Ray Hanson was born in Vasa Township in Minnesota’s Goodhue County in 1895. He signed on for Marine duty in World War I and survived the horrific Battle of Belleau Wood. He was awarded a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and France’s Croix de Guerre for his heroics.

Following the Great War, Hanson attended Springfield College in Massachusetts and took a class in football fundamentals from a summer professor, Knute Rockne. His tales of a friendship with the famed coach earned Hanson the nickname “Rock.”

In 1926, Hanson came to Macomb, Ill. to teach, coach and serve as the athletic director at Western Illinois State Teachers College.

Hanson petitioned his beloved Marine Corps to allow the school to use “Fighting Leathernecks” for its athletic teams. This was approved by an act of Congress, and Western Illinois University remains the only nonmilitary school allowed to use a nickname associated with the Corps.

The 17,000-seat stadium at WIU is Hanson Field and the bulldog mascot is called “Rock.” Hanson also was responsible for the school’s saying, “It’s a great day to be a Leatherneck.”

Is that true?

“We did have a beautiful August here,” Bob Nielson said Wednesday in a phone conversation. “It was a great month to practice football.”

Nielson was announced as the 27th head football coach at Western Illinois last Dec. 19. He had been at Minnesota Duluth for 14 years — five as the football coach, four as the athletic director, and then five as both football coach and AD. His second five-year run as football coach included two national championships (2008, 2010) and a record of 62-7.

Down here, where the university’s Twin Cities branch is our focus, it came as a surprise to hear of the departure of the 53-year-old Nielson. That wasn’t the case in Duluth, where people close to UMD athletics were getting indications of frustration from Nielson over football’s status at the school.

The closest Nielson came to a hint of this in Wednesday’s conversation was in this comment:

“I was ready for a different challenge; to coach in this league against the top [FCS] programs in the country. It excited me to be here, where football is important to the university and the community.”

Even with the national championships, football couldn’t get past the third rung at UMD — obviously trailing men’s hockey in the hearts of the public, and also trailing women’s hockey in the hearts of key administrators.

There is no such problem in Macomb. Western Illinois has a football tradition and a coaching tree that includes Darrell Mudra, the coach who started the half-century of winning at North Dakota State, and Lou Saban, a legendary vagabond in the coaching business.

Mudra coached at Western Illinois (1969-73) between being the head coach at Arizona and Florida State. Saban went from Western Illinois (1957-59) to become the head coach of the Boston Patriots, the first of four such jobs in the AFL and the NFL.

Mark Hendrickson was WIU’s previous coach. The Leathernecks made the 24-team FCS playoffs in 2010 and won a game. They then fell to the bottom of the Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) with a pair of 1-7 records and Hendrickson was bounced.

“There was a lot of turnover in the coaching staff in the previous three years, and that had to affect recruiting,” Nielson said. “We only have 24 juniors and seniors who have been in the program from the start of their college careers.

“So, we’re rebuilding. We’re redshirting 27 freshmen. We have a couple of wide receivers, but otherwise, we’re planning to redshirt them. We do have some transfers who are helping us.”

Trenton Norvell, a redshirt freshman, is a transfer from Cincinnati and the quarterback. The Leathernecks relied on short passing and running the ball in walkover victories against overmatched Hampton and Division II Quincy.

Today, WIU gets the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium in one of those payola games in which many FCS programs partake.

“Next year, we have both Wisconsin and Northwestern,” Nielson said. “I don’t look at games like these as playing for a paycheck. I see them as a measure of your program. If you don’t reach, we’re not going to get where we’d like to go.”


Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com