Relevant observations, pertinent notes, questions, minutiae, and Huskie Trivial Pursuit from your local, retired sports information director:
Opinion No. 1: Weeknight Northern Illinois football. Here we go again. I think you know my feelings on these games. Why are we doing them? I was in the media business at this level for decades. Of course, I understand the clout, gravitas, national exposure, recruiting advantages, the whole ball of wax with the ESPN brand for tonight's NIU-Toledo telecast.
I recall our first midweek Mid-American Conference football game - Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2004, against the Rockets in Huskie Stadium. Great, festive crowd (27,719) in 43-degree temperatures even though Northern Illinois lost, 31-17. Overall, not a bad experiment, I thought.
The novelty wore off quickly. The next year we went to Toledo. Two-and-a-half days on the road midweek. My first thought: How do the student-athletes manage this? Forgive the stereotype, but aren’t football players the most fragile, academically? I know NIU’s academic support personnel, past and present, do a wonderful job, but you wonder.
Only the MAC hierarchy and league administrators can explain this continued nine-year TV experiment with ESPN - trading the traditional college football Saturday for midweek games in November and the exposure. Seeing some of the sparse crowds in Mid-Am stadiums live or on TV, I don’t know if the price is right.
No disrespect, but maybe some of the league presidents should sit outside with the loyal, but shivering fans on these nights. It’s cold, dark, and clammy in Huskie Stadium at 8 p.m. in mid-November. This is not Honolulu.
Observation No. 1: If you live in Naperville and come to the NIU-UT game, you’ll probably get home about 1 a.m. Short night for work or school the next day. If you’re a Heisman Trophy voter on the East coast wanting to see Northern Illinois junior quarterback Jordan Lynch do his thing on TV, I hope you can stay up well past midnight (EST).
Observation No. 2: Video highlights on the local 10 o’clock news? Maybe. Final edition print coverage from Chicago’s top two metro newspapers? Maybe not. Early deadlines kill weeknight events. Print? Oh, Mike, you’re such a dinosaur. TV is where it’s at. And that is the exact issue. To TV or not to TV?
Recommendation No. 1: Buck up and bundle up, friends. Attend the game in person.
Observation No. 3: I’m not the Lone Ranger on this subject. The dean of Mid-Am sports scribes - Toledo Blade columnist Dave Hackenberg - re-opened the topic again last week. Headlined “Time to nix the weeknight MAC games," Hackenberg’s column commented that the announced crowd (18,211) for Tuesday’s Ball State-Toledo matchup was “wishful thinking.”
Hackenberg asked why locals should venture to the Glass Bowl that night when the thermometer read 40 degrees higher in their family rooms where you could watch the game in comfort on ESPN. The empty stadium seats speak volumes, and not positive ones, about MAC football I’m afraid to admit.
Question No. 1: Where’s A. C. Nielsen when you need them? I hate to type this, but you wonder if the number of DeKalb County TV households watching ESPN2 Wednesday night will exceed the actual Huskie Stadium attendance figure. Ouch. Especially with our poor attendance this fall for Saturday dates - including 18,374 spectators for Big 12 Conference Kansas and 14,419 for Buffalo on Homecoming. Games such as that should be in the 20,000-range, and have been in the past.
Observation No. 4: True confession time. I’m no math whiz or pollster or whatever, but I sat down with a calculator and played around with some Chicagoland population numbers in regards to NIU home football attendance.
Let’s just pretend on a good Saturday afternoon, the Huskies draw 10 percent of the current DeKalb County population (105,160 in the 2010 U. S. Census), five percent of the NIU area alums, 20 percent of the current NIU student enrollment (21,869), and one out of every 1,000 people in the total Chicago market (9,000,000). The total? 31,389. Time for Huskie Stadium expansion? I wish. What happened to recent home attendance average after peaking in 2003-05? This does not happen at Boise State or TCU, folks.
Observation No. 5: NIU athletic director Jeff Compher and his staff have done everything short of hiring a modern-day Paul Revere to ride through campus and the community to shout “the Rockets are coming, the Rockets are coming, buy tickets, buy tickets” (and there’s still time to do it). Since the UMass game, Northern Illinois has upped the promotional ante.
That said, this seems to be an annual “panic city” occurance since 2004 for such weeknight games. Where was such an urgency this summer to sell Huskie season tickets (and don’t get me started on the disparity between the reported NIU and UT season-ticket numbers - something like 3,500 to 11,400, respectively)? Let’s be honest, Northern Illinois fans have known since this spring who we played Nov. 14 and the likely conference title implications for this game.
Confession No. 1: This contradiction (between the W-L record and fan support) is not what I envisioned for Northern Illinois football when the program was elevated to NCAA University Division (now FBS) status in 1969 or moved into the 21st century.
In our wildest dreams, few could have imagined such sustained success at this level. In the 111-season history of Huskie football, there never has been a more productive decade than the one we are experiencing now (2003-12). The defending Mid-Am kingpins, gunning for an unprecedented third consecutive MAC Championship game in Detroit. NIU faculty, staff, students, fans, alums, townies should all be dancing into the night at Fourth and Lincoln.
What do you think the late George “Chick” Evans or Howard Fletcher - two of the greatest names in the Huskie gridiron legacy - would think about seven bowl appearances and a 79-46 win-loss record in a 10-year span? National-caliber athletes such as Michael Turner, Garrett Wolfe, Larry English, Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch? Heisman Trophy candidates, NFL All-Pros, NCAA All-Americas, CoSIDA Academic All-Americas, National Football Foundation Scholar-Athletes? Think “Chick” or “Fletch” would’ve stayed home and watched the game on ESPN2? Are you kidding?
Let’s not fill the stands for ESPN. Not for Jeff Compher. Not for Mike Korcek. But for all of us in this community, the Huskies, their coaches, the winningest senior class in Northern Illinois football history.
Get the gloves, the long underwear, the extra socks out. Cardinal and Black time.
See everybody at Huskie Stadium, 8 p.m. (and buy season tickets in 2013).