Eastern Illinois and Lindenwood University (Mo.) faced each other on the football field for the first time Saturday at O’Brien Field in Charleston. (Photo by Sandy King, EIU Athletics)
By Dan Verdun
During last week’s Ohio Valley Conference media address, Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson suggested the Panthers may have just found a new rivalry.
Wilkerson’s Panthers met Lindenwood, a school located in suburban St. Louis, as a new football-playing league member Saturday. The Lions — moving up from Division II after two straight playoff appearances — joined the OVC this season.
Given the fact that EIU and Lindenwood went to double overtime before the upstart Lions prevailed 37-34, Wilkerson just may be on to something.
Lindenwood began playing football as an NAIA member in 1990 and transitioned to the NCAA Division II ranks in 2011.
“I assume this is going to bloom into a very nice rivalry based on the proximity of Charleston and St. Louis,” Wilkerson said.
Lindenwood head coach Jed Stugart agreed.
“I would think so,” he said. “That’s what’s fun about us coming into this conference.”
The schools are 154 miles, or about a 2.5-hour drive, apart.
Stugart, in his sixth season at Lindenwood, said that most fans assume the Lions’ biggest rival will be Southeast Missouri — another OVC program.
“All of the attention was (on that) because we’re in the same state as SEMO, but we’ve always said because of proximity, it’s the same kind of deal with Eastern,” Stugart said.
EIU is approximately 200 miles from Cape Girardeau, Mo., where SEMO is located. Eastern’s next closest football-playing OVC school is Tennessee Martin, 257 miles away.
While EIU annually plays Illinois State for bragging rights and a traveling trophy in the Mid-America Classic rivalry, the schools are not in the same conference.
Additionally, Southern Illinois and Western Illinois — like ISU — are members of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Eastern left the Gateway Football Conference, the forerunner of the MVFC, to join the Ohio Valley in 1996.
The Panthers last played SIU in 2014. EIU last played Western Illinois in 2016.
Lindenwood’s Stugart feels there is already a firm basis for his St. Charles, Mo.-based school’s rivalry with EIU.
“We’re already talking to and recruiting the same people,” Stugart said. “We’ve been recruiting the same people for years. We just didn’t win as many battles because we haven’t been Division I. We’ve already had these little rivalries in recruiting, but now that intensifies because we have a DI box to check now with recruits.
“That’s what makes it cool. It’s kind of the border war deal. It’s gonna be fun that way.”
Wilkerson said, “They (Lindendwood) have a winning culture. They’ve played in three different leagues over the last four years in this transition. They’ve got a lot of players that have been in their system. They are very firm in their identity.”
Gateway to DI
Lindenwood is the first St. Louis-area college to play at the Division I level since St. Louis University dropped the sport in 1949.
While the majority of the OVC’s teams are located in Tennessee, none is more than a six-hour drive from St. Charles.
SEMO and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville — which does not field a football team — are also in the conference.
“So you’ll have some partners and some good rivals,” OVC commissioner Beth DeBauche said during the media conference welcoming Lindenwood into the league last winter.
The football Lions play their home games at Hunter Stadium, a 7,450-seat multi-purpose outdoor field.
The stadium was built in 1976 for the St. Louis Cardinals football team to hold their training camp.
Over the years, the stadium has undergone many upgrades to add items such as end zone seating, a two-story press box with luxury boxes, and an updated concession area. A new turf field was installed in 2018.
The stadium entertained preseason scrimmage games for the then-St. Louis Rams on three occasions.
In 2019, the stadium hosted a U.S. Open Cup fourth-round match featuring St. Lous FCS of the United States Soccer League (USL) and the Chicago Fire of the Major League Soccer (MLS).