If you’re old enough, surely you remember as a kid, sending two box tops or a coupon from the back of a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, then including a quarter (big finance in the 1950s), and sending it off to a P.O. box in Battle Creek, Mich., for some plastic trinket that took seemingly forever to arrive in your mailbox.
The mini-Nautilus submarine that ran in the bathtub on mom’s baking soda, or the really cool Superman insignia belt immediately come to mind, but I digress. Waiting for this stuff was sheer torture. When? Where is it? What’s the postman doing?
That's exactly how I felt about author Dan Verdun’s long-anticipated new book, “NIU Football” (256 pages, with a foreward by Joe Novak and published by the Northern Illinois University Press at $28.95 a copy), that finally made it to my doorstep Saturday. This is no insignificant trinket. Verdun’s book is more of a Huskie treasure.
I cannot tell you how many decades I’ve waited for such a Northern Illinois book.
At 3:53 p.m., I took the package inside and opened it in my living room. Almost 12 hours later, interrupted only by the Mid-American Conference tournament's championship game on TV (by the way, Ohio and MAC Player of the Year D. J. Cooper were pathetic) and then the Simeon-Stevenson matchup for the IHSA Class 4A title game in boys basketball, I had my nose, eyes and brain in Verdun’s interesting tome, finishing it at 3:15 a.m. Sunday.
It’s the ultimate reviewer’s cliché, but it’s true: I could not put “NIU Football” down.
The hardbound 9-inch by 11-inch format enhances the book’s design – a satisfying blend of well-written copy with top-notch pictures (more than 130 images, 84 in color, and many never seen before by the public). Vintage full-page color shots of NIU Hall of Famers such as punter/placekicker Tom Wittum and fullback Mark Kellar, Vern Smith Trophy recipient Tim Tyrrell, plus California Bowl MVP Lou Wicks, through future Hall of Famers such as quarterback Chandler Harnish and Garrett Wolfe grace these pages.
Maybe the Beatles-on-the-Ed Sullivan-TV-show moment is the classic black-and-white photo of Little All-America quarterback George Bork, middle guard Tom Walz, and linebacker Mike Henigan with their respective postgame awards after the 1963 Mineral Water Bowl triumph (with some dude wearing sunglasses and lighting up a cigarette in the background) in Excelsior Springs, Mo. After 41 years on campus, even I never had seen that particular archival nugget.
First, kudos to NIU Media Services – particularly ace sports photographer Scott Walstrom, Jay Orbik and Don Butler – and the Regional History Center for the glimpses into our Huskies' gridiron past. Credit also must go to retired lensmen Keith Lowman and Barry Stark, who took most of those early Division I era shots.
When intercollegiate athletics moved from Chick Evans Field House to the Convocation Center in summer 2002, the sports information office faced serious storage issues. We had thousands of color 35mm slides dating to the late 1960s and, thankfully, Lowman offered to store and catalogue them. Great foresight, Keith.
What was it like to wear the NIU uniform from the 1940s to the present? You can find out firsthand from Bob Brigham, Bob Heimerdinger, Jack Pheanis, Bork, Tom Beck, Kellar, Dave Petzke, Tyrrell, Todd Peat, Stacey Robinson, LeShon Johnson, Thomas Hammock, P. J. Fleck, Dan Sheldon, Larry English, Sam Hurd (yes, that Sam Hurd), etc. Since 2009, Verdun interviewed more than 50 former NIU student-athletes, ex-coaches, media types and, yes, yours truly.
Call the book an oral history or Huskies family album, but it’s a vertable Who’s Who of NIU football.
Originally set for release in 2012, the publication date for “NIU Football” was delayed until this month, which worked out fortuitously for Verdun, the NIU Press and most of all the readers, thanks to the sections added in January on the historic 12-2, Top 25 Orange Bowl campaign, Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Jordan Lynch, new head coach Rod Carey and the Chessick Indoor Practice Center.
Is this the jock version of Earl W. Hayter’s “Education in Transition” – the history of NIU that was released in conjunction with the university’s 75th anniversary in 1974, or William R. Monat’s “The Achieving Institution: A Presidential Perspective” published in 2001? Yes and no, I guess, but it does fill the gap left when past proposed Huskies sports books failed to advance beyond the idea stage over the years.
Coming off the Orange Bowl, what better timing?
When he retired in 1984, Hall of Fame Sports Information Director Bud Nangle was commissioned to write the history of NIU intercollegiate athletics, but the project stalled once he moved to San Diego.
In the early 2000s, before we both retired, university archivist Glen Gildemeister and I flirted with the notion of a Huskies sports book as a companion to Glen’s popular and highly successful “Castle on the Hill” publication. The bottom line for our “Victory in View: No budget, no time and no book.
So, I have much admiration for what Verdun finally has accomplished with “NIU Football.” An Eastern Illinois grad with a master’s from NIU, the 47-year-old Verdun lives and teaches language arts and geography in Naperville while moonlighting as a sportswriter in his past.
The stories are wonderful, funny and poignant. Many I knew. Others were a revelation (or two or three). Nobody could kick off a football book better than Joe Novak and his four-page foreward. The final chapter, “Extra Points," opens several intriguing debates about the national origins of the homecoming tradition and ours, NIU’s best gridiron rivals, biggest victory (Maryland or Alabama?), and the penultimate question, what’s the greatest 11 in school history?
If I have one criticism about the book, there should be a section on Nangle’s contributions to the modern era of NIU football. He was more than just an SID or former Huskies basketball player. In the mid-1960s when athletic director George "Chick" Evans began the movement to the MAC and the NCAA's University Division, it was Nangle behind the scenes helping Evans and Brigham make that transition.
As executive sports editor of the Toledo Blade (then the largest and most influential media entity in the MAC), Bud canvassed the various administrators at Miami, Toledo, Bowling Green State, etc., about NIU's intentions and asked what was needed for the Huskies to gain admission, which eventually happened in 1973.
Despite that omission and some minor errors, "NIU Football" gets my highest recommendation. Five stars.
Note: Verdun is scheduled to be in the HASF tent before the April 13 controlled NIU scrimmage at Huskie Stadium to autograph his book (possibly with some notable Hall of Famers). The book also is available from Amazon.com and Wal-Mart.com.
• Mike Korcek is a former NIU sports information director. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.