SIU vs. SEMO: 50 miles, 90 games and one coveted wheel
September 10, 2022
Saluki football will take the field on Sept. 10 for the home opener against the Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) Redhawks at Saluki Stadium. When it does, it will add another chapter to the long, storied rivalry that includes a ship’s wheel, a baseball stadium, and some of the greatest performances in Saluki history.
Saturday will mark the 90th game of the “War For The Wheel.” Since 1909, 48 Saluki Hall of Famers have lined up against the Redhawks, and four Hall of Fame coaches have roamed the sidelines opposite SEMO. It’s perhaps safe to say those numbers will continue to grow in the coming years and decades, as the current Salukis look to make an impact this season and beyond.
Head coach Nick Hill can practically be penciled in for enshrinement already. Hill entered the season tied with Hall of Famer Glen “Abe” Martin for fifth all-time in wins, on top of his accomplishments as quarterback for the Salukis during their mid-2000s playoff runs. With Hill having recently signed an extension keeping him around until at least 2026, that ceremony will have to wait.
Hill’s connection to the Redhawks goes beyond just their annual meeting. Current SEMO head coach Tom Matukewicz spent seven years as an assistant coach at Southern Illinois, overlapping with Hill’s playing days as a Saluki. Now the two rivals in the War for the Wheel.
“I love that game,” Hill said. “I have more respect for Coach Tuke [Matukewicz] than anybody in the country. He’s a great man, he coached me, so it’s fun to be able to play for such a big game.”
In 2018, the schools introduced “The Wheel,” the rivalry’s titular trophy to be kept and displayed by the year’s winning team. The Wheel has been in Carbondale since the Salukis claimed it for the first time in 2020. The trophy has given the historic rivalry a new appeal for a modern audience.
“I can see the environment being pretty spectacular,” running back Javon Williams Jr. said. “Just from us being a winning team for the last couple years, seeing more of a capacity at the football field. I can see it being a big crowd, and just be out there and go win The Wheel.”
The first recorded games in the rivalry came in 1909 and 1910, when SIU students played games as a football club regulated by the university. In 1913, Southern Illinois athletics was formed under William McAndrew, who served as the school’s Director of Athletics as well as the head football and basketball coach.
Between 1921 and 1940, the teams played twice annually. Teams would make the trip across the Mississippi River by boat, which serves as the inspiration for the modern trophy, a ship’s wheel. An oft-repeated anecdote tells of a trip during which the Southern Illinois team’s boat sank, requiring players to swim to shore. The game was purportedly played as scheduled.
Annual matchups continued until 1955. By then, SEMO had built a 33-18-8 series lead, dominating the rivalry to that point. Twenty-three of the last 28 games to that point had gone SEMO’s way.
The rivalry returned from 1983-85, again from 1991-92 and 1994-2005, then every year since 2009. The Salukis have turned the tide in the series, nearly evening the overall record between the two teams, which currently stands at 42-39-8 in favor of SEMO.
With a few exceptions in the late 1990s and 2009, the modern rivalry has found a consistent place at the beginning of the Saluki football calendar. In 2022, it will be the second game the Salukis play, and the first of the year at Saluki Stadium. Due in part to the warm weather early in the year, and the excitement of the rivalry, SIU-SEMO is typically one of the highest-attended home games of the year.
“We took a year off with the COVID and everything like that. It kinda seemed like the fans dropped off,” linebacker Ma’kel Calhoun said. “But as you look around, you can see the fans never left at all. I’m just excited to see everybody come out here and show love, show their support.”
This year’s game will have a tall task to top the 2021 edition, which saw quarterback Nic Baker set the school record for passing yards in a game, with 460. Included in that was a 99-yard touchdown pass to Avante Cox that will forever be a school record for the longest play.
“Ever since I’ve been here, it’s been by far the most live and exciting game to play,” Cox said. “I definitely love playing SEMO, they’re a great team.”
Baker’s 460-yard game joined Mark Iannotti’s six touchdown performance in 2014 as school record-breaking games against the Redhawks. The rivalry is no stranger to memorable matchups, and certainly not in recent years.
In September 2013, the teams played the first ever college football game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Salukis won the historic contest 36-19 in front of a crowd of more than 14,000.
Seven years later, in October 2020, the teams met at Saluki Stadium before a crowd of just 400. Southern Illinois hit a game-winning field goal to win 20-17 in what would be the team’s only game in the fall of that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, SEMO was ranked No. 25 in FCS, and the win served as the catalyst for the Salukis’ ascension into contention in the FCS.
In August 1991, Southern Illinois orchestrated what was then the largest comeback in team history, overcoming a 27-7 second-quarter deficit to defeat SEMO. In 2000, the Redhawks returned the favor with a 31-point comeback, which is still today the largest lead given up by SIU.
October 1985’s edition of the game saw Sebron Spivey return two punts for touchdowns, the only time in school history that has happened. Also during that game, John Field and Tim Spencer each had a pick-six, a feat only accomplished five times in Saluki history.
All of these stellar performances suggest one of two things: either the Salukis and Redhawks bring the best out of each other every time they face off, or the two teams have played enough games against each other to create a seemingly endless amount of accomplishments buried within their history.
With Carbondale and Cape Girardeau only a 50-mile drive apart, it’s only natural the two mid-majors became rivals. Geography may have been the catalyst for the “War For The Wheel,” but in the modern era, the feud is driven more by its history than anything. It’s a history that the Salukis and Redhawks continue to write every year, come pandemic or high water.
As long as there are Salukis and Redhawks, there will always be a war. It’s a chance for the teams and their fan bases to become part of something bigger than themselves, and something that will be remembered in the years and decades to come.
Kickoff for Saturday’s game at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale is scheduled for 6 p.m.
Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.