I always believed in cause and effect. The natural order of “if P, then Q.”
To wit: The most significant 20th-century achievement in Northern Illinois University intercollegiate athletics history? Easy. Total no-brainer. The Huskie football program’s elevation to NCAA University Division status June 30, 1969.
What irony then, in this 50th anniversary major-college season, and the 150th overall for college football, that NIU announced the penultimate nonconference date at Notre Dame in 2024. Quite the Quantum Leap from the days of UW-Whitewater, Elmhurst, Eureka and. St. Ambrose, eh?
How would the “holy trinity” of that 1969 move to the big-time, former NIU athletics directors George “Chick” Evans and Bob Brigham, plus sports information director Bud Nangle, react today?
Sadly, all three Huskie visionaries are deceased. But there are other voices from that era.
“No question, regarding the significance of that move in 1969,” said 83-year-old Jerry Ippoliti, the offensive backfield coach under first-year NIU head coach Richard “Doc” Urich who later became the head man, then assistant AD, Mid-American Conference commissioner, etc.
“Some 40 years later, you’re in the Orange Bowl,” Ippoliti added. “That [move] made an impact statement, that Northern Illinois was in a different echelon, moving in a different direction, the right direction. Not just athletics or football, but the entire university.”
Put it this way, context-wise, Huskies.
No University Division, there’s no NIU affiliation with the MAC, there’s no Cal Bowl in 1983, no remote possibility of the Orange Bowl in 2013 (which would’ve made ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit ecstatic) or the 11 other bowl appearances since 2004, no school-record No. 12 ranking in the AP poll or unprecedented, initial No. 10 rating in the Bowl Championship Series in 2003, no individual national rushing titles for Mark Kellar in 1973, LeShon Johnson in 1993 or Garrett Wolfe in 2006, ad infinitum.
How did Northern Illinois reach this NCAA level? It might have been the earliest example of today’s “The Hard Way” mantra. And yes, there were some missteps along the way.
Evans respected the MAC from afar, cognizant that both Bowling Green State (1959) and Ohio (1960) won wire service College Division national football championships that propelled both programs into the NCAA’s top tier. In 1963, led by Little All-America quarterback George Bork, NIU followed suit, finishing 10-0-0, capturing the Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference crown, winning the Mineral Water Bowl and the College Division title via both the AP and NAIA polls.
In the interim, Evans had been lobbying on campus and in Springfield for a new west campus facility to replace outdated Glidden Field. Two months after the final snap of Northern Illinois’ 21-14 Mineral Water Bowl triumph over Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State), ground was broken Jan. 30, 1964, for what would become a then 20,257-seat facility.
The original plans called for a 35,000-seat, horseshoed stadium configuration with the north end zone enclosed. Although that size could not be justified, at least Evans and the Huskies now had the large west side superstructure and bleachers on the east and end zone, typical for a potential mid-major at the time, to present to the NCAA and MAC power brokers.
After leaving the IIAC following the 1965-66 season, Evans wanted no association with the small-college level, publicity-wise, statistical rankings, you name it. In essence, despite his good intentions, Evans disenfranchised the football program for three seasons (1966 to ’68). Prime example would be wide receiver John Spilis, NIU’s highest NFL draft pick for 40 years until outside linebacker Larry English in 2009.
During the 1967-68 academic year, NIU athletics announced that all 11 men’s sports were University Division. The U.S. Basketball Writers Association granted the Huskie men major-college status, and the nine others reached that level by self-acclimation. Unfortunately, the 1967 NIU football schedule featured at most four big-time schools out of 10 dates, and the 1968 version maybe five, not enough to qualify.
Enter Brigham and Nangle. While Evans lit the torch, Brigham, named the athletic director Sept. 1, 1968, after Evans retired, and Nangle carried it across two finish lines. Before 1968, the only criteria for major-college ranks in football was the majority of your games versus that level of competition.
It took two summers as Brigham and Nangle appeared before the new NCAA classification committee, composed of members of the FWAA and chaired by the famous Furman Bisher, then the sports editor of the Atlanta Journal and a Nangle acquaintance. In addition to strength of schedule, the NCAA’s new criteria included future schedules, budgets, enrollment, scholarships (then called grant-in-aids), academics and athletics program philosophy.
Not sure here, but the difference in 1969 might have also been the announcement of the historic 1971 football date at Wisconsin, another NIU first that Brigham battled for thanks to then Badger AD Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. In the day, “major-majors” would not be scheduling fledgling majors.
“Bob had a vision,” Ippoliti said. “He fought hard for University Division at many levels.”
Joining Northern Illinois that June 30 into the NCAA’s gridiron elite, Idaho, Pacific, and San Diego State increasing the University Division membership to 118. As of 2018, there were 130 FBS programs.
That summer, I was Nangle’s student assistant. I witnessed both men demonstrating cardinal and black pride over their accomplishment. Both were ecstatic, almost giddy teenagers, unusual for two World War II veterans. Two NIU student-athletes from the 1940s, Brigham, the record-setting fullback in football under his mentor Evans, and Nangle, a member of the 1940-41 Little 19 Conference basketball champs, setting the stage for the new Huskie Generation.
Their next act? Gaining admittance into the MAC. That process started in the mid-1960s, with Nangle testing the Mid-Am waters behind the scenes with league ADs and presidents as executive sports editor of the Toledo Blade and culminated in 1973.
From my view, 1963 to ’73 ranks as the most significant decade in NIU Athletics history. Now you know, in the eyes of many, why Evans-Brigham-Nangle are the “holy trinity.”
• Mike Korcek is a 1970 graduate of NIU and was the school’s head sports information director from 1984 to 2006. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at