A whole new feel with NIU hoops

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By Joe Henricksen

Mark Montgomery gets it. The new head coach at Northern Illinois has endured a flurry of activity any new coach on the job experiences, but he’s already cognizant of what needs to be done to make NIU basketball relevant. And he’s anxious to get started on fulfilling that vision.

The introductory press conferences are over. The short and quick media attention given to the Mid-American Conference school has come and gone. The brief honeymoon period any new coach receives has started. And Montgomery has stressed the goal for the program is for all their student-athletes to “reach their full potential academically, athletically and socially.”

Yes, attaining those goals are essential and vitally important. But what has recently held NIU basketball back and what has been lacking is any type of presence, particularly when it comes to recruiting the Chicago area. And a visible head coach is imperative in creating that presence. Ask a majority of local basketball observers and “it” people in Chicago hoops, and that’s a big part of why a coaching change was needed after the Huskies finished 19-41 over the past two seasons.

While hiring a coach who comes from the highly-successful Tom Izzo coaching tree is a terrific start, that splash will only go so far and last so long.

Recruiting power and success, especially in a place like Northern Illinois that is a stones throw away from its recruiting base, comes by building relationships and being seen and heard. As a whole, from top to bottom, that just didn’t materialize in recent years under the old staff.

Montgomery and his partially assembled staff–a third assistant still needs to be hired–have already made a conscious effort to reach out. By all accounts, Montgomery made a solid hire by bringing on Dayton assistant Jon Borovich, who is a sharp, easy-to-talk-to assistant who brings a lot to the table from his years under coach Brian Gregory. Montgomery also kept a true bright spot from the old regime, Todd Townsend, who has certainly made recruiting inroads and connections in his short time in DeKalb.

Together, the three of them have been doing all they can, even in a relatively short period of time, to connect with as many people–the right people–as possible. The getting-to-know-you process will continue, but Montgomery realizing the importance of that process is a huge step in the right direction.

“Without relationships we have nothing,” Montgomery points out. “You have to establish relationships. It’s the backbone to everything–from recruiting to the overall advancement of the basketball program.”

Like all coaches at their respective schools, Montgomery wants to get kids excited about NIU basketball. Every coach wants kids excited to be around the program and around the coaching staff, including Montgomery. He wants kids on campus. He wants them visiting with their families and seeing up close what the program and staff is all about. But none of that happens on its own. That’s where Montgomery and his staff understand and believe hard work will get it done.

“I can guarantee visibility will not be an issue,” says Montgomery.

And at Northern Illinois it should never be an issue, certainly not when a quick 45 to 90 minute car ride can get a coach to any gym in the city and suburbs.

“It’s essential that we as a staff are visible,” Montgomery reiterates. “Building those relationships are what helps you connect with players and their families, with both high school coaches and AAU coaches. We have to have those connections and build those relationships.”

While it will take time, those connections and relationships are what will rejuvenate NIU hoops. And when it comes to first impressions in that regard, Montgomery is off to the right start.

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