Early in his career at Southern Illinois, sixth-year wide receiver Landon Lenoir noticed something about crowds at Saluki football games.
After halftime, a number of fans left their seats and didn’t return.
This fall in Carbondale, those empty seats have been filled when the Salukis step onto the field for the third quarter with fans lending their voices in support.
“Just to see our crowd sticking it out through four quarters is exciting,” said Lenoir, who will go down as one of the best receivers in SIU history. “I know our team is proud of that.”
As the Salukis compete in the FCS playoffs for the second year in a row, SIU fans have shown their support in the stands, outside the stadium and when they see players around town. On Saturday, the team will compete in back-to-back playoffs for the first time since 2008-2009.
Compared to the 2019 season, attendance was up nearly 20% at SIU games this fall, to an average of 7,742 fans per game.
“I’m glad that with this being my last season, we can go out with a bang and fill this (stadium) up,” said Lenoir, whose team kicks off its first-round game at 5 p.m. Saturday at South Dakota.
With wins come fans
Along with back-to-back playoff seasons, the Salukis flirted with the playoffs in 2019.
They were left out by the FCS selection committee despite a 7-5 record and a five-game FCS winning streak two seasons ago.
Over the past three seasons, the Salukis have won 20 games under sixth-year head coach Nick Hill, a native of nearby DuQuoin who played quarterback at SIU.
As winning has taken hold, Hill said growing the fan base has been an important part of building a culture at SIU.
“It’s a step that you want to take as a football program,” Hill said. “It’s the support from the university, the support from the students, it’s the tailgaters. That’s what a championship culture is. It’s everything.”
For his players, bigger crowds also add some extra juice to home games.
“When you see all those people show up and you’re a player, it’s an expectation that they’re coming here to watch a good football team,” he said. “Winning consistently keeps them coming back.”
Perhaps the loudest addition to SIU’s fan base this fall has been in the student section, known as The Dawg Pound.
The section has its own Twitter account — @TheSIUDawgPound – where the group announced earlier this season that it was now the largest registered student organization on campus.
Though the Dawg Pound shares supportive messages for all Saluki teams, the football games have received extensive support, with students dressing up on themed days, such as neon and blackout.
Punter Jack Colquhoun, who hails from Australia, committed to SIU after the Salukis finished 2-9 in 2018. The fan support has been a welcome change as more wins have come.
“To be able to see the buzz and the general excitement for football here on Saturdays has been really cool,” Colquhoun said. “That’s translated to a bigger crowd, which we always love. Our student section has been especially huge this year, which we’re very thankful for.”
Colquhoun said the student section is especially noticeable when football recruits and their families visit on game days.
Players like Lenoir and Colquhoun haven’t just noticed more fans in the seats at Saluki Stadium.
They have run into SIU supporters while eating out and shopping around the area.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Colquhoun said. “Going to the store and hearing people (talk about SIU) and chatting with people, having them know who you are and saying, ‘Great game.’ To grow a community culture has been really big.”
For someone who didn’t grow up in the U.S., Colquhoun has been especially flattered when he’s noticed around town.
“It’s cool to know there are people out there that care for you and are riding the wave (of a season) with you as well,” he said. “Football is bigger than just inside the locker room right now. I’ve had local people coming up after a game and saying how it’s been awesome to watch me.
“It makes you feel all fluffy,” Colquhoun said.
Around the region
For Hill, who is a native southern Illinoisan, seeing supportive fans around town is nothing new.
“It’s one of the many reasons I love this place so much,” Hill said. “I’m from here so some of the people coming up and talking to me are because I’m friends with them or I’ve known them my whole life.
“I think it’s cool for the players,” he said of fans greeting them around the area. “It’s what we set out to do.”
To Roger Lipe, the retired team chaplain, winning has helped unite a number of small communities that surround the Carbondale campus.
“Almost everybody views the world through the lens of their small town,” Lipe said of the region. “There’s not generally a sense of regional buy-in. But when something has success like football, suddenly people are happy to jump onto that train and be part of something larger than their hometown.”
Lipe added that the program’s winning seasons have helped “build a groundswell of support.
“It does kind of sweep up people in the emotion of, ‘Hey, this is working. Let’s go with them,’” Lipe said.