Dale Lennon never turns away a challenge.
In December 2007, he accepted a major one. Southern Illinois University Carbondale named Lennon, then head coach at the University of North Dakota, as its 20th head football coach.
Lennon gave up his close ties to North Dakota, where he played football and graduated in 1985, and moved his family to Southern Illinois. In the past three years, he’s planted roots in the region, both in the community and the university record books.
He led the Salukis to back-to-back Missouri Valley Football Conference championships and into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in his first two years at the helm. While he led the team deep into the postseason, he picked up some recognition himself, earning the title of MVFC Coach of the Year in consecutive seasons.
Under Lennon’s guidance, the Dawgs have earned a 25-11 record (19-5 in conference play) and continue to be recognized as a powerhouse program. In 14 seasons as a head coach, Lennon has racked up an impressive 127-44 record.
But Lennon doesn’t measure his personal success only by wins on the field. He also seeks to help his athletes thrive in the classroom and gain real-life experiences in the community. His other measuring stick comes in the form of his three sons and how far he has watched them grow and develop into their own.
You came here from North Dakota, your alma mater and a National Championship team. Was it a hard decision for you to leave there and come to Southern Illinois?
Professionally, it was probably the most challenging decision I’ll ever make. I had played at the University of North Dakota, been an assistant coach there for nine years, been a head coach there for nine years, family’s there, so it was tough.
At the same time, the challenge and the opportunity were here. I just thought that at that point in time in my life, it would be one of those challenges I just couldn’t pass up. My wife and I decided, “Let’s take it.”
When you came here, you replaced Jerry Kill, a beloved and record-setting coach at the university. Was it hard for you filling in that role and how has that changed in the three years you’ve been here?
It’s always very challenging to replace a successful coach. I knew coming in that would be one of the biggest challenges — just coming in and installing my own philosophy and replacing a program that had been very successful.
But, again, that was part of the challenge, and it was also an opportunity the way I looked at it, a chance to come in and see how Jerry ran the program.
I think I’m a better coach now having taken over after Jerry, because I’ve seen what he’s done and how he’s done things and kind of gotten an insider’s perspective that I think has helped us become a better program. I’m glad that I took advantage of that opportunity.
Since coming to SIUC, you’ve found some success, winning more games in your first three seasons than any other coach in that time frame in history. How does it feel to start off your career in Southern Illinois that strong?
That’s part of the expectations coming down here. I wasn’t going to leave my home and go to a place where the expectations weren’t high. Coming down here, I knew the plans for the future were impressive with the Saluki Way stadium and the success of the football program.
We came here with intent; we wanted to build upon the success that had been put in place. We still feel that we’re trying to live up to those expectations, and that’s why you do what you do.
Several players have also won some big awards and earned recognition. How does that make you feel as a coach?
That’s the uniqueness of football. It’s the ultimate
team game, but when the team is successful, individuals receive a lot of honors, and that’s what you really like
You like to see honors from your play on the field, and you also want to see honors from your achievement in the classroom. We’ve been fortunate to have players achieve high levels of recognition on both avenues, so that’s just a good representation of the university, the athletic department and the community.
It’s a great place to go to school and have a great experience.
The 2010 season saw some unfortunate injuries and a losing season. Coming off that, what is the plan for 2011?
Well, there are no guarantees in football. There are going to be times where all of a sudden it seems like everything is working against you, and you have some bumps along the way. That’s where you just try to hold steady to your philosophy and keep the ship headed in the right direction.
We finished strong, which was a very positive and it allowed us to at least go into the offseason with an optimistic attitude, and that’s carried through the offseason into the summer.
Right now, we feel good about our chances. I like the competitiveness we have within the team. We had a lot of injuries last year, but now that’s created more experience within the team. We have a veteran team right now that I think can be pretty potent on the field, so those are the things we’ve got to see yet.
We’ve got a long way to go, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.
In addition to leading the team on the field, you also have led them off the field in community involvement. How do you view the relationship between athletics at the university and the Southern Illinois community?
That was another attraction of coming here. It’s good to be in a college town where the community embraces the university and the players.
It’s part of our responsibility as a football team to do anything and everything we can to give back to the community and to be a positive representation of the athletic department.
It’s a great learning experience for the players to go out and feel good about themselves because they are giving back and doing things that can make a difference in other peoples’ lives. That’s one of the most important lessons I hope the players take from this program.
What are your long-term goals for the program?
One of the goals, and I make no qualms about it and I don’t want to sound arrogant, but we want to win a national championship. That is something that’s been done in the past, and I believe it’s something that can be done again.
That’s one of the main reasons I came here was the opportunity to have that level of success, and I do feel this program is capable of achieving that, so that’s what we’re trying to live up to.
Coming from North Dakota, how have you adjusted to life in Southern Illinois?
It’s not as different as people may think. You think of North Dakota, and you think of the cold, and people can’t get past that concept. It’s very rural. It’s been easy for us to adapt down here just because the people are very similar — what you see is what you get, very straightforward.
I like the rural lifestyle, so all that’s been positive. The weather is a positive, moving down here.
It’s really been a good transition for myself and the family. It’s like a new adventure. When we took the job it was like, “We’re going on an adventure here, and life is short, and you want to take advantage of every opportunity out there.” We’re still on that adventure.
What are some of your favorite places to go and things to do in Southern Illinois?
I like going to the lakes; Kinkaid Lake, we’ll take our boat out there, and then we’ll also go to Rend Lake and Crab Orchard.
I try to golf; I’m not very good at it, but I get out on the courses occasionally and I’d like to do that a little more. I do some limited fishing, not as much as I’d like to do. My youngest son has really gotten into cycling, so we like riding bikes. It’s really great just seeing the area and getting out on the bikes to ride.
What’s your family life like?
I consider myself a family man, but we’re at that transition point in our lives. We have three sons, one remaining in the house. He’s a senior at Carbondale high school, so we’re one year away from having an empty nest.
With three boys, I couldn’t ask for anything more than that, just watching them grow up and develop. They’re definitely going on and making their parents proud. We feel good about how our family has come together and grown up together.
Are either of the older boys at SIUC?
Well it’s kind of unique how it’s developing. I’ve been a head coach at three different universities: The University of Mary, a private university up in Bismarck, N.D., and my middle son is going to school and actually playing football there; then I went to the University of North Dakota to be a head coach, and my oldest son is going to school there and doing very well; and now being here, one of my youngest son’s goals is to go to school at SIU.
I think that’s kind of unique that every place I’ve been a head coach I’ve left a son. It speaks highly of the places I’ve been that my kids have liked it so much they’ve wanted to go to school there.
Besides the obvious answer of college football, what sports do you follow and what teams do you cheer for?
Growing up, I thought I was going to be a basketball guy. That’s my first love. With basketball, favorite teams kind of switch. It’s kind of like the players, you get players going to different teams, and it’s easier to root for certain teams than others.
But my favorite team growing up was the Minnesota Vikings. In fact, being from North Dakota, my childhood idol, Dave Osborn, grew up about 30 miles from where I was from and played for the Vikings during the glory years when they had the Super Bowl appearances. So, I really grew up a Vikings fan, still am today. One of our players, Jim Kleinsasser, is playing for the Vikings, so that’s been easy to follow, too.
Now that you have other players with other NFL teams, you really do become a fan of whoever you have players with. I’m more flexible, but if you had to force me, I’d say it’s the Minnesota Vikings.
Perhaps the most important sports question: Cardinals or Cubs?
I’ve been kind of going back and forth. I know that’s really one you can’t ride the fence on, but I enjoy both.
We’ve had some activities up in Chicago where we’ve done the Dawgs on the rooftop, and just taken in several Cubs games. I try to make it a point each summer to get both places.
I haven’t been able to get that strong allegiance to one team yet; I just enjoy being in the ballpark. Right now, I’m just enjoying the atmosphere.