By Bobby Narang - Staff Writer

NIU's Huskie Stadium has become a tough place to play

DeKALB - Northern Illinois defensive ends coach Mike Sabock will never forget his first game at Huskie Stadium. Sabock, now the dean of the Huskie coaching staff, arrived in town prior to the 1984 season after spending the previous season as a graduate assistant coach at Penn State. The Huskies were riding high after capturing the Mid-American Conference title and winning the California Bowl III in 1983. The 1984 season opener was against West Texas State. Not exactly a juggernaut, but a big crowd was expected. Well, the Huskies needed to score 19 points in the fourth quarter, capped by a stunning 67-yard touchdown play from quarterback Darryl Taylor to Carl Aikens in the final minute to pull out a 40-33 victory. Of course, Sabock can easily recall that game because of the nature of the victory, but he also remembers another aspect. Sabock's wife, Sandy, drove to the West Texas State game and parked at University Plaza. Back then, the crowds didn't nearly swell close to the 20,000 mark. "Sandy was used to the Penn State crowds and got there early and parked far away," Sabock said. "She kept walking and starting wondering if the game was on the wrong day because she didn't see anybody." Sabock's wife soon realized that the crowds at Huskie Stadium were much smaller than at Penn State. The crowd of 8,200 fans for the West Texas State game represented just 10 percent of Penn State's average home attendance. "Before some of our home games, you could look up in the crowd and wave to somebody you knew," Sabock said. "Sometimes, you could count the number of fans in the crowd." The 40th anniversary of the first season at Huskie Stadium kicks off today with the home opener against Tennessee Tech. Twenty-five members of the 1965 squad will be honored at halftime. The 1965 team finished with a 9-1 record and lost 37-20 to North Dakota in the Mineral Water Bowl. That team played the first two games in Huskie Stadium. The stadium, built for $2.2 million, didn't yet have a name and had one side until the East Grandstand was built in 1995. The original plans were to have a horseshoe design, but the concept fell through. The stadium has undergone three expansions to reach its current capacity of 28,000. The stadium today will look much different to most of the 1965 Huskies. A near-capacity crowd, a big video scoreboard, 20 television monitors throughout the stadium and a new name. The field was renamed Brigham Field after legendary Robert J. Brigham, who spent 50 years at NIU as a student-athlete, assistant coach, head coach, athletic director and special assistant to the president. Northern Illinois media relations director Mike Korcek has attended 194 of the 207 games at Huskie Stadium. Korcek remembers his initial thoughts when the East Grandstand was added. "I thought this is great and they did a great job," Korcek said. "Then, I thought will they ever fill it?" Today's home opener will push the all-time attendance mark at Huskie Stadium past the three million mark. The Huskies have drawn 2,987,711 fans since opening the stadium with a 48-6 win over Illinois State (11-6-1965). The attendance spike of 426,001 fans in the last three years helped reach the figure faster than expected. Sabock welcomes the changes in crowd size. "It's great to have people support us," Sabock said. "We're a hot ticket right now." The Huskies hold a 117-87-2 mark at the venerable stadium and led the MAC in attendance last year (27,052). The Huskies had the highest conference attendance despite ranking 10th in the 13-team MAC in stadium capacity. Last year's total was the highest season average in school history. Spurred by the large and boisterous home crowds, Northern Illinois has won 27 of its last 32 games at home (.844 winning percentage). "Winning at home always helps," said NIU coach Joe Novak. "We've had some good seasons lately at home and part of that is because of the fans. We've had some great crowds in the last few years." It wasn't long ago that the stadium didn't hold much of a home field edge. The Huskies won four or more games at home three times from 1979-1983, but hit a short drought with just 10 home victories over the next four seasons. Under Jerry Pettibone, the Huskies posted 16 wins at Huskie Stadium from 1988-1990. However, the victory famine reached epidemic proportions during the '90s, as Northern Illinois captured just 17 victories from (1991-1999). From 1995-98, the Huskies didn't win more than three games at home in a season. The game most note as the turning point for the program - and the stadium - was on Nov. 9, 2002. Bowling Green State entered Huskie Stadium unbeaten and ranked 16th in the country. The Huskies had a five-game winning streak and pulled out all the stops for the Falcons. Signs along the highway. Fireworks. The introduction of the ThunderStix. A Fox Sports Net television audience and a huge print media contingent. The crowd of 25,822 witnessed the Huskies score their second-ever win over a Top 25 team with a 26-17 triumph over the Falcons. The victory was on par with NIU's 73-18 win over Top 25-ranked Fresno State in 1990. Former Bowling Green State coach Urban Meyer and current coach Gregg Brandon both called Huskie Stadium one of the loudest venues the Falcons have played in. "We were intimidated from the get-go," Brandon said of the 2002 contest. "We couldn't hear. We didn't prepare for the crowd noise, going to DeKalb, because we didn't think it would be noisy. It was noisier than (at) Purdue and Ohio State this year." Sabock said Huskie Stadium can get even louder than the Big House at Michigan, which reached 110,971 fans in the opener against Northern Illinois. "That was the first electric-type atmosphere I felt in the stadium," Sabock said of the BGSU contest. "From that point on, we've had a tremendous crowd. You can't even hear the plays sometimes. It's become an intimidating stadium and no other stadium of 30,000 is like it. Maybe cause the stadium sits above and the sound funnels down. Without a doubt, when the stadium is filled and rocking, it's louder than Michigan Stadium. Korcek agreed the BGSU game was memorable. "There was electricity in the stands that game," said Korcek. "This is a tremendous venue. The fans were very supportive and we played great." Victories came in bunches when the Huskie program started getting support at home. NIU sports a 24-5 record at Huskie Stadium since 2000. When they finally learned to defend their house, the Huskies started winning on the road, too. Coincidence or not, but the Huskies have posted five straight overall winning seasons for the first time since moving into Huskie Stadium. The largest crowd in the stadium's history was the Oct. 18, 2003, game against Western Michigan (28,221). The most memorable games include a thrilling overtime win over Wake Forest (2002), the upsets over Maryland and Iowa State (2003). Also, the amazing comeback victory, fueled a stunning performance from wide receiver P.J. Fleck, over Ohio during the 2003 campaign ranks as one of the most recent memorable home wins. The victory kept the Huskies ranked in the Top 20 and brought national attention from a Sports Illustrated article. "The stadium when filled is what we all thought it could be," Korcek said. Bobby Narang can be reached at bnarang@daily-chronicle.com.

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