They’ve defeated high-ranked teams and competed in multiple bowl championships. Paul Anthony Arco explains how the Huskies’ on-field success has inspired the school and area fans.
Thanks to a national bowl appearance and a Heisman Trophy finalist, Northern Illinois University football is enjoying some of the most exciting seasons in its history. Now, the school is hoping its recent success on the field will take the program to greater heights for years to come.
Sean Frazier has spent more than 23 years working in college athletics at the highest levels. Prior to taking the job at Northern Illinois University (NIU) as Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics, Frazier spent six years in senior leadership roles at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He knew of NIU’s strengths, especially in football, before taking the helm in 2013.
“NIU has a heck of a reputation between athletics and academics,” he says. “When you think of football, you think of NIU’s win streak, its successful bowl history and the tremendous win percentage. You’d have to be sleeping under a rock not to know about NIU’s recent track record when it comes to football.”
By early this September, the Huskies had won 26 of their last 29 games and were 48-10 since 2010. They have played in postseason college bowl games each of the past six years. And NIU boasts an impressive list of former players who have gone on to play in the NFL including Garrett Wolfe, Michael Turner, Ryan Diem, Doug Free and Larry English.
The rebirth in NIU football started with Coach Joe Novak, who took over the Huskie program in 1996. While his first years were bumpy, NIU hit a string of seven straight winning seasons, starting in 2000. In 2003, the Huskies started the season by beating No. 14-ranked Maryland in overtime and then defeating No. 21 Alabama 16-13 on the road. The Huskies were ranked as high as No. 10 in the country and finished the season 10-2.
The good times have continued as NIU has appeared in six consecutive bowl games. They have won the Mid-American Conference (MAC) west division championship each of the past four years. The pinnacle came in January 2013 when NIU played in the Discover Orange Bowl against Florida State University, as part of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Despite losing the game 31-10, NIU captured the hearts of college football fans all across the country, and became the first team in its conference to earn a BCS berth by being the No. 15 team in the nation.
Last season, NIU picked up right where it left off. The Huskies started the season 12-0 before losing the conference championship and the Poinsettia Bowl, to finish 12-2. Also last season, senior quarterback Jordan Lynch became the first NIU player ever to be invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, where he finished third in the voting.
The number of recent achievements has been paramount not only for the football program but for the entire 21,000-student university, located in DeKalb. “Obviously, the Orange Bowl effect gave us some significant, positive feedback and notoriety,” Frazier says. “We’ve seen an uptick in ticket sales, licensing and merchandising, and social media platforms. There’s also been stability in overall enthusiasm in terms of enrollment. You can feel the energy in the air. It’s infectious. It’s vogue to be a part of NIU football.”
The Ripple Effect
Dr. Rena Cotsones is Associate Vice President for Engagement and Innovation and Partnerships at NIU. Her job is to initiate partnerships and create collaborative initiatives that connect the resources and expertise of NIU with resources that already exist in the region. Cotsones has been with NIU since 1999.
“When I first started working at NIU, those were the days when we weren’t doing very well in football,” she says. “Once the team started having some success, more and more people wanted to talk about Saturday’s game during Monday-morning meetings. The old cliche that success breeds success really holds true here. As people see a winning season and a Heisman candidate, it really has a halo effect on the rest of the university. There’s a buzz around NIU.
“Obviously you’re not going to go to an Orange Bowl every year,” she adds. “But I think when people see a strong commitment to quality and excellence in athletics, they perceive that it also demonstrates that same quality and excellence throughout the institution. Our former athletic director, Jim Phillips, used to describe athletics as the front porch of the university. For people driving by, they see the success of the football team and it makes them think of the university as a winning institution. Hopefully it motivates people to check further to see what’s inside.”
Along with the football team’s success, athletic facilities have grown in the past decade. In 2007, the Jeffrey and Kimberly Yordon Center opened to provide state-of-the-art facilities for student-athletes in all 17 sports programs. The 62,000-square foot facility features an Academic Support Center that includes one-on-one tutorial rooms, a group study room and a fully equipped computer lab, as well as offices for the counselors of the Student-Athlete Academic Support Services.
The Yordon Center also boasts a 12,500 square-foot strength and conditioning center that includes exercise equipment and a four-lane sprint track. There’s an athletic training room, an X-ray room, doctor’s office, two rehabilitation pools, a drug-testing area and offices for staff. The Yordon Center is the hub of Huskies football, with locker rooms, office space for coaches, and video and meeting rooms.
In 2012, NIU broke ground on the Chessick Practice Center, which is connected to the Yordon Center. The $9.5 million project features a full-size 120-yard practice field with two end zones. Additional features like batting cages, long jump pits and a sprint track are shared by athletes from multiple sports. The practice facility is 80,000 square feet with 6,400 square feet in the adjoining Barsema Hall of Champions, dedicated space that pays tribute to former NIU athletes who have gone on to play professionally.
Another game-changer for NIU and its football program is a new partnership with the Illinois High School Association that brings the state high school football finals to Huskie Stadium in odd-numbered years through 2021.
“It’s a huge deal that the IHSA would even consider us,” says Rod Carey, head football coach since 2012. “We’re going to see people from the Chicago suburbs and as far as southern Illinois coming to NIU every other year. That means a lot to our program in terms of recognition and visibility.”
Considered a mid-major school, NIU has been a stepping stone for many football coaches who left after a few years for a larger university. NIU hopes to buck that trend with current coach Carey, who came to NIU as an offensive assistant coach and was hired as the university’s 22nd head coach, when his boss, Dave Doeren, left to become head coach at North Carolina State University.
“This is the place that I always wanted to be,” Carey says. “I came down here and saw that they were building this thing the right way and kids were buying in. It’s been a privilege to be a part of this program. We feel blessed to be in the position we’re in. The expectations have risen, and that’s a good thing.”
Thanks to the national attention of playing in bowl games and the media hype surrounding Lynch’s improbable Heisman run, the Huskies have noticed a positive impact on their recruiting efforts. Seeing the likes of Lynch going to training camp with the Chicago Bears, and safety Jimmie Ward drafted in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers doesn’t hurt, either. “We’re in a lot more conversations with high school athletes, and that’s a good thing,” Carey says. “There’s a template that’s been set.”
That includes drawing more talent out of NIU’s own backyard. “If you look at the past decade, there’ve been a number of guys from right here in the area that’ve been great for us,” Carey says. “We hope that trend continues.”
Austin Smaha is one of those players. At Belvidere North High School, Smaha rushed for 2,934 yards as a running back his final two seasons. On defense, his 225 career tackles set a school record. Now a sophomore at NIU, Smaha plays defensive line and could be in line for significant playing time this season.
“I’ve had a great time here so far – I love it,” he says. “Staying close to home was a big decision for me coming here. But more importantly, I wanted to end up at a school where there was a family bond between the coaches and the players. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful here. And I hope by me coming here, it might open doors for other players in the Rockford area to consider coming to NIU as well.”
Ryan Brown, a fifth-year senior from St. Charles, wasn’t highly recruited as an offensive lineman coming out of high school. He decided to walk on at NIU because it was close to home. Now a main cog in the Huskies offensive line, Brown hasn’t looked back once.
“It’s been awesome,” he says. “I wouldn’t say we’ve arrived, but people are definitely paying more attention to us across the country. DeKalb is cold in the winter, but having these indoor practice facilities, top-notch locker rooms and weight rooms is definitely a draw with athletes. We now have some of the best facilities in the country, and that will only help in the future.”
Aidan Conlon, an offensive lineman from Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor, was another player overlooked by other schools. But living in Chicago’s south suburbs, he was well aware of NIU’s tradition. “My friends didn’t know so much about NIU at the time, but playing on TV the past few years, and playing in the Orange Bowl, the program has really opened a lot of eyes,” he says. “Now, we want to keep that tradition going.”
For former players, getting that competitive spirit out of their system is easier said than done. Recently, Jordan Delegal, a linebacker who played at NIU from 2009 to 2011, paid a visit to the team during an afternoon practice. A native of Miami, Delegal came to NIU as a transfer from Joliet Community College, and now works for a marketing company in Chicago.
“I didn’t know anything about NIU,” says Delegal, who played in three bowl games with the Huskies. “But I really enjoyed my time here. I’ve been on teams that worried about egos and individual accomplishments, but we didn’t care about that stuff. We were a tight-knit group, and we won a lot of games in a short amount of time. A lot of players here were passed over by bigger schools for different reasons. That’s why they’re here and that’s why they work so hard.
“It feels good to come back to campus and be welcomed with open arms,” he adds. “The university really cares about us, even after we stop playing the game. That’s where other schools fall short. We come from different backgrounds, but what ties us together is NIU. I can find a Huskie anywhere I go in the country. I’m a Huskie until the day I die.”
The success of the football program has impacted NIU-based alumni clubs throughout the region. Tom Jackowski is the president of the NIU Alumni Club of Rockford. When he attended as an undergraduate and graduate student, football wasn’t his top priority. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate fan these days. “It’s the success that brings you back,” says Jackowski, a Freeport native who works for a manufacturing company in Rockford and lives in DeKalb near campus.
Jackowski and his wife, Danell, also an NIU grad, take in as many home games as possible. Jackowski is so amped that he’s creating a Huskies memorabilia room in his home. He already has several autographed footballs and is looking for other keepsakes to add to his growing collection.
“When you hear that NIU is overrated and doesn’t belong in the Orange Bowl, I think it encourages people to root for them even more,” says Jackowski. “They feel like they’re rooting for the underdog.”
Jackowski estimates there are 10,000 alumni living in the Rockford area. His alumni group holds game-watching parties at local establishments, and for the Orange Bowl party two years ago, more than 100 people turned out at a small pub. This September, a group of fans took a bus to watch the Huskies play Northwestern University in Evanston.
In addition to game-watching events, the Rockford club awards $10,000 in annual scholarships to local high school students who will be attending NIU. The club also hosts an annual golf play day that has drawn alumi as well as NIU players, such as Lynch. Next year, the Rockford club plans on combining its golf event with the NIU coaching caravan that stops in town.
Future Looks Bright
NIU kicked off this season with plenty of experience as nine offensive and six defensive starters returned from last year. The Huskies started the season by throttling Presbyterian College 55-3. “Last year was bittersweet by losing the last two games,” says Brown. “We’re looking to finish the job this season.”
NIU has beefed up its future schedule. In the coming years, the Huskies will play the likes of Maryland, Brigham Young, San Diego State and Utah in addition to its conference opponents. Athletic director Frazier says the timing is right to see how NIU stacks up with the big boys in college football.
“It has everything to do with momentum,” he says. “We need to capitalize on our success and take it to the next level. We’re going to continue to keep ourselves in the national conversation when it comes to all of our sports. It’s a stay-tuned type of moment. Don’t sleep on us now. Get on board early so you’re not missing something special.”