clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is Northern Illinois a legitimate candidate for Big XII expansion?

New, 12 comments

The topic of NIU leaving the MAC has been beaten to death. But with the Big XII looking to grow, should we be reviving the age-old debate?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We've all grown weary of it.  Trust me.

Since the Northern Illinois Huskies' run as the powerhouse in the MAC began, NIU fans have spent nearly as much time desiring a jump elsewhere as they have focusing on the current situation.  A byproduct of NIU's success of the last decade has been a constant murmur from DeKalb about possible greener pastures, though none have ever emerged.  It's been tiring, even for this NIU fan and alum.

So understand that what is to follow is not the ramblings of a fan screaming from the mountaintops with no regard for logic.  Nor is this a piece intended to rip apart the status and reputation of the Mid-American Conference.  But the fact of the matter is this...

The Big XII is looking to expand... and Northern Illinois is a legitimate candidate to join.

I can hear the groans already.  There have been YEARS of baseless, irrational exclamations from Huskies fans about this and there hasn't been a sniff from the American or even Conference USA.  And somehow the Big XII would come calling?  Go home, Corey.  You're drunk.  But let us consider where our players currently sit...

****

After crowning one true champion(s) in 2014, the first ever college football playoff selection committee sent Big XII commissioner Bruce Bowlsby a clear, albeit somewhat unreasonable, message... you need a conference championship game.  The NCAA requires a conference to have at least twelve teams in order to hold a title game.  The Big XII sits with ten.

NIU is fresh off their third conference championship in four years and their fifth-straight division title.  Around Halloween, athletic director Sean Frazier unveiled a multi-step renovation plan for the facilities on the DeKalb campus, including an expansion of Huskie Stadium, upgrades to the Convocation Center, and the construction of a new baseball stadium.

The largest media market the Big XII impacts is Dallas (fifth-largest), and the conference contains two iconic national programs in Texas football and Kansas basketball.  NIU sits 60 minutes west of the nation's third-largest media market, which Daily Herald columnist and NIU alum Barry Rozner points out holds the largest alumni base of any university.

Chicago is home to the offices of the Big Ten, which remains ironic due to the conference's lack of impact within the city.  Northwestern athletics have continuously failed to gain traction, and the only dents in the armor of Notre Dame football's popularity have been good Illinois basketball and, well, NIU football.

The Big XII saw Nebraska, Texas A&M, Colorado and Missouri bolt in a two-year span, and nearly saw a mass exodus of schools leave for the then-PAC-10.  Waters calmed, and the conference grabbed two more schools (TCU and West Virginia).  With the landscape of college sports changed radically, it's clear the Big XII needs to return to their namesake.

That means there are two spots up for grabs, and Cincinnati seems like a lock for the first slot.  Programs like Memphis, BYU and Boise State all make sense, but if the Big XII wishes to broaden their stroke considerably, both financially and in popularity... Chicago provides the most interesting nut in college sports that has never fully been cracked.  And NIU is the only way in.

****

When I first saw the plans for the new athletics campus in DeKalb, I always felt there was something more behind them.  Something more than updating facilities that have long needed it.  Sean Frazier has long made it clear the big picture is the ultimate goal at NIU.  And since he took over, it's never felt like the big picture has been framed by the MAC.  He's never said anything to raise eyebrows, in fact just the opposite.  But the speed and ferocity at which Frazier is working, you can't help but feel he's cooking something up, or at least trying to.

Frankly, I've long felt a jump to the American Conference would be the next step.  In their effort to remold, the American has gravitated towards major markets with little interest in the actual status of a school's athletic department.  For posterity's sake, the American currently sits at eleven teams, with Navy joining next year and bringing a conference championship game with them.  The Big XII and Sun Belt will be the only two conferences in Division 1 without a conference title game in football next year.

But could the Big XII come knocking first?  It's rather simple... if the conference believes NIU can legitimately provide a way in to Chicago... Bruce Bowlsby will send his charter to DeKalb.  Over the last two years, Sean Frazier and President Doug Baker have made more of an effort to expand into the Windy City than anyone prior.  Has their early work been enough to turn the heads of our friends to the west?  It's something to ponder.

In the years and years of this subject matter, this is the first time where solid reasons exist why NIU could be a candidate for relocation.  Rozner doesn't write his column based on ignorant desire.  He writes it because pieces of this puzzle may actually be coming together.  But if you want a conspiracy theory, here's one for you...

Take a look at NIU's upcoming football schedules.  Go ahead, a good long look.  A lot of interesting schools on the calendar, eh?  A good amount of Power Five schools in the books!

Notice anyone missing?