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Though Northern Illinois keeps winning, team keeps struggling at turnstiles

7-31-08 Northern Illinois (NIU) Athletic Director Jeff Compher mediday harry caray's. (phoby john h white/chicago sun-times)

7-31-08 Northern Illinois (NIU) Athletic Director Jeff Compher, at media day, harry caray's. (photo by john h white/chicago sun-times)

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Updated: December 18, 2012 7:57PM

DeKALB — Dave Doeren went 23-4 in two years as coach at Northern Illinois. He led the Huskies to the program’s first Mid-American Championship in 27 years last season before adding a second title this year.

But he still left unfinished business behind when he accepted the job at North Carolina State on Dec. 1. His biggest regret is that the team with the nation’s longest home winning streak didn’t sell out a home game while he was on the sideline.

“We play a very good brand of football that doesn’t get watched in person enough,” Doeren said three days before exiting. “That’s not just here. That’s across the landscape of mid-major conferences. But to have all the streaks we have and not sell it out is probably the biggest disappointment I have.”

The Huskies’ controversial berth in the Orange Bowl has created by far the biggest athletic event — and marketing opportunity — in school history. NIU’s goal is to ensure that the exposure and enthusiasm lasts long after the team’s New Year’s Day showdown with Florida State.

Athletic director Jeff Compher realizes this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bolster attendance, build the NIU brand and transform 24,000-seat Huskie Stadium into an environment befitting a team ranked 16th in the final Associated Press Poll.

“I don’t think it’s a new problem,” Compher said. “It’s a problem that has been there for a while. We’ve tried to do a lot of creative things to address it, but somehow our program needed to be legitimized, and it has been through this experience. People now are saying, ‘This team is worthy of being on the national stage, we need to go support it.’ That’s one of the greatest things that can happen from this. More and more people will step up and say, ‘I’ve got to go watch that team. I’ve got to go be a part of it. They’re that good.’ ”

Attendance problems are nothing new to mid-major programs, and NIU is no different despite its proximity to Chicago. A visitor driving through downtown DeKalb two days before the program captured it’s second consecutive MAC title never would have known a local college team was preparing for one of the biggest games in its history. Nobody had written “Go Huskies!” on storefronts. There were no red-and-black banners hanging from windows.

Even on the university’s 756-acre campus, there were few outward signs of enthusiasm for a team that had won 20 of its last 21 games, had earned its highest national ranking since 2003 and had a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Jordan Lynch. It illustrated what some describe as a disconnect between the team, the community and the student body, the causes of which are difficult to identify.

The team has done its part, winning the most games in the MAC in the last decade. Its 83 percent graduation rate ranks 16th in the nation.

“It’s hard to understand,” said former quarterback Tim Tyrrell, a conference MVP. “How do you not go out to watch that team? Maybe there’s more to do or people are watching it on TV. I don’t know what to blame it on. Northern is doing a great job of trying to maintain everything that would grow sports in college. They have winning programs. They’re trying to bring back alumni. They don’t just call when they need money. They have really attempted sincerely to get you involved with the school. I don’t know. I don’t understand. The facilities are ridiculous [compared to] when I was there. They’re getting the athletes. They’re just not getting the kids out there. I don’t know why.”

There’s no easy answer for why attendance has declined, even though NIU has 165,000 alumni in the Chicago area, according to Joe Matty, executive director and CEO of the NIU Alumni Association. A myriad of factors might or might not help explain the empty seats at Huskie Stadium when Toledo visited Nov. 14.

The game was played on a chilly Wednesday night to accommodate ESPN2. MAC teams often swap Saturday afternoon dates for weeknight slots. It brings national TV exposure, which brings revenue and aids recruiting.

It’s not easy to attract Division I opponents from major conferences to Huskie Stadium. A Big Ten team never has visited DeKalb. The “home game” Sept. 1 against Iowa was played at Soldier Field.

Doeren did community outreach, racing a car at Chicagoland Speedway, skydiving and even touring a local farm. He admitted results were mixed.

“It’s going to get better,” Doeren said, pointing to the stadium outside his old office window. “They’re putting a new Jumbotron in here next year, they’re putting all these signs on the side, those ribbon LEDs. The [new] indoor training facility opens in October. The state [high school football] championships are here next year. This place is taking off. The last thing is to fill the stadium.”

While NIU is a short drive from the far western suburbs, the Huskies aren’t thought of as Aurora’s team or Naperville’s team. That makes it difficult to draw fans from those areas.

Perhaps the bigger mystery is why more of the university’s 22,000 students don’t attend games. With a dorm capacity of 6,000, NIU long has been thought of as a commuter school, with many students heading back to Chicago or the suburbs on weekends.

The athletic department has tried everything to spur interest, even putting free tickets in every student’s mailbox.

“You don’t know how many people I know who went to Iowa and stayed in Iowa and embraced athletic events,” said recent NIU graduate Ben Gross, who studied the attendance problem while reporting for the student newspaper, the Northern Star. “It’s not as strong at Northern. There are fans who identify with the Huskies and are diehards, but not as many. If sports is a big reason why you’re picking a college, Northern Illinois is probably not at the top of your list.”

Recently promoted coach Rod Carey knows the only thing Doeren failed to accomplish has been transferred to the top of his to-do list. Compher is optimistic that national headlines trumpeting the team’s success will help build momentum and ticket sales for next season.

“I’m hoping this will open some people’s minds and they’ll say, ‘Next year, let’s get some tickets and go watch the Huskies,’ ” Compher said.

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