By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It had gotten to the point that Southern Illinois coaches tried not to show McAndrew Stadium or the Salukis' football locker rooms during on-campus recruiting visits. The 73-year-old stadium had become so outdated that it was a negative factor for the Missouri Valley Football Conference power.
This past recruiting season, head coach Dale Lennon and his staff saw a difference. The "wow" factor was evident in Carbondale, because the coaches could show off SIU's new 15,000-seat stadium that is being completed for the 2010 season. The Salukis, who averaged 8,882 fans over seven home games in 2009, will debut the stadium on Sept. 2 against NAIA program Quincy University.
"The stadium's been a long time coming," said Lennon, who is 20-5 in two seasons at SIU, including 11-2 in 2009. "This is something that they've been talking about here at Southern Illinois since the late '60s. Old McAndrew Stadium, it saw some glory years, but it was time for that stadium to retire. The excitement's that surrounding the new stadium really could give this program that type of boost that we've been looking for."
While SIU will be the 12th FCS school since 2000 to open a new stadium, it's not like McAndrew Stadium treated the Salukis poorly. They won 37 of their final 39 regular-season games there, including 12 straight conference games for the defending MVFC champions. Their 2009 season, however, ended at home with a 24-3 loss to William & Mary in the FCS quarterfinals.
"I want that place full every home game that we're playing," Lennon said, looking ahead to 2010. "I just think that there's so many things that we've done with the design of that stadium that the fans are going to enjoy the overall game experience and, hopefully, that will translate into sellouts. That's number one. Number two, I want the fans to feel like they have an influence on the outcome of the game. And that's where, hopefully, the noise factor can become a strong element. And then number three, I hope our current players understand and realize the privilege of playing in a new stadium that's been a long time coming. A lot of people have done a lot of work to get us to this point. There's a responsibility there also."
SIU will return a strong senior class despite losing 23 seniors after last season, including running back Deji Karim, the third-place finisher for the Walter Payton Award after he rushed for an FCS-high 1,694 yards and scored 20 total touchdowns. The running could be done by committee behind an offensive line that features left tackle David Pickard and center Bryan Boemer, a pair of juniors. Backup quarterback Paul McIntosh is the most accomplished rusher on the team, but 6-foot-5 senior starter Chris Dieker returns to direct the offense. All-MVFC first-team fullback John Goode also returns in the backfield.
The secondary will be among the best in the FCS with two potential All- Americas, cornerback Korey Lindsey and free safety Mike McElroy, who combined for 13 interceptions. The only other returning starter on defense is defensive end Chance Coda. Junior Connor James headlines the linebackers unit, which lost Buck Buchanan Award finalist Brandin Jordan.
"We want to be a consistent program where we put on a pretty good performance week-in and week-out," Lennon said. "We've had some changes on the offensive side, where we have a new offensive coordinator (Kalen DeBoer, the former University of Sioux Falls head coach) coming in. Offensively, we're expecting some big things this year with Chris Dieker coming back, with Joe Allaria at the receiver spot. He was our top receiver from last year. We have some good offensive linemen returning from last year. We'll probably put a little more pressure on the offense than what we've done the last two years.
"Defensively, we've got experience coming back, but we're going to have a few more new players play in that area. We've got to play the complete team game and make sure each side of the ball complements the other side."
"Our biggest challenge will be making our the stadium feel like home," Lennon said. "You don't want to go into that first game or second game there and feel like you're on the road somewhere. Hopefully, here we'll get a homefield advantage with the noise."
AROUND THE NATION- Speaking of FCS fields, the red synthetic turf that is scheduled to be installed at Eastern Washington this summer will bring with it a renaming of Woodward Field to Roos Field. The name change comes after a $500,000 donation was made by Michael and Katherine Roos. Michael Roos is a former EWU player who has started every game of his five-year career with the Tennessee Titans. The 2008 Pro Bowl selection is currently the Titans' left tackle.
- Technically, Richmond's new E. Claiborne Robins Stadium is a $25 million expansion to the old First Market Stadium, which had housed the Spiders' lacrosse, soccer and track teams. Robins Stadium will have the feel of a new venue, however, as football returns to an on-campus site for the first time in 80 years. Robins Stadium will hold 8,700 spectators, which is less than the 9,413 the Spiders averaged off campus at Richmond Stadium last season.
- UC Davis is the common denominator for two Big Sky programs that have particularly tough non-conference schedules. Weber State opens the regular season at Boston College (Sept. 4) and closes it at Texas Tech (Nov. 20), with a Sept. 25 home game against UC Davis, the defending Great West Conference champion. Struggling Portland State has a three-game opening road stretch of Arizona State (Sept. 4), UC Davis (Sept. 11) and Oregon (Sept. 18). A few other FCS programs with two particularly tough games against FBS programs are Presbyterian (Sept. 2 at Wake Forest and Sept. 11 at Clemson), Tennessee Tech (Sept. 4 at Arkansas and Sept. 11 at TCU) and McNeese State (Sept. 11 at Missouri and Oct. 16 at LSU).
- Among three of the FCS power conferences - CAA Football, Big Sky and the SoCon - only Delaware of the CAA and Montana of the Big Sky won't be facing at least one FBS opponent. Delaware's Sept. 11 home game against South Dakota State is one of the more interesting intersectional games of the FCS season, and the Blue Hens also have home gimmes against West Chester (Sept. 2) and Duquesne (Sept. 18). Montana, meanwhile, hosts Western State (Sept. 4) and North Dakota (Nov. 13), and visits Cal Poly (Sept. 11).
- Villanova two-sport standout Matt Szczur played the final three games of the Wildcats' baseball season, homering in his first at-bat May 21 after a 23-day break to make a donation of peripheral blood cells to a young leukemia patient. Szczur, The Sports Network First Team All-America who scored two touchdowns in the Wildcats' 23-21 win over Montana in the 2009 FCS Championship Game, went 7-for-13 over the three-game series and finished the season batting .443 with four home runs, 24 extra-base hits and 38 RBIs over 174 at-bats in 39 games. He will be drafted by a major league organization June 7-9, but football coach Andy Talley and his team are hoping he returns for his senior season this fall.
- Author Denny Dressman has a new biography out on legendary Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson. "Eddie Robinson ... He was the Martin Luther King of football" details his life and impact during the turbulent 1960s. The Sports Network will present its Eddie Robinson Award for the 24th time following the 2010 season. Henry Frazier III of Prairie View A&M was the 2009 recipient.