DeKALB - Joe Novak never thought this day would arrive. A trip to the Mid-American Conference Championship game. Nope. He knew with patience and belief in his system that the Huskies would one day earn a spot in the MAC title game. The 10th-year Northern Illinois coach never envisioned that one day he would take part in the ground-breaking ceremony for a state-of-the-art student-athlete center at Huskie Stadium. The long-awaited dream finally became a reality on Wednesday afternoon. The ground-breaking ceremony for the Academic and Athletic Performance Center was held during halftime of Wednesday's 42-7 victory over Western Michigan. “It's certainly has been a great day,” Novak said. “We worked very long for this to happen. We had a great day on and off the field.” The ceremony included three separate underground explosions, a fireworks display and a lighted AAPC sign. NIU has raised $7 million of the estimated $9.5 million in total costs. The project was funded without a lead donor, but gained momentum from the $1 million donations by George and Fran Wilkins and Jeffrey and Kimberly Yordon. Mid-American Conference Commissioner Rick Chryst called the ground-breaking an historic event. “I think it just takes (the conference) to another level,” he said. “It symbolizes the energy of the university, the energy in the football program, and it helps us show the rest of the schools how important a facility like this is.” The 60,000 square-foot, two-floor building will house a football equipment room, athletic training room, football locker room, coaches' locker room, front lobby, Huskie tunnel, academic support center, strength and conditioning center, tiered meeting room, roof terraces, atrium, coaches' offices and break-out meeting rooms. “Now it's time to take our football program, and all our athletic programs, to the next level,” Novak said. “This new, state-of-the-art academic and athletic performance center, will be dedicated not only to the development of bigger, faster, and stronger student athletes, but most importantly, to enhancing their academic performance and success. Our student athletes deserve this caliber of facility, our potential recruits expect it and the vast majority of our MAC competitors already have it.” Northern Illinois Athletics Director Jim Phillips announced plans for the AAPC in April during the spring football game. The project wasn't slated to break ground until $7 million was raised in donations. The target date was scheduled for the Western Michigan game on ESPN2. “This is a grass-roots effort when you look at the campaign as a whole,” Phillips said. “We didn't have the benefit of a four to five million dollar gift. We had a grass-roots effort. So many wonderful people contributed. This project was done by the generous contributions of numerous people.” Phillips said the AAPC was made possible by a pair of seven-figure donations, but the bulk came from “leadership gifts.” Twenty-three people donated more than $100,000. “In the 107-year history (of the school), we had just one $100,000 donor,” Phillips said. “In 14 months, we had 23 donors of $100,000 or more.” The second level of donation was called a “major gift.” Twenty-seven people contributed $25,000 and up to the AAPC. “We're certainly pleased with our donors,” Phillips said. “The donor interest is really high right now. We're thankful for that.” The ground-breaking ceremony, coupled with the school's first bid to the MAC title game, gives Northern Illinois an advantage in recruiting. “This helps level the playing field and maybe even tilt it in our face,” Phillips said. “We've had great history and tradition here, but have been lacking in facilities. Athletics is the front porch for the university. It's the most visible. This is a strong re-investment in the front porch. The front porch is not the most important part of a home, but it is the most visible part.” Phillips said an indoor facility remains an option and wants to build a practice facility similar to Central Michigan and Kent State. “We want all 469 student-athletes not to have to train in the winter in inclement weather,” he said. The 14-month donor fundraising project was aided by several donations from former Huskie players, including Justin McCareins and Ryan Diem. Phillips credited NIU President John Peters, Mallory Simpson, Mike Malone, Eddie Williams, the athletic department staff and the numerous donors for “allowing us to reach our goal.” Bobby Narang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.