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Northwestern game a boon for NIU

Running back Keith Harris Jr. crosses into the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter of Northern Illinois hosting Eastern Illinois on Saturday, September 21, 2013. The Huskies won 43-39.
Running back Keith Harris Jr. crosses into the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter of Northern Illinois hosting Eastern Illinois on Saturday, September 21, 2013. The Huskies won 43-39.

Do we have things to discuss. Northern Illinois-Northwestern football in 2014. Jerry Kill. Pam Oliver. College basketball magazines. Birthday trivia.

Topic No. 1: What rational person wouldn’t want to schedule “Chicago’s Big Ten team?” You want media exposure in Chicago? Simple solution. Play (and beat) Northwestern in Cook County. This week’s announcement about the Sept. 6, 2014, matchup in Evanston was the lead sports story most of the day on WGN-AM radio. Can’t beat those type of 50,000-watt props on NU’s flagship outlet.

All 225,000 NIU alums had to love the Chicago Tribune’s “Main Event” comment on the game. “There has been debate about which university has the best football program in Illinois,” the Trib commented, “...all we know for sure is it doesn’t wear Orange.” Ba-doom.

First-year Northern Illinois athletics director Sean Frazier made the phone call that his predecessor wouldn’t. Astute Northwestern AD (and ex-Huskie boss) Jim Phillips took notes at the last meeting of the two schools in 2005 when the Wildcats outlasted the DeKalb visitors, 38-37, before one of the largest Ryan Field nonconference crowds (35,114) in the past decade.

With Northwestern not in session that early in September, Phillips needs to fill seats and sell tickets. Recent NU nonconference opponents such as Towson, South Dakota, Maine or Rice didn’t draw or excite North Shore fandom as the Huskies should.  Sure, in some ways, it’s a risk bringing in an up-and-coming local mid-major with seven bowl appearances in the past 10 years. Give Phillips and coach Pat Fitzgerald credit.

For NIU, so was scheduling FCS Eastern Illinois. Look what happened. Classic comeback victory before a sellout crowd at Huskie Stadium. What better advertisement for NIU football?

Frazier hit the nail directly on the head about football scheduling problems, i.e., avoiding good teams and in-state rivals.

“Declining attendance at college football games is a national trend and scheduling has been identified as a prime factor in the decline,” he said in NIU’s announcement release. 

NIU vs. NU in 2014 shouldn’t have that fan indifference problem.

Heck, if Frazier finally can schmooze a Big Ten Conference football program into Huskie Stadium, many of us would endorse him as the AD of the Decade.

Topic No. 2: Minneapolis Star-Tribune sports columnist Jim Souhan ignited a firestorm in the Twin Cities for recently calling for Jerry Kill’s removal as head football coach at Minnesota for health reasons. As many of you know, coach Kill has overcome cancer yet lives every day beset with epilepsy and occasional seizures.

As a result of the tumult created by the Souhan column, Kill will not discuss his health with the media.

A respected journalist, Souhan has drawn heavy criticism from not only readers, but the publisher of his own newspaper. Some of Souhan’s comments on Kill:

“How can a school continue to employ a football coach who has had four seizures during or after the 16 home games he has coached at the school (Minnesota), along with an unknown number of seizures away from the public eye? His latest epileptic seizure, suffered on Saturday (Sept. 14), evokes sympathy for him and his family. He appears to be a good man earnestly trying to elevate a woeful program while searching for ways to manage his disease.

“Even those who admire him can’t believe that he should keep coaching major college football after his latest episode. Either the stress of the job is further damaging his health, or his health was in such disrepair that he shouldn’t have been hired to coach in the Big Ten in the first place.

“Kill’s case is sad.” Souhan continued. “He did good work his entire life to reach a position that his system can no longer handle.”

Okay, coaching at Southern Illinois, or even at Northern Illinois, is not the national fish bowl that is the Big Ten and Minnesota. Yes, I despaired and my heart sank a few years ago watching one of Kill’s sideline seizures on YouTube. Souhan makes some points, but since when do sportswriters practice medicine? Where’s the quotes from a specialist (from Mayo Clinic, maybe?) on Kill’s condition? And, quite frankly, isn’t Jerry Kill’s health his business or his family’s?

I don’t know what Souhan wrote about Kill’s predecessor at Minnesota (Tom Brewster with an overall 15-30 record in 2007-10) when the Gophers resembled a Three Stooges short. In his third season up north, Kill stands 4-0 this fall and 13-16 overall, plus led Minnesota to a bowl game last season. To most, that’s progress and that’s how Kill and his program should be judged.

In an August interview with the Star-Tribune, Kill did acknowledge his health situation.

“You can’t be the head football coach and miss half of a game,” Kill said. “I mean, I’m not stupid. I realize that. If I was doing those things, the university wouldn’t have to fire me. I’d walk away if I didn’t think I could do it.”

There’s your answer, Mr. Souhan.

Topic No. 3: First, it was Chandler Harnish and his errant pass in warm-ups, then the Ohio State Marching Band last Sunday. Fox Sports sideline reporter Pam Oliver really needs a bodyguard at her NFL assignments – or at least hazardous duty pay.  

Prior to last week’s Green Bay-Cincinnati game, Oliver almost got run down by two members of the OSU band as it left the field while she did a pre-game report. Somebody (Oliver, her crew, the camera man) needs to be more aware of her surroundings. Earlier this summer, Harnish accidentally hit Oliver in the face with a pass on the sideline.

Topic No. 4: I know the NCAA has moved up the start of pre-season basketball practice. But it’s still September and there must be four or five college basketball magazines already on the stands. The Sporting News one arrived first prior to Labor Day. No wonder SIDs go nuts and become columnists.

Topic No. 5: How’s this for the ultimate Huskie trivia? Two 1960s all-time Northern Illinois greats attended last Saturday’s home opener – quarterback George Bork and baseball pitcher Fritz Peterson. Not only were both originally from Mount Prospect, they went to the same grammar school, the same high school, and – honest – share the same birthdate.

Fearless Korcek Prediction:  Northern Illinois 35, Purdue 28

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