After the obligatory thank you’s and acknowledgements to open his introductory news conference in DeKalb, new Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier described NIU’s situation perfectly.
“This is an exciting and important time for NIU athletics and I’m looking forward to being a part of it,” Frazier said.
Capitalize, underline and put in bold print the word “important.”
While NIU football comes off of a second consecutive Mid-American Conference title and an Orange Bowl berth that thrust the Huskies into the national spotlight, it won’t mean much if NIU doesn’t take advantage of its newfound popularity.
“We’re at a point where we need to take it to the next level,” Frazier said.
What does that mean exactly?
“I’m going to know that more once I’ve gone through what I would call a comprehensive review of all the programs,” Frazier said. “It’s different than what we currently have and it’s more positive.”
Frazier is set to start his duties as athletic director in August. But before he takes over the reins from interim AD Christian Spears, here’s the Cliff Notes version of what should be top priorities as Frazier begins his tenure in DeKalb.
Increase football attendance
The top football team in the MAC over the past two seasons barely ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of home attendance. NIU was fifth last year, averaging 15,670 fans for six home games in DeKalb.
Huskie Stadium, which has seen 21 consecutive NIU victories, is not immune to sellouts. Back in 2005, NIU averaged more than 22,000 fans over five home games and that was coming off a 9-3 record the year before.
Improve football scheduling
Future non-conference home games against Presbyterian, Wyoming and Idaho don’t exactly inspire fans to run out and buy season tickets. While NIU has certainly been able to schedule big-name opponents, almost of those matchups in recent years have come on the road or at Soldier Field. Last year, Kansas was more a BCS program by affiliation rather than actual results.
There’s a balance to be kept in generating revenue, being competitive and keeping fans happy (see previous priority). Frazier will have to monitor that teeter-totter, which many think has tipped too far away from the interests of the local community.
Replace The Score
NIU hasn’t been shy about wanting a piece of the Chicago market. Along with Illinois and Northwestern, the Huskies have made a big push over the last decade to make inroads to a city that is almost always a pro-sports town.
Having weekly football games broadcast on WSCR-AM was a big win for NIU and put them on an even playing field with its two in-state counterparts. But following The Score’s new radio contract with Illinois, NIU will have to find new ways to get more exposure for its football team.
Rebuild the basketball programs
Just one year ago there was much optimism surrounding Huskie basketball. But following disappointing seasons from both the men’s and women’s teams, there are seemingly more questions than answers surrounding NIU’s two main tenants of the Convocation Center.
For those wanting potential changes in leadership, Frazier’s hands may be tied, for now. Kathi Bennett’s recent contract extension runs through the 2016-17 season and Mark Montgomery’s original deal goes through 2015-16.
With Jordan Lynch’s Heisman Trophy campaign, the new Chessick Practice Center scheduled to be completed this fall and Huskie Stadium hosting the IHSA State Football Championships for the first time, there is more buzz around DeKalb than ever before.
It will be Frazier’s responsibility to make sure NIU is better as a result and to make sure NIU does get to that proverbial “next level.”
• 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.