Which way to go? NIU athletics at crossroad

By Sean Ostruszka

NIU athletics finds itself in an interesting time — one where history may be divided between before and after.

On the outside, the program looks to be a growing beacon of success.

Running back Garrett Wolfe is making national headlines, the walls of the new Athletic and Academic Performance Center are in place and NIU has teams on the rise in men’s soccer, men’s basketball, volleyball and wrestling.

Yet while the surface looks calm, the current underneath begs to differ.

With respect to all the other teams, NIU goes only as far as the football team carries it. And if it weren’t for Wolfe and tackle Doug Free, NIU would be going in reverse.

Attendance is down and cake-walk games have turned into battles, or even worse — losses.

And while NIU tries to gain more national exposure with games against top-ranked teams, in the end, all ABC telecasts is NIU turning itself into just another piddly MAC school for BCS teams to warmup on.

Riding the success of previous years, a new athletic building was necessary and the AAPC was a step in the right direction. One that many felt would be the piece to get Huskie athletics over the hump.

But as great as the building will be, with its lack of added seating for fans, it also hurts NIU’s chances of ever becoming a big name college. Without a bigger stadium recruits will go elsewhere, along with BCS schools. Plus NIU will never be able to dream about jumping to a better conference.

All these things are sitting on Athletic Director Jim Phillips’ plate right now.

While football carries the program, he carries football. And he’s the one man who controls where the program goes from here.

But where does NIU go from here?

The program has enough strong points where, if sound decisions are made, NIU can not only be a MAC powerhouse for years to come but also gain national respect like Fresno State and Gonzaga did.

But a few wrong moves, a few poorly thought-out decisions, and NIU may find itself with the likes of Indiana, Marshal and Temple.

College programs can fall quickly. And NIU is walking the tight rope right now.