In the three months since Northern Illinois football won its second straight Mid-American Conference title Nov. 30, NIU’s athletic department has been like a revolving door.
Almost the entire football staff has been turned over, including one assistant coach who was hired in January and left this week.
Now NIU has lost its athletics leader as Jeff Compher left Wednesday to take the same position at East Carolina. Compher jumped at the chance for more money and a return to North Carolina, where he previously had worked. Who wouldn’t want to be 30 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean?
The legacy of an athletic director is – fairly or unfairly – tied directly to the hires made in big-name sports, and Compher made four of them during his tenure, bringing in two football coaches and two basketball coaches.
Unquestionably the selection of Dave Doeren was a slam dunk, albeit a short lived one. Two MAC titles and one BCS bowl bid later, there’s little argument he was the right guy over P.J. Fleck.
When Doeren left, Compher acted swiftly, hiring from within and selecting Rod Carey to replace him less than 48 hours later. He won’t stay at zero wins for long.
Like Carey, the jury still is out on basketball coaches Mark Montgomery and Kathi Bennett, who have both seen their current rebuilding efforts stymied with disappointing seasons in 2012-13.
But with the football team achieving unprecedented success, it’s fair to ask why support for those athletic teams hasn’t risen to new heights as well. Why wasn’t Huskie Stadium filled this year when the defending MAC champions continued the nation’s longest home winning steak?
Could Compher and the administration have done more to make sure home games, especially those against Toledo and Kansas, were packed with red and black? Did he miss an opportunity to bring some buzz to DeKalb when switching the 2011 Wisconsin home game from Huskie Stadium to NIU’s “second home” in Chicago?
When Compher was hired in 2008, he told the Daily Chronicle one of his priorities was creating a “Duke-like atmosphere” at basketball games. That hasn’t exactly come to fruition. The largest attendance for a basketball game at the Convocation Center annually is for the DeKalb-Sycamore rivalry games, and by a wide margin.
Compher brought increased fundraising efforts to NIU and the soon-to-be-completed Chessick Center upgrades NIU’s athletic facilities to the same level as other schools in the MAC. He organized both Soldier Field games in 2011 and 2012 and has NIU set up for another one against Nebraska in 2016.
Undoubtedly it’s hard for NIU to keep its top talent from moving on to universities with more resources, but the same reasons that have made NIU an attractive option in the past still are present. If anything, NIU is in a better place than it was five years ago, possessing a premier mid-major football program entering an era that gives those teams more access to the more prestigious bowls and the bigger money payouts.
Consistently having to search and hire is tough for any program to get used to.
But NIU has a decent track record of bringing capable replacements through that revolving door, even if it spins more often than people like.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RossJacobson.