WIU brings Leatherneck back to lead football program

MACOMB, Ill. — The place really hadn’t changed a lot, Myers Hendrickson thought, as he sat in Western Illinois University’s football locker room on Friday night.

“It’s the same structure,” Hendrickson said. “It feels the same. It smells the same.”

It’s home, Hendrickson said.

He grew up hanging out there as a kid when his father, Mark, was an assistant head coach, and then the head coach, of the Leathernecks.

He put on a uniform there when he played for Western Illinois as a wide receiver from 2009-11.Now it’s his locker room.

Hendrickson, hired Friday as Western Illinois’ new head coach, was introduced during a Monday press conference at Western Hall.

“I know to do your best work, you have to truly believe in something,” Hendrickson said. “I believe in Western Illinois. I believe in WIU to my core.”

Hendrickson is the first former player to become the program’s head coach. His resumé coming in is impressive — he went 30-4 in three seasons as the head coach at NAIA school Kansas Wesleyan University.

He takes over a program that has just nine wins over the last four seasons, one that plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, one of the toughest leagues in the Football Championship Subdivision.

But it’s his familiarity with the program that makes him understand the challenges. He was part of the 2010 team that went to the playoffs, and was on the 2011 team that won two games.

It’s hard to win in the Valley. It’s a conference where the programs with the money and facilities, the North Dakota States and South Dakota States, contend and often win national championships.

But you can win at Western Illinois — the Leathernecks last went to the playoffs in 2017 — and Hendrickson has seen that.

“I look at challenges as opportunities,” he said. “I think there are perceived challenges of being in a tough conference. I look at it as six teams got in (the FCS playoffs). The challenge is you play the best, but in that lies an opportunity. I’m excited about that opportunity to play in the best conference in FCS football.”

Hendrickson impressed athletics director Danielle Surprenant right away. Their first conversation was about Xs and Os, the strategies to rebuilding the program. Hendrickson talked about his plans, and his journey. He talked about his feelings for the program.

“It left me, after that first initial phone call, to think, ‘Gosh, I want to have another one,’” she said.

Hendrickson had his own conversations. When the job came open, he got a call from Frisman Jackson, the wide receivers coach for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Jackson played for Western Illinois when Hendrickson’s father was an assistant coach, and he was Hendrickson’s position coach with the Leathernecks.

“Fris reached out to me right away,” Hendrickson said. “He thought I would be a good fit.“

And I did, too.”

Former teammates have called Hendrickson as well.

“We’ve been waiting for this,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for a Leatherneck to be the head football coach. And I’m excited to carry that torch.”

Hendrickson met with his new team via a Zoom call on Friday.

“I am a Leatherneck,” he said. “I’ve sat in their seat, I’ve been in their shoes. I know what it takes to be successful at Western Illinois.”

Then came the visit to the locker room.

“I sat in there and took it all in,” Hendrickson said. “I poured all of my blood and sweat into this place.”

Now he’s back. At home, he said.

Pressure?

“I think pressure is something that’s earned,” he said. “I tell my players, if you feel a little bit of pressure in a big game, it’s because you’ve earned it.

“So if there is some pressure, I’m excited about that.”

John Bohnenkamp is a national award-winning sports reporter and is a contributor to Pen City Current. He can be reached at editor@pencitycurrent.com

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