How did Western Illinois become the Leathernecks? And why is the school mascot a bulldog?

First, a little history about the term "leatherneck."

United States Marines have called themselves leathernecks since the days of the Barbary pirates, according to the Marine Corps Association and Foundation website (

Legend has it that the term leatherneck was derived from leather neckbands worn in the late 1700s to protect Marines from the slash of the cutlass (a short sword). However, another more likely reason is that the high stocks were worn for discipline to keep the Marines' heads high and straight. Neither explanation has ever been verified. Whatever the reason, the name leatherneck stuck, and the distinctive dress blue uniform blouse still bears a high stock collar to remind Marines of the leatherneck legacy.

A couple of enlisted Marines wanted to start a newspaper in 1917 for themselves and their fellow Marines stationed at Quantico, Va. They wanted stories and features that chronicled their Corps and contained news of specific interest to Marines. With the assistance of the Army-Navy YMCA, the men, in their off-duty time, published their first newspaper on Nov. 17, 1917, and they called it The Quantico Leatherneck. The word Quantico was dropped from the title in 1918.

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.

According to, the university's athletics website, Western Illinois 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 mascot along with their nickname. The English bulldog is the traditional mascot of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The female student-athletes were unified with their male counterparts in June 2009 when the university decided to begin using "Leathernecks" as the school's lone nickname. They had been called the Westerwinds when the women's athletic teams were started in 1977.

"No more has been written and told about any other Western Illinois athletics leader than Hanson," the website says. "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."

Hanson got his nickname in reference to his friendship with legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. 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 World War II and returned to his athletic director post in 1946.

Hanson coached the Western Illinois football team from 1926 to 1941, and he was WIU's all-time winningest coach until 1998. WIU's football stadium was named Hanson Field in his honor in 1950, despite a campus policy that prohibited any building or property to be named after a living person.

Hanson retired in 1964 after serving at Western Illinois for 38 years. He died in 1982 at the age of 86.

WIU's mascot made its first appearance on Oct. 10, 1959 at the homecoming football game, according to the athletic website.

One day earlier, an English bulldog that was bought by the Student Government Association at the suggestion of Student Personnel Services Dean John Henderson was officially named "Colonel Rock" at the homecoming bonfire. The nickname was chosen from more than 200 entries submitted in a campus-wide contest. The winning entry was submitted by Richard Stevenson, a junior from Nauvoo, who chose the name to honor Hanson.

After Colonel Rock died in February 1966, Capt. Dale A. Luster, a recruiter from the Marine Corps League of Chicago, was instrumental in assisting the Corps' purchase of Colonel Rock II, also known as "Rocky." Two years later, on September 26, Luster was killed in action over North Vietnam.

Rocky was immortalized in the form of a 900-pound cement statue which was unveiled on Oct. 6, 1971 behind the University Union. A gift from Country Schools Restaurants, Inc., the statue was created by sculptor Herman Morrill. It is painted several times a week by student groups as a sign of school spirit between the many student organizations on campus. The Rocky statue was moved as part of the redesign to the entrance of Hanson Field in 2001.

When Rocky the dog retired in 1973, a costumed version took over for the live dog.

Colonel Rock III ended a 37-year hiatus of a live bulldog mascot when he made his Leatherneck debut on May 15, 2010, during Western Illinois' baseball doubleheader. Joe Roselieb, director of residential facilities at WIU, has volunteered to house and care for Colonel Rock III since his return.

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