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Local Column

Korcek's Corner: NIU’s future draws on its past

Northern Illinois University Senior Adviser for Branding and Marketing Rick Cerrone, NIU Class of 1976, speaks before the unveiling of the NIU window clings July 22 in downtown DeKalb. Behind Cerrone (from left) are DeKalb Mayor John Rey, NIU football greats Bob Heimerdinger and George Bork, and NIU President Doug Baker.
Northern Illinois University Senior Adviser for Branding and Marketing Rick Cerrone, NIU Class of 1976, speaks before the unveiling of the NIU window clings July 22 in downtown DeKalb. Behind Cerrone (from left) are DeKalb Mayor John Rey, NIU football greats Bob Heimerdinger and George Bork, and NIU President Doug Baker.

The future is your past. The past is your future.

Some people understand such a notion. Others do not. Proud, passionate Northern Illinois University grad Rick Cerrone gets it. Completely.

This 1976 NIU journalism major, former sports magazine publisher, ex-New York City radio sports talk show co-host, erstwhile assistant to baseball commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth, Putnam Valley, New York, resident and Major League Baseball media relations savant also deserves high marks for what higher education calls “advancement.”

In academia, advancement means a “... strategic, inter grated method of managing relationships, including alumni and friends, government policymakers, the media, and the community.”  In other words, Rick gets along with VIPs and Joe Average alike. He’s one of those consensus builders, and forgive the cliche, a down-to-earth “people person” who just happens to own four World Series rings.

To say the least, last week was a hectic one for the former New York Yankees PR man and president of Rick Cerrone Communications.  

In his current NIU role as senior adviser for branding and marketing, Cerrone helped unveil the Northern Illinois football window displays in downtown DeKalb, worked the Brigham-Novak Gridiron Classic golf outing, and announced intercollegiate athletics’ latest external project – the re-establishment of the Varsity Club in a four-day span.

Cerrone is the behind-the-scenes type who helped resurrect the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame induction weekend, plus collaborated on the highly successful 1963, 1983, and 2003 football team reunions last fall. With the full support of NIU athletics director Sean Frazier and associate AD Ryan Sedevie, Cerrone has also started brainstorming for the gala 50th anniversary football season at Huskie Stadium (1965 to 2015) next year. Based on Cerrone’s track record, NIU fans – young and old – will relish his promotional ideas.

The future is your past. The past is your future.

Frazier said it more succinctly at the Brigham-Novak golf luncheon. “Tradition doesn’t graduate,” the second-year AD stated Friday. Yes, Frazier gets it, too.

With many city and school officials in attendance and Cerrone as emcee July 22 in front of the Lincoln Inn, two Huskie All-America quarterbacks, Bob Heimerdinger and George Bork, unveiled the first window cling image.

The window display theme is the history and tradition of NIU football highlighting former student-athletes, coaches, band members, cheerleaders and fans. There are 22 Northern Illinois images in 18 different locations, including City Hall and the new police station on West Lincoln Highway, plus a window tribute to Huskies athletics icon Bob Brigham at the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce.  

Bork, Heimerdinger, and Jordan Lynch appear on the Lincoln Inn display. Funded by the university and athletics, the project features vintage images from NIU Media Services, the Regional History Center, and sports information files. The adhesive-backed clings were produced by Kelmscott Communications of Aurora.

“It’s great to see our [NIU] history come back [this way],” Heimerdinger said, turning to his wife, Barb, “remember our first walk down Lincoln Highway in 1948?  [It] doesn’t seem that long ago.”  Bork concurred, calling the displays “absolutely fantastic.”

The timing was perfect with Kishwaukee Fest last weekend, not to mention Corn Fest and the annual NIU student return to campus next month, all leading up to the Northern Illinois-Presbyterian home opener Aug. 28.

Maybe the happiest people are the downtown DeKalb merchants. “Awesome,” said Tom Schmidt, owner of the Hometown Sports Bar & Grill, 241 E. Lincoln Highway. “We’ve received nothing but positive comments all week.”

Said Bill McMahon, owner of the Lincoln Inn, 240 East Lincoln: “When there’s a home football game, there’s thousands of people in town. Things like this only increase foot traffic and business. [The displays] look phenomenal. [NIU] athletics has always been great to us.”

“The window clings are a positive show of solidarity between the town and the university,” added Debbie Witmer, co-owner of O’Leary’s Restaurant & Pub, 260 E. Lincoln. “They are conversation starters. Anything that brings people downtown. Whether they find O’Leary’s or not, we just want people downtown.”

Under the direction of then NIU interim AD Christian Spears, Cerrone started the display program last summer at a modest 10 locations. Some long-time businesses were reluctant to get involved. Co-owner Stacey Chilton of Chilton’s Sporting Goods, 248 E. Lincoln Highway, was one who was skeptical at first and then got involved.

“Rick is a magician,” Chilton said. “He’s made things happen downtown that, in the past, might have had difficulty happening, if you see what I’m saying. He’s been able to communicate with the downtown and the university.”

Ever the minute-detail man, Cerrone also remembered that Stacey and his brother Kirby grew up in DeKalb and were big Bork fans. Who convinced the College Football Hall of Famer to stick his head into Chilton’s Tuesday for a minute to say “hi” and a chat?  Rick Cerrone.

“In the 1960s, my two favorite quarterbacks were George and Joe Namath,” Stacey admitted. “Rick’s made connections. He got through to us.”

According to Debbie Armstrong, the executive of the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau, there’s talk of placing similar Northern Illinois window clings at the DeKalb Oasis on Interstate 88. More Huskies exposure if true. 

Up and down Lincoln Highway, Cerrone is also responsible for getting Huskies artifacts, autographed pictures, Hall of Fame plaques on the walls of local businesses.  Long-time residents still have pleasant memories of all-time NIU greats such as Bork, Jack Dean, Joe Novak, Don Flavin, John McDougal, Howard Fletcher, Fritz Peterson, etc.

The future is your past. The past is your future.  

Full disclosure:  If you haven’t guessed already, Rick has been a close friend for almost four decades and, over the years, has done many favors for the old alma mater. In 2004, Cerrone opened the doors for Novak (and subsequent NIU coaches and administrators) to throw out ceremonial pitches at The Cell and Wrigley Field. When the 7-0 Huskies were No. 10 in the BCS standings in 2003, who assisted us in getting Novak on WFAN-AM in New York City? Guess. Distribute a case of the infamous “Turner the Burner” hot sauce to key NYC media? Glad to, Mike. Thanks, Rick.

After being retained by NIU Vice President for University Advancement Michael Malone and athletics a few years ago, Cerrone and I had dinner one steamy summer night in downtown DeKalb. Believe it or not, I made the observation to RIck that outside of some lamppost flags and the temporary “Huskie Store” on the corner of Third and Lincoln in August 2003, there wasn’t much of an NIU presence on the main drag in town.

Cerrone came up with a good, creative, manageable idea, worked with the university hierarchy and community leaders. The collaboration, the improved town-gown relations give hope for the future.

NIU President Doug Baker and DeKalb Mayor John Rey talk about developing a “cool college town” for the common good. Window clings may not stop the decline of downtown DeKalb, but it’s a start.

The future is your past. The past is your future. Tradition doesn’t graduate.

• 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

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