NIU sports still hoping to be destination

Posted4/23/2013 9:24 PM
  • Former NIU athletic director Jeff Compher

    Former NIU athletic director Jeff Compher

About 15 minutes after a wild MAC championship game last fall, head coach Dave Doeren was meeting with North Carolina State and leaving Northern Illinois only two years after taking over the football operation.

OK, maybe it wasn't 15 minutes. Maybe it was a couple of hours, but it felt like 15 minutes when the Friday night game ended late and by Saturday morning the news was out and Doeren was gone.

Some 30 hours later, NIU had busted the BCS and was selected to play in the Orange Bowl. It was the greatest athletic achievement in NIU history, and immediately you had the ESPN analysts making fun of a team because its coach had already moved on.

It has been that way for NIU over the last few decades, hiring coaches and athletic directors, giving them the tools necessary to succeed, and then having to watch as they move on to jobs they view as bigger and better.

It remains to be seen whether Doeren will be the head coach of a BCS bowl team, but one can guess that he'll never get another chance.

That is hardly satisfying, however, when NIU continues to be viewed as steppingstone rather than destination, regardless of accomplishment in DeKalb.

Still, you can hardly blame a man for wanting to improve his lot in life, whether it's Doeren or anyone else, and in March NIU athletic director Jeff Compher did precisely that, becoming yet another to depart for a big raise and a bigger profile.

After five years at NIU, Compher departed for East Carolina, leaving behind a legacy of triumph but also a fan base and tens of thousands of Chicago-area alumni wondering why it always seems to be this way.

"It's difficult when you feel like you've been a part of something as special as NIU," Compher said Tuesday by phone. "For us as a family, there is a lot of transition right now. One son is graduating from high school and another from NIU this December.

"There's a new (NIU) president coming in and so it was a time in our lives when a lot was happening and it seemed like the right time to take a look at other opportunities."

It was also a chance for Compher to return home. A Baltimore native and graduate of James Madison in Virginia, where he played football, Compher also spent 13 years at North Carolina State.

"There's a strong family connection there," Compher explained. "I met my wife in North Carolina, we were married there and both kids were born there.

"For us, it's a chance to go back to an area that's a special place for us. Family history and all those things came into play. It's not easy to leave. It's not something we intended to do. It's never easy because of the people involved and all the relationships you have. That's the toughest part.

"I hired 14 head coaches, and most of them are still there. Those relationships are very, very important. It's hard to leave behind the students, the student-athletes, the coaches, the administrators, the fans, the alumni and all the people you've come to know and you've celebrated with over the years.

"Nothing about it is easy."

But Compher -- like Doeren and Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips before him -- has moved on, leaving us to wonder when NIU becomes an endpoint for talented coaches and executives.

"I definitely think it can be that," Compher said. "What it takes is consistency from a competitive standpoint, administrative support and perspective, and all those things are in place for it to happen at NIU.

"As that works its way through, it will become more and more of a destination.

"I know there are coaches on staff that have pretty much said that they don't want to be anywhere else. They've made that apparent and you can't take advantage of that. You reward them for that with multiyear contracts and that's part of the plan."

But there is nothing that compares to the free publicity of an invite to a major bowl game.

"There's been so much positive that has come from that and it reaches across the university in every way," Compher said. "I saw a report recently that applications are up 18 percent, and that's especially big when so many universities are reporting admissions slowing down.

"Ticket sales are ahead of last year. Coaches are out recruiting right now and they're getting into homes they wouldn't have been in before.

"Nationally, you think about the number of articles about us and Internet mentions from the time we were picked for the game to the week after the game, and it's enormous.

"Our university is pretty good at this technology thing," Compher said, still frequently referencing NIU as "us" or "we." "They could actually track the number of people who went to our website during the game, how many people went to the admissions site and checked to see what it would take to get into NIU. We tracked all that and it was huge.

"A few years ago, I gave my mother-in-law an NIU jacket to wear in Florida, and she used to wear it and no one would say a thing. After the bowl selection, every time she wore it she got questions about NIU from everyone, except now they knew where it was and what conference and all that.

"You just can't put a price on that kind of branding. It was really important. There's so much good happening and the future is very bright."

Listening to Compher speak with such pride, it seems clear it wasn't so much that he wanted to leave, especially now, but that he simply couldn't pass on this opportunity at this time.

Here's hoping there comes a day when men like Compher simply can't go.

•Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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