DeKALB – It was almost dusk when Mark Montgomery arrived at Northern Illinois on Sunday, and the campus was quiet.
That didn’t stop him from exploring the area.
He checked out the NIU Convocation Center. He drove around DeKalb. He wanted to get a feel for the community.
“You see it on paper, and they tell you how great of a place it is,” Montgomery said. “I had to make sure they were telling the truth.”
NIU athletic director Jeff Compher made clear he would not require the Huskies’ next men’s basketball coach to come on campus before being offered the job. He didn’t have to.
Montgomery, announced as the Huskies’ 27th men’s basketball coach Thursday, took care of that himself.
After his first interview with Compher, Montgomery said he was confident he put himself in good position to get a job offer. He also was optimistic about the opportunity. But he hadn’t visited DeKalb in 12 years, since his days as an assistant coach at Central Michigan.
So instead of driving back to his Lansing, Mich. home, Montgomery took an 80-minute, one-way detour from Chicago to the NIU campus.
“I was jacked up and excited,” Montgomery said. “You think if you hit a home run in one (interview), you want to make sure it was the right thing. I saw the Convocation Center, and I got a feel of what the community is going to be like.”
The campus was quiet, but Montgomery said it didn’t take long to realize this community was a good fit. Now he hopes he’s a good fit for this community.
Rebuilding NIU’s men’s basketball program will require extensive work. The Huskies are coming off five consecutive 20-loss seasons. They haven’t been in the NCAA tournament since 1996.
He can’t do anything about that yet. The season doesn’t start for another seven months. Until then, Montgomery said one of his top priorities is reconnecting with the Huskies’ fan base, many of whom grew discontent with the program before former coach Ricardo Patton was fired March 9.
To do that, Montgomery, who signed a five-year, $1.5 million ($300,000-a-year) contract with NIU, said he will speak at town halls and conduct summer camps. He said he will reach out to university fraternities, sororities and other campus clubs. His goal is to be as visible as possible.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” Montgomery said.
It’s a lesson Montgomery learned from his mentor, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of coach you have if the community doesn’t get behind you,” Izzo said. “If the administration and the community are going to get behind you, it’s a good job. If they’re not, it’s not a good job.
“There’s some places no matter what you do, nobody is really going to focus in on you. I think he’ll do a good job of getting the community to embrace (the program).”
In his opening remarks Thursday, Compher said he was looking specifically for a candidate who would reach out to the community, someone who would willingly promote the program to DeKalb.
Compher did not say whether he offered anyone else the job before Montgomery accepted. Two independent sources told the Daily Chronicle that Gonzaga assistant coach Ray Giacoletti was the front runner for the position before withdrawing his name from consideration Tuesday.
But Compher confirmed Montgomery was high on his list of candidates from the beginning.
“The most important thing from our perspective is we got the right person for the job,” Compher said. “We had a lot of interest in this job. There’s a lot of people you talk to who look good on the rack, but when you start kind of trying them on a little bit and making sure that it works both ways, sometimes those things don’t work out.
“From my perspective, not only did we get somebody that we wanted from the start, but we got the best fit for NIU.”
Montgomery would immediately please the NIU fan base if he were able to successful recruit Chicago. Patton, who finished 35-83 in four seasons, was consistently criticized for not thoroughly recruiting the city.
Montgomery said he’s aware of the fans’ desire for more of a Chicago connection. He’s no stranger to the city, throwing out several names of coaches, schools and AAU teams he’s had contact with.
But more important than recruiting Chicago players, he said, is recruiting talented players. Regardless of where they’re from. It’s the only way to win.
And regardless how well he connects with the community, Montgomery knows he ultimately will be judged by that.
“I think it is a sleeping giant,” Montgomery said of the NIU program. “It’s just going to take myself and a great coaching staff to come in here and recruit good, coach good, through individual workouts, through good relationships with the guys. I think it’s time for NIU basketball to take off.
“When you get a group of dedicate guys and dedicated coaches to have the same vision, and come with some excitement, and you role up your sleeves and you get to work, big things can happen.”