Created:Sunday, April 22, 2012 1:10 a.m.CDT
Updated:Sunday, April 22, 2012 11:51 a.m.CDT

NIU breaks ground on Chessick Center

Northern Illinois University dignitaries as well as donors break ground at the site of the new Kenneth and Ellen Chessick Practice Center on the campus of NIU in DeKalb Saturday morning. (Rob Winner –

DeKALB — When Northern Illinois University President John Peters came to DeKalb 12 years ago, he saw what he believed Huskie athletics was missing.

After spending 21 years at the University of Nebraska and eight at the University of Tennessee, Peters believed that if a university planned to compete in big-time athletics, that school needed big-time facilities.

Ultimately, Peters thought that if NIU was going to be serious about its sports, the school would need an indoor practice facility to shield itself from the weather and give teams other training options. A building that would benefit each of NIU's athletic programs.

Saturday was another step in Peters' vision becoming a reality, with the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Kenneth and Ellen Chessick Practice Center, which will be built on the field north of the Jeffrey and Kimberly Yordon Center.

The facility plans call for an 80,000-plus square feet building with a football field 120 yards long. Saturday, a football field was lined in the grass where the facility will be built to show the length. The building will be 65 feet high at the center, and will have other features, such as a four-lane track, batting cages, field goal nets and long jump pits.

Donors have pledged $8.7 of the $9.5 million necessary for the Chessick Center, which the school hopes to complete by the time classes start in August of 2013.

When the building is finished, one of Peters' long-term goals will be realized.

"[At NIU], I said, we need an indoor practice facility, period," Peters said after Saturday's ceremony, which took place before NIU's annual spring football game. "We've had such tremendous success without it. Now, there's just no limit to the level of our competitiveness, relative to the fact we're in the Mid-American Conference.

"I expect we're going to be competitive every year, in football and those sports that can benefit from an indoor practice facility."

Before the school built something such as the Chessick Center, Peters said NIU would have to build what would become the Yordon Center, the multi-purpose facility directly north of Huskie Stadium. Peters also believed Huskie Stadium needed new turf, and that the school could use a track where the Huskies' girls track and field program could host meets.

"We had no track," Peters said. "That was an embarrassment to me, personally, that we didn't have a major track, couldn't do events."

Next summer, the final project Peters initially sought is scheduled to be completed. Once the track and field complex was completed in 2008, Peters said the athletic department focused on getting an indoor practice facility built.

With the Chessick Center, Peters thinks the school can reach the next level in college athletics.

"We have high expectations because private donors are investing a lot of money, it's a priority with the university," Peters said. "We want competitive programs that draw interest.

"Nothing spreads the word nationally to young people, across the country, like athletics."

The Chessick Center is the university's first privately-funded project at NIU to generate three donations of $1 million or more. Those gifts came from Dennis and Stacey Barsema and Jeffrey and Kimberly Yordon, in addition to Kenneth and Ellen Chessick.

NIU Athletic Director Jeff Compher started going around and looking at different indoor facilities in 2009, to see what direction other schools used and how NIU could learn from that. Compher also got information about snow removal and air circulation.

Compher visited several facilities around the MAC and Midwest, including the Chicago Bears' indoor building in Lake Forest.

"(We) started getting a feel for what we would like to see in our facility, how other facilities are built, what we could learn from talking to their people," Compher said. "That's really when it really started."

When NIU played in the Humanitarian Bowl in December 2010, Peters and Compher got to see Boise State's indoor facility, the Caven-Williams Sports Complex, up close. Compher said that's when the initial donations started.

Peters said that coach Dave Doeren and former coach Jerry Kill, now the coach at Minnesota, told the school Boise State's facility had the "dimensions and functionality" that NIU needed.

The Chessick Center will be modeled after the Caven-Williams Sports Complex. It will be designed by HKM.

"The magnitude of it, the size, the location was pretty much what we were looking (for)," Peters said of Boise State's facility. "We looked at a lot of them, and we happened to be there as well. I almost think a picture, or being there, is worth everything. And so getting our fans and donors out there to see it, they got a feel for what we were after."

Saturday at the spring game, Doeren said he had more 150 recruits visiting. Those prep prospects were able to see drawings of the facility. Next year, Doeren said he'll be able to show recruits the actual building.

"To be able to show them the real deal next year, that's going to be huge all year to be able to talk about that," Doeren said.

Doeren also said the weather will no longer handcuff practice plans. The same goes for the rest of NIU's athletic programs.

"Another step in the right direction, obviously we're extremely excited," Doeren said. "Not just to have the ability to go inside but the ability to train, the ability to set a schedule and keep a schedule."

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