CHANGING THE GAME: How NIU is pushing the pace on diversity in collegiate athletics

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DEKALB (WREX) – There’s still months to go until college football returns.  However, at Northern Illinois University athletes are hard at work in the weight room and on the practice field, gearing up for their season.

This year, the Huskies are hard at work under a new leader, recent hire Thomas Hammock. Hammock’s new role comes with two important firsts.  For him, his first time leading his own program.  For the university, it’s first African American head football coach in history.

“I hope they made the decision based on who was the best coach,” said Hammock.”As an African American I have pride but I also bare the responsibility.”

But that’s not where the record setting ends for NIU.  With Hammock’s hire NIU became the only FBS Division One school in the country with African American men in three key roles.

In football, coach Hammock.  In basketball, head coach Mark Montgomery.  And in the front office, athletic director Sean Frazier.

“I would be naive to think there’s not a significant thing about having an A.D. who’s African American, having a football coach that’s African American, and a men’s basketball coach that’s an African American,” said Frazier.

Frazier believes this stat is stunning, but didn’t happen by accident.

“Obviously I wasn’t hired because I was African American, I was hired because I was the right fit,”  said Frazier. “We want the best. The cherry on top is the fact we’ve got some underrepresented people in those roles.”

“It’s a little different than when I got here,” said Montgomery.”It’s exciting. It’s exciting that this university, they take chances, do something out of the ordinary.”

After eight seasons with the Huskies and decades in collegiate athletics, Montgomery knows this is unique.

“Knowing the landscape of other universities with athletic directors and football coaches, it’s not common. I know myself that we all definitely paid our dues to get to a place where we can run our own program.”

And paying their dues meant working their way up through leagues in which historically, coaches don’t reflect the athletes they mold. In FBS D1 football, the NCAA’s data shows in 2018 49% of players were black. Compare that to coaches, only 9% of head coaches were black.

Meanwhile in basketball  57% of players are black, but only 20% of head coaches are as well.

“I think if you look at the student athletes, the numbers don’t reflect in the coaching world what we see from student athlete’s perspective,”  said Hammock. “I bare that responsibility and take it very seriously.”

“When you’re in homes and I know parents they kinda look through your experience,”  said Montgomery. “Myself, I played college basketball and got a scholarship. I think when you walk into a family home and when you get that greeting it’s like acceptance. It’s like I can trust you with my son.”

For Sean Frazier, out of the 130 FBS D1 athletic directors, only 12 are African American.

“It means I have to be the best,” said Frazier. “I strive to make sure I’m not just the best African American AD, I want to be the best AD.”

For all three men, being one of the few people of color in their role means using their position to encourage future generations and make sure there are enough seats at the table.

“That’s what gives me so much drive and determination,” said Frazier. “It is so important to mentor our young people and make sure they too consider my chair, they too want to be the president or AD or chairman or the board.”

“Hopefully that gives them the drive that even though their dad or uncle wasn’t in that position,” said Montgomery.  “But now we’ere in the position to influence them to do greater things.”

So as NIU pushes the pace on diversity in collegiate athletics, these three men are hoping the rest of the country will study their playbook and draw up a similar game plan.

“Because of the history of race in our community there’s always going to be an amount of discomfort about talking about these particular issues,” said Frazier. “I think the best way to put it is as long as we are willing to have the conversation, as long g as we are willing to talk about the complex issues, talking about it versus picking a side. We will then be able to move the needle.”

Moving the needle Forward. Together, Forward.

Mary Sugden

Mary Sugden

Investigative Reporter

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