Athletic directors past and present, “Chick” Evans, Bob Brigham, and Sean Frazier – must be kindred Northern Illinois University spirits.
Back in the late 1960s when the Huskie football program made its move to the major-college ranks, Evans and Brigham aggressively pushed the scheduling agenda. Burgeoning NIU football upgraded from the Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to its eventual affiliation destination with more regional and truly national opposition.
As Evans, his successor Brigham, and my old boss, Bud Nangle, announced then future games against the Mid-American Conference – Wisconsin in 1971 and 1972, Boston College in 1971, and Northwestern in 1975, plus evolving West Coast mid-major peers such as Fresno State, Long Beach State, and San Diego State – it was a bold statement.
“In life, business, sports, you are judged by the people you associate with, the company you keep,” Nangle told me decades ago. That mantra applies to the Huskies more than ever.
What kind of statement do you think Frazier made with last week’s “SchedulePalooza” announcements and home-and-home (not four three-for-ones) future football dates with San Diego State, Utah, Brigham Young and Maryland?
Spectacular, to say the least. To paraphrase NIU president Doug Baker, “Bold Futures” indeed.
“(It’s) huge,” said Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey on Media Day. “We (NIU) have our history. We have proven we can go play these teams and win. Now, they come to us.”
When Frazier observed “the speed of the game has picked up here,” the second-year AD wasn’t talking about Carey’s no-huddle offense.
In four short days, Frazier erased years of football scheduling inertia, offered promise for the future, and, most of all, initiated possibly the next critical, essential program step – expansion of Huskie Stadium.
The Big Ten Conference, the Pac-12 playing in DeKalb? Some of us have waited a lifetime (egad, I will be, gasp, 73 by the time Maryland returns in 2021, if I get that far) for this. That’s a half century from NIU’s first Big Ten football game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1971. Yowza.
What are the far-reaching implications of Frazier’s announcements? You know me, I see both sides.
The optimist: Yes, yes, yes. The better teams you play, the more exposure for your program, student-athletes, and institution. Can you also say “alumni and community involvement?” What (cardinal) red-blooded high school recruit wouldn’t want to play at home against the Aztecs (2016), Utes (2019), Cougars (2020), or Terrapins (2021)? Where’s my National Letter of Intent? I wanna sign it right now, coach.
The pessimist: I’m sure Frazier has these contracts signed, sealed, and delivered, no offense. But what do contracts mean in the 21st century (doggoned lawyers)? Hierarchies change, presidents and ADs change, conference alignments change, scheduling philosophies change. Rumor has it that BYU could be going from major independent to the Big 12 soon. Over the years, I can recall several attractive Northern Illinois football match-ups that failed to transpire for one reason or another.
How about Wichita State at NIU (1982), NIU at Tulsa (1987), NIU at Florida State (1988), Ole Miss at NIU (1996)? Not to mention the cancelled Soldier Field dates with Miami (Florida) (1987), and more recently, with Wisconsin and Nebraska. All were “on the books” at one time. Stuff happens, I know.
The optimist: Frazier has followed through with his promise for a “balanced” football schedule, i.e., more home games to protect not only the fan base, but the competition aspect for his student-athletes. Five Huskie Stadium dates in a 12-game schedule is obscene when you see several Big Ten programs have eight 2014 home games. NIU season ticket holders should be lining up for these games now.
With the increased demand, will the proposed NIU facility expansion, suites, loges, state-of-the-art press box all become reality? Maybe one former Northern Star sports editor will no longer be ridiculed for his 1969 public prediction of a 35,000-seat Huskie Stadium. Guess who. Vindication at last.
The pessimist: Improving the NIU home schedule also means no more “automatic” DeKalb triumphs and maybe the end of positive aspects such as the impressive 26-game Huskie Stadium winning streak dating back to 2009. Fans get a bit spoiled by back-to-back 12-0 regular seasons, you know. How will ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit react if NIU loses to Utah or BYU instead of those weak MAC teams?
Which leads to a long-time Northern Illinois football malady – over-scheduling. Not trying to contradict myself, but I want to see my alma mater play, host, and defeat national Top 25 teams. Why do the Huskies own a 5-35-1 all-time won-lost-tied record vs. the Big Ten in football? It’s obvious. All 41 of those games were not in DeKalb. This is what Frazier means as “balanced.”
Historywise, two seasons come to mind, where, realistically, NIU had little chance to succeed. In 1986, maybe the schedule-makers got a bit overzealous with road dates at West Virginia, at Wisconsin, at No. 21-rated Iowa, and at No. 1 Miami with Vinny Testaverde. The result? 2-9. Ditto for 1995 when Northern Illinois played at Southern Mississippi (in August, no less), at No. 16 Kansas State, and at No. 3 Florida, plus hosted Louisville. Can you say 3-8?
The realist: Old-timer that I am, this is the golden era of Northern Illinois football. No question. Forty-six victories, four bowls (including the Orange), four MAC West crowns, two MAC titles, a Heisman Trophy finalist. What better time for the next step(s)? NIU did not have such outstanding support facilities in either 1969 or 1986 or 1995. Frankly, it’s now or never and Frazier knows it.
“Down” years in the cornfields used to be 2-9, not the projected 8-4 this fall with a team that still boasts five preseason national award candidates. Not bad for a mid-major. And Northern Illinois is not your average mid-major.
Keep having that vision, Sean Frazier.
• Mike Korcek is a 1970 graduate of NIU, and was the school’s head sports information director from 1984-2006. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.