DeKALB – This is what growth looks like.
More than 150 recruits on campus. A ceremonial groundbreaking for a $9.5 million indoor practice facility. The college football team with the longest winning streak in the nation showed off what a successful – though ongoing – transition looks like from a future NFL draft pick at quarterback to a first-year starter.
None of what happened Saturday at Northern Illinois says “mid-major.”
After Saturday’s spring football game, NIU coach Dave Doeren described the looks he’d see from his players when they walk through another school’s indoor practice facility on road trips.
“I know when we’ve played at other schools and we walked through their facility to get to our locker room, even our guys, you could see, man, walking around and they’re not even being recruited, you know?” Doeren said, imitating the starstruck look he’s seen from players. “They’re just trying to get to the locker room.”
Those looks should go away in August 2013 if all goes to plan for NIU.
Saturday’s ceremonial groundbreaking for the Kenneth and Ellen Chessick Practice Center – an indoor facility that will feature a full football field, a four-lane track and more amenities than the Drake Hotel – coupled with a pretty solid spring scrimmage for the football team signaled a university finally ready to back up the talk its done over the past few years.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard “We want to be the next Boise State” from someone at NIU over the past four years, I could have funded this thing myself. The “We Talkin‘ ’Bout Practice Center” has a certain ring to it, no?
Moving dirt, and more importantly, cashing checks from donors led by Kenneth and Ellen Chessick, Jeffrey and Kimberly Yordon, and Dennis and Stacey Barsema, says NIU means it. If you want to have a seat at the adult table in college athletics, you need donors such as them and a facility such as the one about to be built, not to mention on-field success.
NIU can now say it has all of that in the sport that drives the NCAA: football.
“We’ve had such tremendous success without it. Now, there’s no limit to the level of our competitiveness, relative to the fact that we’re in the Mid-American Conference,” NIU President John Peters said. “But I expect we’re going to be competitive every year in football and those sports that can benefit from an indoor practice facility.”
There’s little doubt it will have an immediate impact on recruiting. A team that’s won a conference title, two straight bowl games and now has definitive plans for a major facility should be attractive to 17- and 18-year-olds.
“It’s crazy how it’s going to help the recruiting,” sophomore defensive tackle Frank Boenzi said. “When I was getting recruited, I didn’t really look at that kind of stuff. But I think it’s not about football anymore. It’s more about what facilities you have, who is your sponsor and for those kids that are coming up, now that people know we have an indoor facility, people know it’s Illinois and it’s colder out here, it’s going to help the recruiting a lot.
“You’re going to get more players from places where it’s warmer, and they’re going to want to come here just because they don’t have to practice outside in the cold.”
Better players. Better facilities. And no excuses about weather hindering a program’s ability to progress. After all, $9.5 million doesn’t buy patience.
“Yeah, we have expectations because private donors are investing a lot of money,” Peters said. “It’s a priority with the university and we want competitive programs that draw interest.”
Peters rhetorically asked if people knew what Boise State was 10 years ago. He described how it went all-in as a university for its athletic program. Now, Peters says he can’t travel without seeing someone wearing a Boise blue ballcap. He wants the same for NIU.
Saturday was a step in that direction. That’s what growth looks like.
• John Sahly is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JSahly.