After almost five years at Northern Illinois, Jeff Compher will take over as East Carolina’s athletic director today. Before leaving DeKalb, Compher talked with Daily Chronicle sports writer Steve Nitz about his tenure in DeKalb and the future of the athletic department.
Below is an edited transcript.
DAILY CHRONICLE: What were your main goals when you got the job, and do you feel you were able to accomplish most of them?
COMPHER: My main goals were to start winning championships. ... We needed to get some momentum as far as winning goes, and I think for the most part we’ve been able to accomplish that. Not certainly in every sport but in many of the sports ... over the last five years, and I think we’ve seen progress in those areas.
... It was winning with balance, winning the right way, winning with that in mind. Because of that, what we’ve been able to do academically is something else that I’ve appreciated. That was always something that I knew this university cared about was that balanced approach to winning. Not just on the field or the court or in the match, it was always about winning in the classroom as well. I just feel really good about how we’ve done and performed in that area.
DC: Is there any certain thing you wish you would have been able to accomplish during your time here that you didn’t?
COMPHER: I think you always would have liked to have sold more tickets. I think that’s important. Build more momentum around the program since we’ve had more success. Would have liked to have sold more tickets and I think would have liked to have seen more progress out of basketball. But I think still they’re the right decisions as far as the leadership of [men’s and women’s basketball], and I’m really excited for the future of them. I just think that it’s going to take a while to get to that point.
We’ve got to keep seeing progress, and I’m seeing progress in different areas, not so much on the court with the W’s and L’s, but in areas like the classroom and in areas outside of the competition, how hard they’re working in the weightroom, how hard they’re applying themselves in practice and those kinds of things, and how close the games have been.
DC: Specifically men’s basketball, can you pinpoint a reason for why it hasn’t taken off in the last number of years?
COMPHER: I can’t really pinpoint a reason. I think it’s just kind of a culmination of several bad years, we’ve got to somehow reverse that. Like I said. I think [head coach Mark Montgomery] is the right guy to do that. I think that nobody works harder than him, he’s a guy of great character. I think he’s recruiting the right student-athletes here. I think it’ll happen, I think we’ve got to be patient with that because there’s never a real quick fix to a program that competitively is that far down.
DC: What can the Orange Bowl appearance do, not only for the football program, but the entire athletic department?
COMPHER: I think it points to the fact that we can be successful at a national level. When I first got here someone said to me, “Jeff, you need to think big.” And we started talking about being the first team from the MAC to go to a BCS game. And the fact that we talked about it and then it occurred says that if you think big and you’re able to surround yourself with the right people and bring in the right student-athletes and you get enough wins, it can actually happen.
And I think all of our programs can look to our Orange Bowl appearance and can say “We can do it too.” It’s not going to happen overnight, you’ve got to see incremental progress, but we can do it, too. ... And I think for our university it’s the same thing. I think more and more people can look to NIU and say, “They can get it done there. They’re thinking big.” And they kind of keep that mindset like we did with our football program. I think it’s certainly the highlight of my tenure here, to have an opportunity to take a team to the Orange Bowl and to be a part of that whole experience.
DC: You mentioned football attendance earlier. Overall, how did you feel about how the attendance has been, and what did you try to do throughout your tenure to improve it?
COMPHER: I don’t think we’ve really achieved our goal attendance-wise. Certainly something that I wish we’d have done better, since we’ve got such a great product, and when people aren’t there to see it it’s always a little discouraging. But I don’t want to discount the people that were here. The people that were here are passionate fans and they’re great people, and they care about the Huskies. And I’m hoping that the Orange Bowl will kind of put us over the hump there, and people say, “You know what, they’re a legitimate program, this is something that we need to go check out and be a part of,” and it really is a springboard to sell more tickets.
We’ve tried a lot of different things over the years: Special ticket plans, different pricing structures, all kinds of things. From scheduling to setting up mini-plans and other things, we’ve tried it, it’s not like we haven’t tried things. It’s just that it still needs something to build on, and I think the Orange Bowl is something that can be built on.
DC: Last fall, for the first time since 2003, you played a BCS team at Huskie Stadium. Obviously you’ve been happy with the success with the Soldier Field games, how important was it to you to get a BCS team here?
COMPHER: It was really important because I think our fanbase wanted it and expected it. For them to be able to do that, it’s one of those things, it’s not easy to do. I know there’s other programs in our conference that people point to and say that it’s easy to do, it’s not out of our lack of trying for that. It’s more of what we have to look at long term and what availability we have, what our financial goals are.
All of those things are important to those kinds of games.
DC: When you got here, how important was it to upgrade the facilities?
COMPHER: The good thing is, the track and soccer upgrade was already in process, but I do remember not having a track, and watching our student-athletes run up and down the street to train. So, there was a sense of urgency to get that thing done, and since then our track program has really taken off. We went from scoring zero points to being a factor in the championships now and sending teams off to NCAA regionals.
The progress is there, it’s kind of a build-it-and-they-will-come thing. Also for our soccer program, to go back to winning the conference tournament championship and hosting a first-round NCAA game here (in 2011). ... We were able to do those things because of the facilities in a lot of ways. I take a lot of solace in knowing the facilities are in good shape. Always can make improvements, always can get better, we do small things every year to a lot of facilities.
I also think that [the Chessick Center] helped us get the IHSA football championships to come here and I think that’s a big step for this university to be a focal point for every football program in the state to vie to get here on an every-other-year basis. That’s a big deal.
DC: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the people of DeKalb?
COMPHER: The whole time here, it’s been an honor to serve NIU and this community and our student-athletes and coaches and our fanbase. It’s been a wonderful ride and a great experience and I’ve got to thank everybody for having faith enough in this program to support it the way they have, and I’ll always be a Huskie and always be cheering for the Huskies and I just look forward to watching the continued growth of this program over the years. I just think that the trajectory is in a very positive way. I think the university appreciates where we’ve been and what we’ve been able to do, and we’ll continue to do that.