Northern Illinois players celebrate a touchdown against Western Michigan on Oct. 8, 2016, in Kalamazoo, Mich.
It was a sunny August afternoon, Guaranteed Rate Field still was known as U.S. Cellular Field and the Northern Illinois Huskies were the envy of the Mid-American Conference.
The Huskies were holding their annual Chicago media day at the White Sox ballpark for some early publicity for the game they’re calling the "Chi-Town Showdown" against Toledo, and athletic director Sean Frazier was talking about how to seize on the football program’s success in the ever-changing landscape of college sports.
In a nutshell, Frazier said, interest has to improve in the form of attendance and donor contributions, and it has to come from the estimated 145,000 alumni in the Chicago area.
"I think right now is our time," Frazier said. "I know it is. … That is where my focus is because once we activate this thing, look out."
What happened next, no one saw coming. The Huskies lost. Again. And again. And again.
And though they have played much better since that 0-4 start, the fact of the matter is they’re 3-6 — with no shot of extending their MAC West title streak to seven — heading into what was supposed to be a big game against Toledo (7-2) on Wednesday night.
In more than one way, it still is.
NIU needs to win its final three games to qualify for a ninth straight bowl appearance, extending its MAC record. As long as there’s a bowl game to play for, the emphasis remains on the present rather than the unknown future.
And the game is in Chicago, a crucial locale in terms of former and future students.
"It probably doesn’t have everything riding on it the way people thought," NIU coach Rod Carey said. "The same appeal might not be there, but it is a big game for those reasons."
Things might have been different — that is to say the same as the last six years — had third-year starting quarterback Drew Hare stayed healthy. But the Huskies did lose their opener to Wyoming in a game Hare played well before he was lost for the season to a knee injury in Week 2.
Carey said last week that recent NIU teams probably would have struggled if quarterbacks Chandler Harnish or Jordan Lynch got hurt, but Harnish had Lynch behind him, while Hare learned from Lynch.
Hare’s backup, Ryan Graham, played well after being pressed into duty against Toledo last season, but he was unproductive when Hare went down this fall.
The offense has thrived since Anthony Maddie replaced Graham after the 0-4 start, but Maddie is a fifth-year senior and it’s not clear whether the next Harnish, Lynch, Hare — or even Maddie — is on the roster.
Carey has consistently expressed support for Graham as the quarterback of the future, and it would be interesting to see if he goes back to Graham if the Huskies are eliminated from bowl contention.
At the low point of the season, a 28-23 loss to Western Illinois, Frazier did not reject an inquiry about Carey’s job status. He gave Carey support for the rest of the season but went no further.
Frazier was a member of Wisconsin’s athletic department when Carey replaced Dave Doeren before the Huskies’ improbable appearance in the Orange Bowl after the 2012 season.
The team continued to play hard for Carey after dropping to 0-4, and the turnaround may have changed things. If the Huskies win out, it would be a lot easier to interpret the season as a hiccup rather than a crossroads.
"We’re in a situation," Carey said, "that because we had such a bad start to the season, every game is a playoff game to try to get to that next game."
Mike Helfgot is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.