CHICAGO — Growing up in the southside Chicago suburb of Harvey, Tracy Wilson didn't root for an in-state college football team. The Northern Illinois junior safety rooted for bowl winners with defensive tenacity.
"I liked Ohio State and Miami University," Wilson said Wednesday at an NIU media event at Ditka's Restaurant in Chicago.
NIU is hoping to snag a few unattached Chicago-area college football fans, like Wilson, from latching on to out-of-state programs.
"Having a presence in Chicago is extremely important to us," NIU athletic director Jeff Compher said. "We believe we need to come to Chicago and let people know what we're doing. That means having media days like this and games at Soldier Field like we're going to have (against Wisconsin in 2011 and Iowa in 2012)."
The Huskies could have some selling points. And maybe the most important: winning.
NIU claimed more wins last decade (68) than Northwestern (61) and Illinois (50) and two less than Notre Dame, which has a large Chicago following. Of the three in-state Division I teams, NIU also had the only bowl victory (the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic) of the 2000s. Northwestern had five bowl game appearances followed by Northern Illinois (four) and Illinois (two).
"I think a lot of schools around here see Chicago provides an opportunity: Northwestern, Illinois, us, Purdue," Wilson said. "It's an opportunity to gain exposure and get the city of Chicago liking Northern Illinois. It's just an opportunity we have to take advantage of. We just have to show how bad we want it."
The population base is there also. Compher said NIU has almost 170,000 alumni living within about an hour of DeKalb, most of which come from the city of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs.
"I think if you are a fan of college football, I think the Huskies are successful and easy to root for," Compher said. "It's an easy drive to DeKalb. It makes sense as a fan to adopt a team like us if they're not associated with Northwestern, Notre Dame or Illinois."
But the Huskies are less visible on television than its in-state Big Ten peers, thanks to the advent of the Big Ten Network. NIU will have seven games televised this season, including two on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
The Huskies could catch the eye of fans early on with the Sept. 2 season opener at Iowa State, airing on CSN Chicago.
"I think it sets the tone for the year," Compher said. "It kind of gets the momentum going and increases if we're able to grab a win that's huge. That would certainly turn the spotlight in our direction."
An in-state showdown with the Illini on Sept. 18, televised on the Chicago-based Big Ten Network, provides another opportunity for the Huskies.
"I think if we have a good showing there, and the last few times it's been close, it gets us additional recognition," Compher said.
"What we've found is if we win, we'll get exposure. So that's what we need to do."