Over the Hill

By Sean Ostruszka

Churches are louder than Huskie Stadium Mondays.

Lying near the residence halls on the west side of campus, the 40-year-old west grandstand lays silent during the week. The entire building is forgotten until the next home football game.

While Saturdays bring crowds of alumni and tailgaters, walk through Huskie Stadium’s west side any other day and you’ll be lucky to run into three people.

The air inside the west side always seems to remain motionless during the week. Any sound echoes through the dark halls and the seats remain barren and empty.

It’s quite a shift from game day, when cheers drown out conversations and you have to push and shove just to get in the concessions line.

It’s hard to imagine the west grandstand being around already for 40 years, but if you look close enough the stadium is starting to show its age.

The concrete slabs when entering the stadium still shine after being buffed, but the number of small cracks continues to grow.

Walk a little deeper toward the locker room and the still air grows mustier. Even without any players there, the smell of sweat from the walls clings to your nose.

The press box is claustrophobic, and when Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden saw NIU coach Joe Novak’s office, he smirked and said it was the same size as Texas coach Mack Brown’s closet.

When Huskie Stadium’s west grandstand celebrates its 40th anniversary this season, it’s officially over the hill. But its condition begs the question: How far over the hill is it?

NIU Sports Information Director, Mike Korcek has known the west grandstand pretty much from the beginning. A student at NIU during the second season of the stadium, Korcek remembers when the east grandstand was nothing more than bleachers, and the football coaches’ offices were a classroom.

The structure is a symbol of NIU football and has housed some of the greatest players and teams in NIU’s history, said Korcek. The smells and memories are there only because of the west grandstand’s longevity.

But every prestigious building has its problems. Wrigley Field had concrete breaking off it two seasons ago, and the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field recently was renovated due to poor conditions. The same goes for the west grandstand.

Having worked at NIU for more than 32 years, Korcek has been around and worked in the structure most of his life. It’s one of his favorite buildings on campus, but even he says working in that building means getting used to working in less than ideal conditions.

In 1983, ABC wanted to televise an NIU game. The problem was the stadium didn’t have a television booth.

Korcek and a few others had to build an auxiliary booth that, according to him, was at best a shack. To make matters worse, ABC ended up not coming for the game.

Cases like this have become common. While basketball has ideal facilities to entice recruits in the Convocation Center, Korcek feels NIU has lost football recruits due to the conditions of the stadium.

“It’s very inadequate,” said Korcek. “I think [the football coaches] often try not to show recruits their offices because of how they look. We need to do something with the press box and the stadium will have to be expanded if NIU wants to continue to grow.”

With NIU’s proximity to Chicago, it has the largest media base of any MAC university. But without proper facilities, NIU may be missing opportunities for media coverage, both local and national.

Athletic Director Jim Phillips knows the situation with the west grandstand and has made sure to take steps for improvements.

The athletic department has made a few small upgrades to the grandstand that should keep the structure up to par for the next few years. But the problem isn’t going to go away, and long-term plans are already in the mix, said Phillips.

“We have plans,” said Phillips. “We imagine to do some type of renovation, but it has to fit and be in unison with other projects on campus.”

The top priority for the stadium is the new end zone facility, but once that project is done, Phillips will look to make the west side more fan and media friendly.

Saturday, alumni and general Huskie fans crowded into the west grandstand and watched NIU beat Eastern Michigan.

The cheers could be heard from all over campus after every big play and the smoke from the canon in the north end zone blanketed the stadium after every score.

But once the game was over, so were the cheers. The west grandstand again became a silent place of memories and tradition.

Football fields are often considered “holy ground” due to the intense battles waged upon them. In the history of NIU, the west grandstand has seen more of these wars than any other spectator. And with some renovation, it will continue to see the NIU football program evolve.