Rivalry rekindled: East will again meet West when Leathernecks join Ohio Valley Conference football in ’24

Sophomore Steve McShane rushed for a career-high 207 yards and 20th-ranked Western Illinois pulled away late in the game to secure a 2016 season-opening 38-21 win at Eastern Illinois the last time the two schools met. (Photo by WIU Visual Productions Center)

By Dan Verdun

Though they won’t meet again on the football field until the 2024 season, the spark to rekindle the rivalry between Eastern and Western Illinois has already been ignited.

“Tom Michael, the athletic director at Eastern Illinois, already sent me an e-mail this morning (May 18) wishing he could be here to take some gibes at me,” WIU athletic director Paul Bubb said during last week’s media address in which the Western officially announced its entrance into the Ohio Valley Conference.

With the Leathernecks joining the OVC, the two schools – located 191 miles from one another – will renew a rivalry that began in 1930 when both were members of the Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (IIAC).

Western leads the all-time series 42-21-4. The schools last met in 2016. WIU has won the last five meetings (and nine of the last 10).

For the record, each school would likely count Illinois State as its biggest rival to date. Eastern has played ISU 110 times and will continue to do so with the annual Mid-America Classic matchup.

Western, meanwhile, has played the Redbirds 105 times. The Leathernecks host ISU Sept. 9 in the final Missouri Valley Football Conference meeting between the two.

EIU has played regional rival Indiana State 87 times. WIU has played Eastern and Southern Illinois 67 times.

Eastern, shown here being led onto the field by head coach Kim Dameron, last played in Macomb in 2015. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

However, with the Leathernecks leaving the MVFC and sharing OVC membership with EIU going forward, those numbers will obviously change.

In addition, both schools have head coaches that played at their respective alma maters.

“As a player here myself, and as a coach, I have never had the opportunity to play against Eastern Illinois University,” WIU head coach Myers Hendrickson said. “This excites me. That game in the fall of 2024, along with several other OVC opponents, will renew and also create great football rivalries based on location and the tradition of our programs.”

EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson played for the Panthers from 1991-94, a time when Eastern was in the Gateway Conference of which Western was also a member.

Wilkerson began his coaching career under Bob Spoo in 1995, the season in which Eastern grabbed a share of the Gateway title. EIU joined the OVC the following year.

The early era through D2 days

Eastern and Western battled yearly as Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foes.

“It was just those five state schools (in Illinois) when I played,” Macomb native and late-1940s WIU standout Red Miller said in the 2014 book Eastern Illinois Football.

“Northern and Southern were the biggest schools, ISU was in the middle and Western and Eastern stayed about the same size,” said Lou Stivers, an Eastern two-way player from the same era.

When the IIAC disbanded after the 1969-70 academic year, the two rivals continued to play each other. Bubb, in fact, made reference to the Mid-Continent Conference “playing days” during last week’s media address.

Western dominated the 1970s portion of the rivalry, winning eight times and tying once in 10 games against the Panthers.

Eastern’s lone win in the decade came during the Panthers’ surprising 1978 Division II national championship run. A year after winning just one game in ’77, EIU toppled WIU, 40-12, in Macomb en route to its miracle season.

Perhaps adding fuel to the fire was the fact that EIU head coach Darrell Mudra had coached WIU from 1969 to 1973. In addition, John Teerlinck — who had played for Mudra at Western before a brief NFL career — served as Eastern’s defensive coordinator.

“Some of the best games I had in college were against Eastern Illinois,” Leatherneck linebacker Brian Spotts told Prairie State Pigskin. “They were always a big rival of ours. I lost to them in ‘78 but upset ‘em in ‘79.”

WIU linebacker Brian Spotts (Twitter photo)

Indeed WIU did. With much of its championship core back, Eastern came into the Oct. 6 game at Charleston’s O’Brien Field riding a 5-0 record and a 13-game winning streak.

Western entered the game 2-3 and off a stinging 24-21 loss at Northern Michigan the prior week.

The Leathernecks, however, pulled off a 10-7 upset that sent the Panthers into a tailspin from which they never recovered. EIU lost three of its last five games and missed the playoffs.

“Our offense wasn’t the same (in 1979) after (offensive coordinator) Mike Shanahan left,” former EIU receiver James Warring told Prairie State Pigskin. “Western had our number that day.”

It was certainly a sweet victory for Spotts, a senior that season. 

“The hype around that game was big. ABC (regional) Game of the Week,” Spotts said. “After warmups, we were notified in the locker room that our game was going to be delayed because the pope was visiting the United States (which affected the TV schedule). Well, as football players in the locker room before the game . . . we’re just going nuts. We were ready to take the field and had about a 20-minute delay.

“We went in as underdogs and were told we would never win . . . and oh by the way, the guy that intercepted (EIU QB) Steve Turk’s pass in the end zone intended for Warring was the same kid that thought we were in zone coverage and got beat for the game-winning touchdown the week before at Northern Michigan.”

Spotts did his part with an interception and a forced fumble, two of WIU’s six turnovers gained that afternoon. 

“Eastern didn’t play well that game,” Spotts said. “We put (EIU star running back) Poke Cobb out of the game (with an injury) in the third quarter, which was probably our saving grace because he was just a stud to tackle.”

The Panthers reversed their fortunes in 1980, winning 37-7 in Macomb. EIU spent much of that season ranked No. 1, winding up Division II national runners-up.

Including that victory, EIU won the next straight five games against WIU.

Gateway glory

Eastern and Western were both charter members of the Gateway Conference’s inaugural 1985 season.

The Panthers won the ’86 conference title outright and tied Northern Iowa for the 1995 championship. EIU made the playoffs three times during its 11 years in the Gateway.

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.

Both teams can boast a number of players who went on to NFL success from those years including Sean Payton, John Jurkovic and Ray McElroy from Eastern along with Brian Cox, Rodney Harrison and Mike Scifres from WIU.

EIU’s Tim Lance, the 1990 Gateway Conference Defensive Player of the Year, defends against WIU. (Photo by EIU Athletics)

Both sides are also littered with players that felt shunned by the other program.

“(WIU head coach) Bruce Craddock thought I was too small,” 6-foot-1, 220-pound EIU defensive star Tim Lance said years later. “He recommended I go the junior college route.”

Western punter Ross Shulte didn’t care much for how he was treated in his EIU recruitment.

“We each, as a player, have our own individual rivalry,” he said. “Those who were recruited by Eastern and Western and felt slighted by one picked the other. So, well, there was a chip on your shoulder when you played against them.”

Both Lance and Shulte saw plenty of success. Both won All-American honors at their positions, and Lance won the Gateway Conference Defensive Player of the Year award over Western’s Cox in 1990.

“There was strong crossover connection when Bruce Craddock was the Western coach. John Smith came over to Eastern (as defensive coordinator) after coaching for Craddock at Western,” EIU radio broadcaster Mike Bradd said. 

“The games always seemed to be in October, and the weather always seemed to be those classic fall days. Never night games, always day games,” Bradd said.

Playoff pasting

After Eastern joined the OVC in 1996, the Panthers and Leathernecks did not play again until the 2002 NCAA I-AA playoffs.

With the kickoff temperature at 27 degrees and a 24-mph wind at its back, Western jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and steamrolled to a 48-9 rout over Eastern at Hanson Field in Macomb.

“It was super, super cold and windy,” Bradd said. “(EIU QB) Tony (Romo) didn’t have a very good day, and Western was the better team that day.

“Eastern had lost the week before on a last-second field goal to Murray State. Eastern thought they’d get a home game in the playoffs, but after the loss the previous week had to play a road game and that seemed to take a lot out of them.”

WIU radio analyst and athletic faculty representative Dr. Tom Cody said, “That (weather) was always a great home field advantage. We did a nice job of taking him (Romo) out of that game and then kept the pedal down.”

The two schools have met just twice since that postseason game. Western won both contests, a 33-5 home victory in 2015 and a 38-21 road win in 2016.

Renewed interest

While the past is now left to grainy film highlights and scrapbook memories, the future holds the promise of a rebooted rivalry.

“The tough part is, as everybody will tell you, you’re leaving the best FCS conference out there,” Cody said. “But you’re also having the opportunity to renew old rivalries where you get to play Eastern Illinois on a regular basis every year.

“It’s always nice to have that in-state rivalry even though we’re losing Illinois State.”

Bradd is about to begin his 24th season broadcasting Eastern football.

“It’s great that Western is coming in,” he said. “I’ve heard rumblings of this for a couple, three years. I’m glad they’re coming in, and I think they’ll be a really good fit. There are several OVC schools that are very similar as far as the size of the community. Western has a well-rounded program where they play football and other sports. All of that adds up to a good fit.”

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