New coach: NIU hoops a 'sleeping giant'

Mark Montgomery never lost faith he would someday be a Division I head coach.

Over the last decade, the former Michigan State assistant interviewed a number of times, was a considered a finalist for some positions and then skipped over. Last year, that loop occurred with UIC’s opening.

On Thursday, Montgomery’s perseverance and hard work finally paid off as he was named Northern Illinois coach.

Montgomery was given a five-year contract for $300,000 a season, according to Northern Illinois athletic director Jeff Compher.

“There’s a lot of great coaches in the country,” said Montgomery, who spent 10 years on Tom Izzo’s Michigan State staff. “You have to keep patient. I kept going to more seminars, going to more coaching clinics, make sure I was fully prepared. There was never any doubt in my mind and the people around me that I would get that opportunity. I’m now taking advantage of that opportunity.

“You want to be in the right situation. NIU is the right situation. The wait is worth it.”

Montgomery wasn’t Northern Illinois’ first choice, according to sources. Compher sought Gonzaga assistant coach Ray Giacoletti and Purdue assistant coach Paul Lusk but both pulled their names from consideration at the last minute.

“The most important thing from our perspective is we got the right person for the job,” Compher said. “We had a lot of great interest in this job. One of the things I can equate it to is fit. A lot of people you talk to, they look good on a rack, start trying them on a little bit, making sure they work both ways, and those things don’t work.”

Izzo provided a lengthy verbal recommendation for Montgomery, and it went a long way with Compher.

“I found you don’t often talk to Coach Izzo,” Compher said. “You listen. I did a lot of listening when it came to coach Monty. He went on with his character and his ability to coach and recruit and how he relied on him. I told [Montgomery] he’s the president of your fan club.”

Like any newly-named coach, Montgomery was excited about the opportunity to turn the program around. His predecessor, Ricardo Patton, was fired earlier in the month after four seasons and a 35-83 record.

Montgomery believed recruiting was the key to getting the Huskies’ competitive in the MAC. He also spoke about wanting to play aggressive man-to-man defense and push the ball on offense.

“We’re looking for players whether it’s in the Chicago area, in the suburbs, in the farm area,” said Montgomery, who was also an assistant at Central Michigan in the MAC for four seasons. “We’re going to recruit. We know that’s the backbone of turning this program around.

“I think it’s a sleeping giant when you’re an hour away from Chicago, have a great academic institution, great facilities, great recruiting base and a great conference like the Mid-American Conference. It’s time for NIU basketball to take off.”

Montgomery was Compher’s second major coaching hire in the past four months. Compher also chose former Wisconsin assistant coach Dave Doeren to fill the Huskies’ top job in December.