THE FIRST CENTURY
The first Northern Illinois Football Team (1899)
The 104th Season. The Northern Illinois University Football Centennial. The First Century. The Way We Were. The New Millennium. The Second Century.
Such an amazing juxtaposition-the Huskie past and future. A linear timeline does not do justice to all the accomplishments, the many team and individual milestones, or the joy and despair connected with Northern Illinois football. Or the parallel development of a major-college athletics program from such humble origins that mirrored the phenomenal growth of a Normal School into a full-fledged state university.
Do you think pioneer Northern Illinois State Normal School player-coach-team manager John L. Keith or the Huskies' first team captain Victor Kays could envision the Cardinal and Black's current role as one of the 119 National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1-A gridiron programs? If transported by a time machine from 1899 to 2005, how far would Kays' jaw drop upon seeing the modern 28,000-seat Huskie Stadium on West campus? Could Keith comprehend the monumental leap in competition from the early games against high schools, local town teams, or nearby academies to the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, etc.? Could anyone from those early days visualize NIU's 37th season as a major-college and games against such national powers as Nebraska, Florida, Michigan, Iowa, Miami (FL), and Ohio State? Or high profile Huskie appearances on national television?
Football. Back then, no one could spell the new word. In the quote from The Norther yearbook, it is hyphenated. On the flier reprinted on the opposite page, it's two words. At least author Mark Twain, after witnessing the Yale-Princeton game in 1900, said: "It beats croquet..."
Little did coach Keith know what he started. In the 103 memory-filled seasons since (except for 1917, 1918, and 1919 when Northern Illinois did not field a team due to World War I), the Cardinal and Black molded a rich tradition in football. Sixty-three of those Huskie campaigns wound up .500 or better. Since 1899, there have been 472 Northern Illinois victories to celebrate, 423 defeats to agonize, and 51 ties to frustrate.
There has been a National Championship (1963), seven bowl teams (1946, 1947, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1983, and 2004), four unbeaten untied seasons (1904, 1944, 1951, and 1963), eight conference championships (1938, 1944, 1946, 1951, 1963, 1964, 1965, and 1983), and three division titles (2001, 2002, and 2004). There have been Huskies in pro football since the 1930s, All-Pro performers (six), Super Bowl champions (one), Heisman Trophy vote getters (four), national individual statistical champions (16), All-America selections (76), and Academic All-America picks (12). Not bad as legacies go.
Northern Illinois took its first football steps in 1899. Keith, a professor of pedagogy (teaching), was exposed to the game on the East coast as a graduate student at Harvard and coached that sport and basketball at Illinois State Normal School prior to his arrival in DeKalb. Since NISNS enrolled only 25 male students "...football was the most difficult (sport to start)...and only with Professor Keith as one of the players were they able to field a team," wrote Earl W. Hayter in his book, Education in Transition-The History of Northern Illinois University.
"The football season was half gone when the idea occurred to that ingenious man, Mr. Keith, that the NISNS might get up and support a team," The Norther reported in the spring of 1900. With the 5-foot-9, 136-pound Keith at quarterback, Northern Illinois with a roster of 14 "men and boys" (the vintage team picture on this page only features 13 players) defeated DeKalb High School, 16-0, in its gridiron debut on November 10, 1899. Victory No. 1. The first of many.
Two years later, Keith's fledging Huskies recorded their first intercollegiate success. On November 2, 1901, Northern Illinois blanked North Central College of Naperville, 10-0, in DeKalb. James I. Frederick-listed as the starting left tackle-ran for a 75-yard touchdown vs. NCC. Halfback Sanford Givens scored the other TD on a "smash through the line." In those days, TDs-when the point after kick was missed-were worth only five points. Season-wise, Northern Illinois would finish 6-1 overall and outscore the opposition, 108-18.
By 1902, championship fever struck in DeKalb. The Norther called it "...defending The Castle"-in reference to the original campus building, Altgeld Hall. Keith's Northern Illinois eleven produced a 5-1-1 record "...and Eastern (Illinois) Normal challenged his team for the championship," Hayter described. "With the largest crowd in three seasons on hand, Northern defeated Charleston (10-0 on November 15) and declared itself the 'champion Normal team of the State.'"
Circa 1903, another new chapter opened in the Northern Illinois football story. NISNS moved to its new home for the next 60 football seasons-the rustic 400-seat Glidden Field on East campus next to the Kishwaukee River where the Art and Music buildings are now located.
Obviously, hundreds of student-athletes and many coaches contributed to the Huskie success story. The fourth-winningest taskmaster in the Northern Illinois football legacy turned out to be the popular Willard W. Wirtz. Not only did Wirtz produce a 33-17-9 won-lost-tied record during 1910-16, his son (also Willard W.) would later succeed Arthur Goldberg as the Secretary of Labor in the John F. Kennedy administration in 1961.
In three seasons (1920-22), Paul Harrison coached Northern Illinois to 3-5-0, 3-5-0, and 5-4-1 campaigns.
His claim to Huskie fame? According to The Norther, Harrison beat all the National Football League teams currently training in Wisconsin by several decades. In 1922, he took the Cardinal and Black to Lake Geneva for a week of calisthenics, heavy work, practice, chalk talks, hikes, sunburn, swimming, letter writing, and newspaper reading.
Ever heard the advertising slogan for M&Ms? "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands." Sound familiar? That Madison Avenue classic was created by ex-Huskie football captain, NIU Athletics Hall of Famer, and All-Little 19 Conference offensive guard John McNamara (1927-31). McNamara served as the president of M&M Mars, Inc., invented M&M peanut candies, and was also the chairman of the board for Uncle Ben's Rice.
During his upperclassman years, McNamara's coach was George "Chick" Evans-probably the chief architect of Northern Illinois football. Evans was synonymous with Huskie athletics during and after his 39-year stint as the school's athletics director and 26 of those as head football coach. Evans-coached elevens were known for their big play aerial attack and captured four undisputed Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships (1938, 1944, 1946, and 1951). "Chick" leads the Northern Illinois victory list with an all-time 132-70-20 mark.
Evans' greatest eleven? You won't get too many arguments by going with the 9-0-0 IIAC kingpins in 1951, led by Little All-America quarterback Bob Heimerdinger and split end Fran Cahill-the school's first NFL draft pick (19th round by the New York Giants in 1952). This Huskie group featured seven First-Team All-IIAC picks and two more NFL free agents. Northern Illinois preserved the perfect regular-season record with an amazing 27-26 comeback victory at Nebraska-Omaha. The downer came when NIU's governing body, the State Teachers College Board, turned down a bid to the Florida-based Tangerine Bowl since it would extend the season seven weeks.
Another lineman-an All-Little 19 tackle named Howard Fletcher-from Evans' 1938 league champs followed in "Chick's" footsteps 18 seasons later as Huskie head coach. From 1956 until 1968, "Fletch" produced a 74-48-1 record and became Northern Illinois' second winningest coach. Fletcher lived by the pass and the Dutch Meyer Spread or "Shotgun" formation, won three IIAC crowns (1963, 1964, and 1965), and captured the College Division National Championship (1963).
"Fletch's" fabled Hall of Fame team finished 10-0-0 behind the phenomenal passing of Little All-America quarterback George Bork and a Hall of Fame retinue of stickyfingered receivers-Hugh Rohrschneider, Gary Stearns, and Jack Dean. The Huskies won the school's first postseason game by defeating Southwest Missouri State, 21-14, in the Mineral Water Bowl and finished No. 1 in the final season Associated Press national ratings. Similar to future Mid-American Conference grid brethren which captured National College Division titles-Bowling Green State (1959) and Ohio (1960), Northern Illinois now had the needed impetus for new grid horizons late in The First Century-the MAC (1973), major-college status (1969), and a modern facility (1965)-The House That Bork Built, i.e., Huskie Stadium.
Northern Illinois-along with Idaho, Pacific, and San Diego State-would be elevated to University Division status (now known as Division 1-A) by the Classification Committee of the Football Writers Association of America on June 30, 1969. At the time, NIU became only the third Division 1-A institution in the state and joined a (then) select group of 118 nationwide.
In major-college year No. 4, Northern Illinois posted a 7-4-0 season with four triumphs in its final five games-including a 28-7 triumph over defending MAC champion Kent State with superstar linebacker Jack Lambert and a 30-7 road victory at Toledo-for coach Jerry Ippoliti.
While the highlight of NIU's first tenure in the Mid-Am (1975-85) would be The Championship Season in 1983, one cannot ignore the individual brilliance of fullback Mark Kellar (NCAA 1-A rushing champ in 1973) and split end Dave Petzke (NCAA 1-A receiving champ in 1978), both future Huskie Hall of Famers and All-Century Team selections.
Under head coach Bill Mallory, Northern Illinois cracked the Top 40 in 1983-finishing No. 30 in the final AP poll, winning the MAC, and going 10-2-0-including a season-opening 37-34 triumph at Kansas, the school's first success against the Big 12. Mallory's Huskies topped Cal State-Fullerton, 20-13, in California Bowl III, live on ESPN and the Mizlou networks. This Hall of Fame team would ultimately boast seven NFL draft choices and 19 professional players. During the final 15 games of the Mallory regime, the Huskies won 13 of them.
Later in the decade, Jerry Pettibone's Northern Illinois teams recorded four straight .500 or better seasons (5-5-1 in 1987, 7-4-0 in 1988, 9-2-0 in 1989, and 6-5-0 in 1990) as a major independent. Behind quarterback Stacey Robinson, the Huskies' triple option attack ranked No. 6 in NCAA team rushing (1989) and No. 1 a year later (1990). The high-powered NIU offense produced a school-record 806 yards total offense in a 73-18 win vs. 24th-rated Fresno State on October 6, 1990-representing the most points ever scored vs. an AP Top 25 football team.
In 1993, tailback LeShon Johnson single-handedly placed Northern Illinois into a national media frenzy by winning the NCAA Division 1-A rushing crown, making unanimous First-Team All-America, and finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy race on a nondescript 4-7 team.
The First Century. John Keith, look what you started in 1899.