stadium will be the last meeting between the two schools separated by 240 miles until 2025.
SIU leads the all-time series 43-38-3. The two rivals have met every season since 1970 — with the exception of the COVID spring 2021 schedule in which ISU ended its season after four games because injuries had decimated the Redbird roster.
How did this decision come about?
Greg Walter, an Illinois native, is an associate commissioner for the MVFC and leads the league’s scheduling process.
“The scheduling model was a collaborative development between the (conference) athletic directors and our staff back in the winter and spring when we were considering whether to extend Murray State (of the Ohio Valley Conference) an invitation to the league,” Walter told Prairie State Pigskin. “The strategic direction for that came from our membership, from our athletic directors.”
Why no divisions or pods?
In the league’s announcement of the 2023 and ’24 schedules, the MVFC’s press release stated: “Staff had considered multiple options, including divisional play, four-team pods and a true rotation, before arriving at the current model, which utilizes agreed-upon scheduling principles, including maximizing bus trips to the greatest extent possible and protecting rivalries.
“Game dates for each MVFC institution accommodated facility and nonconference scheduling conflicts.”
Prairie State Pigskin asked Walter how the decision to not divide the MVFC into pods or divisions was made.
“Historically the league was nine (members) for a long time and then (through expansion) South Dakota joined (in 2012) and we went to 10 and then with North Dakota (in 2020) went to 11. We were still able to get a really solid competitive rotation and protect most of our bus trips (which are cheaper than air travel), which correspond to the traditional rivalries,” Walter said. “Once you go to 12 (members) and you have three teams that you’re not playing since we schedule in two-year cycles, it gets really hard to have both of those in an unlimited way.”
Walter said the new scheduling model features two-year cycles in which each school does not play three fellow league members.
“In one cycle you have three teams you’re not playing, and in the next cycle you have three more, so over the course of two cycles and four years you have over half of the schools in the league that you’re not playing,” he said, calling the new scheduling model “more challenging than (what) we had before.”
Walter further explained athletic directors came to realize “pretty quickly was that playing each other is important to league identity.”
Walter added, “We wanted to make sure that every four-year student-athlete in the league plays at every other MVFC institution and hosts every other MVFC institution in his time there. To do that, you really have to schedule matchups in two out of three cycles or four of out every six years or else you end up with gaps taking some of those things away. So that’s why we did what we did.”
Conference membership also wanted to maintain fair competition, Walter said.
“If you go divisional, what ends up happening is you protect a number of matchups (like traditional rivalries) 100 percent of the time, but you have all the other ones only played in half the cycles. Since it goes in two-year cycles, you can go six years and only play a team once at home and once away. Our membership felt that wasn’t enough competitive rotation.”
The structure of FCS — which features a 24-team playoff field — also does not lend itself to conference divisions.
“One of the reasons you go to divisions is to have a conference championship game, which obviously we don’t have space (in the calendar) with the FCS playoffs starting on Thanksgiving weekend,” Walter said.
“When you add it all up, (divisional play) netted out to a less competitive rotation and less competitive fairness and loss of that important principle that student-athletes in the league should be playing the other teams in the league home and away,” Walter said.
Reaction from Illinois State
Now in his 14th year at Illinois State, head coach Brock Spack has seen the rivalry since 2009.
“I wish we could play every year,” Spack said following Saturday’s game. “The league I came from (the Big Ten), that’s the one thing that’s protected, your natural rivalries. That may be something we can look into for the future.
“Scheduling is so difficult. Bless their hearts, I don’t know how the conference office figures it all out. It’s really difficult. I hate to see it go away.”
Redshirt senior Zeke Vandenburgh said, “These Valley games are like playing against people you know. It’s too bad you won’t get that in-state rivalry . . . it’s kind of sad for the fans they won’t get to see it.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing against Southern. You play the same guys for a number of years. I’ve played (No.) 8 at quarterback (Nic Baker) and 15 (Javon Williams Jr.) and (Avante) Cox. It’s just a lot of fun. They’re competitors and you get familiar with how they play.”
ISU director of athletics Kyle Brennan said, “Our longstanding in-state rivalries are great for the fans and I know our players and staff always enjoy those games. Not playing SIU for the next two years is unfortunate, but the league had some tough decisions that needed to be made with the addition of Murray State and that is just how the schedule shook out.
“There are so many factors that go into putting these schedules together and maybe preserving some of the rivalries can be re-examined in the future.”
Reaction from Southern Illinois
SIU head coach Nick Hill expressed disappointment about the break in the rivalry.
“I would say that it would be hard to keep Southern Illinois and Illinois State from playing each other in the conference as far as the distance goes and the rivalry goes,” Hill said. “I don’t know why that happened, but it did. It’s not up to me, so I try not to concern myself with things that I don’t have any control over.”
Prairie State Pigskin requested comments from Southern Illinois athletic director Tim Leonard. He did not respond.
How will feedback shape the future?
Walter emphasized that feedback from fans and member schools could help shape future scheduling.
“It’s always valuable with all of this to understand how much our fanbase and the engagement of our fanbase means to our programs and league identity,” Walter said. “One of the reasons I think we’re so strong as a league is we have programs that are well supported by our fanbase.
“As we see how things play out and get that input, not just from the fans but also through our athletic directors, who do a great job of coming to our league meetings trying to figure out how we make this product stronger and how we continue to be strong in whatever form the future landscape takes.
“This is a new day for us with 12 (members). We think we’ve got a model that makes a lot of sense, but our group has shown a willingness to come back to the table and figure out if what we’ve learned causes us to rethink anything.”