How Northern Illinois Led a MAC Shutdown—And May Have Triggered a National Reckoning

Author:
Publish date:

Sean Frazier’s life has revolved around football since he was young. He played the sport growing up on Long Island, N.Y., and was a walk-on linebacker at Alabama from 1987–91. He went into coaching and then athletic administration, and has been the athletic director at Northern Illinois University since 2013.

Today, after playing an improbably large role in what may be the beginning of the end of the 2020 college football season, Frazier is both determined and demoralized.

“Right now, I feel emotionally spent,” Frazier told Sports Illustrated Saturday. “This is one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life. Football has given me everything I have related to my career. It is emotional for me, as someone who loves football, to do what we had to do.

“Our president (Lisa Freeman) has given us great leadership. We had to make a decision to protect lives, but I also had to take something away from our young men. I had to step up and do what’s right, even if it hurt.”

mac-logo-cancel-football

Frazier and Freeman led the way in persuading the Mid-American Conference to postpone its football season to spring, sources told SI. (“NIU is the squeaky wheel,” one said a few days ago, prophesying what was to come.) Frazier would not confirm that his school was prepared to unilaterally sit out if the league proceeded with a fall schedule, but it seems clear that that was the intent. And, sources said, NIU had won over some other league schools to its side.

By shortly after 10 a.m. ET Saturday, the rest of the MAC had come around to NIU's aspiration for a spring season. That toppled the first domino in what might be a chain reaction of postponements or cancellations across the FBS of college football. Shortly thereafter Saturday, the Big Ten paused its progression toward full-contact practices Saturday, and has its own presidents’ meeting scheduled for later in the day. (A vote on whether to postpone the season was not expected.) A Pac-12 presidents’ meeting Tuesday will also create a lot of curiosity.

Some have theorized that the MAC made its move because it knows what direction its wealthy and powerful midwestern neighbor, the Big Ten, is headed. Frazier said that’s not the case.

“I can’t speak for them,” Frazier said, though he worked for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin for several years and has relationships with several other Big Ten athletic directors. “The Big Ten has great leadership, but I think they’re struggling the same way we are.”

From there? It would be difficult for the other conferences to stay the course and try to play.

If it comes to a complete postponement of the most popular and profitable college sport in America, let the obit show that the first real blow was landed by a middling university in DeKalb, Ill. Northern Illinois, with an enrollment of about 15,700, had the No. 124 football team in NCAA Division I in 2019, according to the Sagarin Ratings. The 5–7 Huskies were just another mid-level program in the low-level MAC.

How does that happen? How does Northern Illinois potentially set the tone for Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Clemson and every other power program?

By taking a stand, and perhaps pricking the conscience of its colleagues. The lurching journey toward playing football has conflicted almost all the stakeholders—is this good and right, fair and equitable, or reckless and soulless? Ultimately, the voice of clear and strong dissent cut through some mixed and ambivalent MAC messages.

“The bottom line is, we don’t have a vaccine,” Frazier said. “We can do all the testing. I appreciate all the work that went into planning our great protocols on testing. But as soon as we try to compete, we’re going to have stoppages. And we don’t know the long-term effects of this.

“I don’t want to get politics involved, or the election, or any of that gobbledegook. I made this decision for the betterment of all parties right now. Maybe in six months, things look different. I hope so. But now? The gig is up.”

Frazier said he went into July very much believing the gig would go on. But as the nation’s virus numbers exploded, his outlook swung sharply toward pessimism.

“COVID blew up my little world a month ago,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to protect these kids?’ I’m a traditionalist and I believe football should be played in the fall, but nothing about COVID is traditional. It feels sacrilegious, but we had to start thinking about the spring.”

Eventually, that thinking became resolve. And that resolve carried over to MAC meetings as a leading voice pushing to postpone the season. With Freeman onboard and the school unwilling to yield, an expected vote on Thursday didn’t come to pass. The MAC delayed action until Saturday, then came down on the side NIU was pushing all along.

“If it saves us one player’s life, one heart, one long-term health complication, it’s worth it,” Frazier said, “I’m not a doctor. I’m a former football player and coach, and I’m in charge of safeguarding our kids. I’m doing everything I can in that regard.”

That doesn’t make the decision easy. A fall without football games in NIU’s Huskie Stadium depresses all of us, and that includes Sean Frazier.

“I’m the guy with 50 different videos of past games,” he said. “I guess I’ll go back and watch them all again.”