The Leatherneck Nickname
Courtesy: Western Illinois Athletics  
Release: Sunday 07/01/2009
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Courtesy: WIU Visual Productions Center
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Western Illinois University holds the distinction of being the only non-military institution to officially have its nickname derived from a branch of the military service.  The school began use of the Marine Corps’ official nickname, “The Fighting Leathernecks,” in 1927 when then-athletic director and head baseball, basketball and football coach Ray “Rock” Hanson was granted permission by the U.S. Navy, based on his status as a Marine hero, to use the Marine’s official seal and bulldog mascot along with their nickname.

In June 2009, the female student-athletes were unified with their male counterparts when the University decided to begin using “Leathernecks” as the school’s lone nickname.

No more has been written and told about any other Western Illinois athletics leader than Hanson.  The Marine colonel’s quest was simple - Build an athletics tradition second to none using the Marine ethic as a central force. A true pioneer in collegiate sport, Hanson was a national giant in the coaching profession.  His own  nickname originating as a reference to his friendship with Knute Rockne, Hanson brought a Notre Dame style of play to Western Illinois that built a foundation for years of success.  After serving in World War I and attending Springfield College, Hanson began his career at Western Illinois in 1926, departed for a tour of duty in WWII, and returned to his athletic director post in 1946. 
Hanson coached Leatherneck football for 16 years (1926-41) and was Western’s all-time winningest coach until 1998.  In 1950, Western’s football stadium, Hanson Field, was dedicated in his honor, despite a campus policy that prohibited any building or property to be named after a living person.  After the dedication, Hanson was overwhelmed by hundreds of telegrams and phone calls, including one from friend Bob Hope. 

Rock retired in 1964 after serving at Western Illinois for 38 years.  He passed away in 1982, at the age of 86. 

WIU Athletics Department


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