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posted: 1/3/2013 5:30 AM

Dark side can be so tempting for college sports

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  • Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald celebrates with the trophy after their 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on Tuesday.

      Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald celebrates with the trophy after their 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on Tuesday.
    Associated Press

 
 

Goose bumps are receding in DeKalb and cheers are quieting in Evanston.

So now what?

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As often is said in sports, if you aren't getting better you're getting worse. That places the Northwestern and Northern Illinois football programs at the intersection of Progress and Regress.

No crossing guards are waving them on. NU and NIU will have to decide for themselves which direction to go.

According to head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern already is intent on taking the next step toward contending for national championships.

One way that NU is moving that way is by raising funds for a $220 million athletic facility that will rank among the nation's best.

Exactly where Northern Illinois is headed hasn't quite been articulated yet, other than administrators saying the Huskies know who they are.

It would be surprising if NIU doesn't consider moving up in college football because nobody wants to remain stagnant or move down.

One thing is for sure: The future is risky when a football program decides to social climb.

Northwestern and Northern Illinois are at a point of being exemplary athletic programs. That isn't because on New Year's Day the Wildcats won a bowl game for the first time in 64 years and the Huskies played in the Orange Bowl.

Countless creepy universities led by creepy coaches deploying creepy players win bowl games and play in BCS games.

The difference here is that most indications are that Northwestern and Northern Illinois reached there the principled way.

NU and NIU have clean slates when it comes to NCAA crime blotters, succeeding without having to first or presumably later go on probation for rules violations.

All sorts of players from all sorts of teams were suspended for their behavior during this bowl season, but none of them were Wildcats or Huskies.

Northwestern and Northern Illinois also rank high nationally for their players' grade-point averages and graduation rates.

That's super stuff.

To win 10 games, as the Cats did this season, and qualify for the Orange Bowl, as the Huskies did, without compromising ethics and academics is unusual in this era of major-college athletics.

The question now is how much further these two football programs can go without being sucked into the cesspool.

Does Northwestern really want to compete for national championships against the shady Southeastern Conference? Or, let's face it, against scandal-saddled Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten?

Even Notre Dame, which has an opportunity next week to win its first national title in 23 years, has exposed some character flaws in recent times.

As for Northern Illinois, it is faced with in an ever-evolving, ever-jumbled, ever-challenging football landscape.

After the sweet taste of oranges down in Miami, will Huskies Nation be content returning to the anonymity of the Mid-American Conference?

NIU football might have been successful enough the past decade to be attractive to more prominent leagues, and administrators in DeKalb might be tempted to at least consider bolting the MAC.

If so, Northern would have to expand its stadium and do whatever it takes to win often enough to attract more fans to fill the place.

Northwestern and Northern Illinois deserve the benefit of trust on the integrity meter after the way they built their programs to this point.

But even the incorruptible can be corrupted -- wittingly or unwittingly -- by college football.

NU and NIU might want to stop and ponder before turning the corner toward wherever they're going.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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