DeKALB – With his public introduction at the Convocation Center almost over Monday, the line to meet Northern Illinois men’s basketball coach Mark Montgomery was still more than 20-people long.
Huskie fans were slow to show up to the 90-minute event. Once they did, they filled the Convocation Center lobby, keeping Montgomery busy with handshakes and hellos for more than an hour.
Some wanted to discuss offense and defense. Others simply welcomed the recently hired coach to DeKalb. All were determined to show their support.
“I was very excited about the turnout,” said Montgomery, still smiling 15 minutes after the event. “Any time you get this many people involved, and you can see the excitement in the community, it makes you feel like you’re at home.”
For Montgomery, Monday was his first chance to be greeted by fans starved for a connection to their basketball team. For me, their response solidified what the past three weeks taught us.
In spite of itself, NIU’s men’s basketball program is relevant.
Let’s not confuse what that means. There are the five straight 20-loss seasons, the two winning seasons in the past 15 years and the 16 seasons since the last NCAA tournament. The winless appearances in the Mid-American Conference tournament. The countless home games with empty stands this winter.
The list goes on.
There is evidence – so much evidence – pointing to a crippling lack of success. Clearly, Montgomery was right when he said during his introductory news conference Thursday that a changed culture is needed.
You can call the culture embedded at NIU almost anything you like. A failed program. A losing attitude.
Just don’t say NIU is irrelevant.
Did you see the speculation during NIU athletic director Jeff Compher’s coaching search? Did you feel the excitement as that search carried on? Compher did.
He’s also heard plenty of compliments since hiring Montgomery last week.
“Judging by the comments I received today, and a lot of the emails I got, I believe that people feel there’s a renewed sense of hope for our program,” Compher said. “I think (fans) know it’s not going to be a quick fix. There’s reality that people understand if you know basketball. You just can’t turn it around in one year.
“But I believe that people believe we have the right coach to help us get that going in the right direction.”
Adding success to NIU’s relevancy will be an exhaustive process. It will also take time. NIU is far from competing with Western Michigan and Ball State at the top of the Mid-American Conference West Division, and even farther from Akron and Kent State in the East.
But Tim Toler, NIU’s top returning scorer, said he isn’t willing to wait.
“Nobody wants to be in rebuilding mode,” said Toler, who will be a senior next season. “We want to win now. And we believe we can win now.”
Montgomery has begun the process toward winning now, holding a practice with his new team Monday night. He also stressed the importance of his players getting into the weight room so they’re in better shape next season.
But next season isn’t coming for months. There is only so much improvement Montgomery can take care right now on the basketball court. Until then, his most important job will be to focus on what Monday was all about – reconnecting with NIU’s starved fan base.
“I think we should look to be more visible in the community,” Compher said. “He’s talked about doing camps and other things, which I think is a real positive.
“Remember, it’s not an overnight fix, but I think that we’ll begin to see the building blocks of the success of this program developed in the next 12 months. And I think we’ll be in a very good position to compete in our conference in the future.”
To his benefit, Montgomery already has the foundation of relevancy firmly in place.
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org