The future is now for the Northern Illinois University men's basketball program. Following a 5-23 campaign during the 2000-01 basketball season, NIU's athletics administration made an emphatic statement to the rest of the Mid-American Conference when it named one of the nation's "top young assistant coaches", Rob Judson, the 25th head coach in program history.
Introduced to the Huskie faithful at a March 6, 2001, press conference, Judson brought instant credibility to an NIU program searching to restore its proud hardwood tradition. A long time assistant throughout the state at Northern Illinois (1989-91), Bradley University (1991-96) and the University of Illinois (1996-2001), Judson's ties to the area and his recruiting prowess throughout the region made him a natural to revitalize the NIU program.
Already eighth in school history with 50 career victories, only Jim Molinari (1989-91), reached the 40-win mark faster than Judson and his average of 13 wins a season over his first-three years was the best start to a coaching tenure in school lore (with at least three seasons coached).
While Judson made his national reputation as a recruiter, perhaps it's his role of a teacher that accurately depicts his four seasons at Northern Illinois.
Whether it be team or individual success, Northern Illinois has been taken to the next level under Judson. Last season, sophomore Mike McKinney became just the fifth Northern Illinois underclassman to earn All-Conference recognition and joined the likes of Huskie legends Kenny Battle and Allen Rayhorn as the lone NIU underclassmen ever to grace an All-MAC listing. Team success was also achieved under Judson in 2004-05, as the Huskies defeated a pair of RPI Top-25 clubs and won the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islander Classic.
Northern Illinois' initial win over a ranked foe came Nov. 27 at the All-State Arena in Rosemont, IL, when the Huskies shocked the nationally-ranked DePaul Blue Demons by an 84-69 margin on a regionally-televised broadcast on Comcast SportsNet Chicago. In addition to making a profound statement about the growth of the program, the young Huskies recorded their first-ever road win at DePaul and set the tone for an exciting season. Just over a month later, NIU traveled to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and toppled the host Islanders, a team with an RPI of 23 at the time of the game. Earlier that season, Texas A&M-CC had defeated the likes of Baylor, Texas Christian, Old Dominion and Florida State prior to their 73-67 setback to NIU.
The 2003-04 season also saw Judson and his squad compete with a youthful roster. Outfitted with nine first or second-year players, Judson unveiled a team that not only fought for wins every night out, but held second-half leads in eight of its 20 defeats. Plagued by injuries and inexperience, Judson's squad showed tremendous character throughout the up-and-down campaign, battling a number of the league's top teams to the wire before succumbing to a 10-20 overall record. NIU held double-figure leads against National Invitational Tournament participants Iowa, Kent State and Toledo (twice), but the inexperience of having nine relative newcomers proved to be too much to overcome.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to a young squad is its ability to battle on the road. Although NIU finished with only one win away from the Convocation Center, the Huskies held second-period leads in half of those 14 contests before breaking through for a 67-61 win at Eastern Michigan on Feb. 28. Coming off an emotional 62-54 win over East Division runner-up Miami (OH) at the Convocation Center, the Huskies claimed that all-important six-point win in Ypsilanti, MI, to give the squad its second of three-straight wins to bring the regular-season to a close.
A major breakthrough for Judson and the Huskies came during the 2002-03 campaign. After a difficult first two months of the year, Northern Illinois turned it on in January, winning 10-of-11 games--including seven-straight road victories--to vault into the top spot in the Mid-American Conference West Division. It was the first time since coming back to the league that the Huskies were alone on top of the division.
A season of firsts was capped off by the school's first postseason victory--an 81-64 win over Buffalo--since 1996. The Huskies were a game away from competing for a NCAA Tournament bid, concluding their season with a loss to MAC Champion Central Michigan in the semifinals of the MAC Tournament.
Based on the famous Judson family tree, his Academic All-America playing career, and his 21 winters in the coaching ranks, the 47-year-old Judson boasts a cage genealogy that may be unprecedented at this level. Long-time basketball observers have described him as "the complete package" and one of the "hottest young assistant coaches in the nation."
"Why did we hire Rob Judson? His basketball ties in Illinois. His experience. The respect of his colleagues. His recruiting acumen. His integrity. His respect for academics," former NIU Athletics Director Cary Groth said upon his hiring. "Being an Academic All-American, he understands the importance of academics. Rob met all the criteria."
Throughout the years, Judson built a stellar resume. His career objective on a resume dated from the late 1980's and his first Huskie tenure read: "To become a major-college head basketball coach." The next line added that he wanted to recruit, develop, maintain a highly successful program on a national level and produce quality teams and motivated individuals. Indeed, the future is now.
The 25th head coach in the 102-year history of the men's basketball program, Judson arrived in DeKalb at the right time, a day after the Huskies were eliminated from the 2001 MAC Post-Season Tournament in an 89-57 setback to Ball State University which left Northern Illinois with a 5-23 won-lost record, the worst such mark in the school's 100-year men's basketball history.
"We are thrilled that our family can rejoin the Northern Illinois family," Judson said at a jam-packed press conference in downtown Chicago. "We had a special time in DeKalb ten years ago. We loved the community and wanted to stay. For us, this is a perfect fit. I'm looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead. It's a tremendous opportunity."
Not only has Judson made six previous NCAA tournament appearances and two in the National Invitational Tournament, he has coached on four regular-season Division I league champions, the Mid-Continent Conference winner with Northern Illinois in 1991, the Missouri Valley Conference with Bradley University in 1996, and Big Ten Conference in 1998 and 2001 with the University of Illinois.
During 12 years as a Division I assistant, Judson contributed to nine winning campaigns, eight 20-win seasons, five Top 40 squads, plus recruited two Conference Players of the Year - Bradley's Anthony Parker in the MVC (1996-97) and Illinois' Frank Williams in the Big Ten (2000-01). In that stretch, his teams compiled a 233-138 record and a .628 winning percentage.
Judson's two years with the Huskies represented the best back-to-back seasons in school history, winning 42 of 59 games in 17-11 (1989-90) and 25-6 (1990-91) campaigns under Molinari. That 1990-91 Northern Illinois quintet ruled the Mid-Continent in its first season of membership, won the Southwest Texas State Jowers Jamboree Tournament, ranked as high as No. 29 nationally on the USA Today-CNN poll (February 18) and No. 31 in the Associated Press version (February 25), and featured two Northern Illinois Hall of Fame members in forward Donnell Thomas and current Huskie assistant coach, guard Donald Whiteside.
Utilizing a stingy halfcourt "D", Molinari's Huskie club would rate among the Top Five NCAA Division I team leaders in scoring defense (No. 2 at 57.5 points-per-game yield); field-goal percentage defense (No. 2 at .388); and rebound margin (No. 5 at +7.5 rbpg.).
As Bradley's chief recruiter, Judson contributed to three consecutive 20-win campaigns (23-8, 20-10, and 22-8 during 1993-96) and three straight postseason tourneys as "Mo's" top aide before returning to his alma mater in 1996-97.
Judson's reputation as a one of the top recruiters in the country? The 2000-01 top-10-rated Illini team that captured a share of the Big Ten title and advanced to the Elite Eight featured nine of his recruits, including Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Williams. His Northern Illinois signees include All-Century pick Hubert Register, Mike Lipnisky, Mark Layton, Steve Oldendorf, Marlin Simms, and Brian Molis.
The Judson family tree has Illini written all over it. The fourth member of his family to letter at Illinois, Judson earned All-Big Ten Academic and Fourth-Team College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-America notice on the hardwood as a junior. The next year he repeated as a league all-academic pick and won a fourth straight George Huff Academic Award.
During his four seasons under coach Lou Henson, the Illini compiled a 70-52 record, including a 23-13 year and a third-place NIT finish in Judson's junior year. He also set the Illinois single-season (.957) and career (.875) free throw percentage standards.
Besides his father, who won Illinois letters in 1955-56, his uncles Paul and Howard also did their thing for the Illinois cage program. Paul lettered from 1954-56, earning First-Team All-Big Ten honors his last two years. Howard earned basketball monograms in 1944 and 1945 before a seven-year stint in major-league baseball as a pitcher with the Chicago White Sox (1948-52) and Cincinnati Reds (1953-54).
As a prep, Judson's basketball career started as a four-year letterman for his father Phil, half of the famed Judson twins who led tiny Hebron High School to the 1952 Illinois High School Association state championship. Judson first made a name for himself by winning team, county, and North Suburban Conference MVP honors as a senior at Zion-Benton High School in 1975-76. He also earned All-Area and First-Team All-State laurels, plus set many ZBHS records. His coaching career began at Palatine High School in 1980-81 as a freshman coach under Ed Molitor.
From there, Judson resurrected the programs at both Wauconda High School (1981-83) and Glenbrook South High School (1983-89).
His first senior class at Glenbrook South produced a 19-9 ledger, the school's first regional trophy, and future DePaul standout Brad Nieman who set the state's consecutive free throw record (76) in 1986-87. For his efforts, Judson was named IBCA District Four Coach of the Year.
In 1990, Judson was inducted into the IBCA Hall of Fame as a player. He currently serves on that organization's Board of Directors. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts from Illinois in 1980 and a master's in administration with a perfect 5.00 grade point average from Roosevelt University in 1983.
Judson is married to the former Kim McCarty of Tuscola. Dr. Kim Judson is an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing in NIU's College of Business. The couple have three children, daughters, Karin, 20, and Kristin, 15; and son, Matthew, 17.