Western Illinois officially announced Thursday that it will leave the Missouri Valley Football Conference after this season and begin play in the Ohio Valley Conference in 2024. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)
By Dan Verdun
Although many former Western Illinois players long for the glory days of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, they also realize the school’s recent announced move to the Ohio Valley makes sense.
Back in 1985, Western joined Eastern Illinois, Illinois State, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Southwest Missouri State to form the Gateway Conference. The league evolved over the years, changing membership and its name along the way.
WIU, a charter member of the forerunner of the MVFC, has transitioned into what many consider the strongest FCS league with the addition of four Dakota-based programs over the last 15 years.
While EIU left in 1995 for the Ohio Valley, national FCS powerhouses North Dakota State and South Dakota State joined the conference in 2008. Those two schools have combined for 10 FCS national championships.
NDSU has won nine FCS titles, while SDSU defeated the Bison this past season for the Jackrabbits’ first championship.
South Dakota and North Dakota joined the MVFC in 2012 and 2020 respectively. Both have made FCS playoff appearances.
Western’s new home
While it is transitioning to the Ohio Valley in all other sports for the upcoming 2023-24 academic year, Western Illinois will play its final season in the MVFC this fall before joining the OVC for the 2024 season.
“This decision was made with careful thought and consideration, and included a thorough strategic planning process,” WIU head football coach Myers Hendrickson said in a released statement. “We have a great tradition in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and we are working to make our last season in this league a special one.”
During their time in the MVFC, the Leathernecks won or shared five league crowns (1988, 1997, ’98, 2002 and ’02). Western has made the NCAA I-AA/FCS playoffs 11 times, the last coming in 2017 under then-head coach Charlie Fisher.
However, that season is also the last time WIU posted a winning record. Moreover, the Leathernecks have just three winning seasons in the last 14 years.
Players from the past react
Hendrickson, in his second year as head coach, is both a WIU graduate and former player. A Leatherneck wide receiver (2009-11), he played in every game during his last two seasons.
As a senior, he was named Phil Steele Preseason College Football Second Team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) as a punt returner.
His father, Mark, served as the WIU offensive coordinator (1999-2007) and head coach (2008-12). The senior Hendrickson is an assistant on his son’s staff.
“I am excited to be joining the OVC for many reasons, and most importantly this is the best move for our student-athletes,” Myers Hendrickson said. “This move also allows us to compete with similarly funded D1 programs throughout our region. This transition will positively impact our athletic department, and specifically our football program.”
Prairie State Pigskin contacted three former Western Illinois football players from three different decades to get their reactions to the Leathernecks’ decision.
Today, Brian Spotts is the Midwest regional manager for Claridge Products, which creates visual display products for schools including whiteboards and trophy cases. Before his work career began, however, the Quincy, Ill. native played for WIU from 1976 through ’79.
“I know more about our program and its financial status than most, and to me it (the move to the OVC) makes sense,” Spotts said. “I love Missouri Valley football. You always want to play against the best, but when you look at all the Dakota schools, they don’t have the financial woes that we do. Illinois State doesn’t have the financial woes that we have. We’re in line with Eastern Illinois.”
Spotts — who along with Rich Westen, son of former WIU head coach Brodie Westen, and local businessman Scott Collins — helps to organize a number of football alumni outings and fund-raising events.
“We’re not located in a place that’s conducive for (revenue). We’re not 90 minutes from Chicago, let’s put it that way. Our enrollment is growing, but it’s going to take us a long time to get back to where it’s respectable,” Spotts said.
To those who oppose the move, Spotts said, “It’s not a step back. It’s not a step down. It is a reality we’re going to be playing against schools that similar enrollments and similar budgets.
“The Ohio Valley is a good move for us. I also like that all of our (WIU athletic) teams are in the same conference.”
Left guard Brent Westemeyer was part of a solid WIU offensive line in the mid-1980s along with standouts Frank Winters at center and Keith Blue at right guard. Westemeyer, who won a state championship at Geneseo High School in 1982, earned second team all-conference honors at Western in 1986.
Westemeyer discussed the pros and cons of the move to the Ohio Valley Conference.
“I was somewhat surprised,” Westemeyer said of initially hearing Western’s decision. “Talking from a ‘manhood’ standpoint, not to say that you’re giving up, but you’re somewhat giving up to a certain extent because that (Missouri Valley) conference has become so strong with the North Dakotas and the South Dakotas.”
Westemeyer added that those programs possess a great deal of revenue, which is something that athletic director Paul Bubb discussed at Thursday’s WIU media address in Macomb.
Westemeyer, who resides in Des Moines, Iowa, also touched on the Dakota schools’ recruiting bases.
“The state of Minnesota has multiple Division II schools, but they have no I-AA (FCS) program, so those (Dakota) schools can draw from Minneapolis extensively and be very successful in that process,” he said.
Westemeyer contrasted this with WIU recruiting the competive Chicago and St. Louis metropolitan areas as well as Iowa and some pockets of the South.
“It’s hard from a recruiting base to get guys to go to Western Illinois,” he said. “It’s a much different era with everything on social media. When Western came to recruit us (back in the ’80s) I had no idea what the program had done, whether they were good or whether they were bad . . . It’s much more challenging today based upon how strong the conference has become.”
Ross Shulte punted for the Leathernecks from 1991 through ’94. In addition to garnering first team Associated Press All-American status his senior year, Shulte was one of seven Leatherneck all-conference first team honorees.
“Winning is part of it. If you’re not going to win, you’re not going to put a lot of butts in the seats other than your friends and family,” he said.
Shulte is well aware of the budgetary and facilities discrepancies WIU faces in the Missouri Valley.
“It’s going to be cheaper for our team to travel,” he said of the OVC. “If we can get there by bus, we’ll get there by bus. Eastern is four hours. Tennessee is six or seven. I get it. If you can save money and put it toward the facilities, then that’s what needs to be done.”
Shulte understands those that may be against the move but also sees the need to allow circumstances to play out.
“I’m hearing there are some grumblings, like we’re taking the easier road. Is it easier? I don’t know, I guess there’s time to tell. We’ll see in the future,” the Mendon, Ill. resident said, “but, losing 11 times in a year, that’s just ludicrous. It’s not the coaching staff. It’s not the players. It’s like playing up at a division that you shouldn’t be in.
“I get it. We’ve been in that conference forever. I went to see some of those games. We’re outmanned. There’s guys that are twice our size on both sides of the ball. Now, we’ve had All-Americans (on the roster) every year, but over the past few (seasons) because of the (transfer) portal and everything else, it’s been tough. If you’re an All-American you’re happy just walking on and being on the travel squad at Ohio State or wherever, you do it. Those schools have better preparation, better means, better facilities, better this, better that. That’s attractive to many of these kids.”
Coming up next week: Western Illinois renews its rivalry with Eastern Illinois