Mark Montgomery had a good thing going.
For the past decade, he has had one of the best seats in the house -- no matter what house you're talking about. Montgomery was an assistant coach at Michigan State under Tom Izzo during one of the program's most consistent runs of success.
For the past four years, he'd been at Izzo's side, the associate head coach to one of the most successful and respected figures in college hoops. He's won Big Ten titles, been to consecutive Final Fours, and had the security of knowing that each new season offered the promise of the biggest stage in his chosen profession.
But for Montgomery, like so many college coaches, something was missing.
"It's safe to say I wanted a challenge," he said. "After a while, if you do anything long enough, you can get a little bit stagnant. It was my goal and my dream to be a Division I head coach. I really wanted that opportunity."
Montgomery found his opportunity at Northern Illinois. He also, safe to say, found a challenge.
In the past five years, Northern Illinois has been one of the Mid-American Conference's -- and, by proxy, one of the nation's -- perennial doormats. The last time the program won more than 10 games came in the 2005-06 season. Since then, for two years under Rob Judson and three under Ricardo Patton, the Huskies posted records of 7-23, 6-22, 10-20, 10-20 and 9-21. In 2010-11, the Huskies finished No. 273 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings.
The team's two best and most frequently used players, guards Xavier Silas and Jeremy Landers, graduated in the spring. So Montgomery is starting from scratch -- not only with this year's team, but with his program, too.
"I'm not giving win totals this season," Montgomery said. "We've just got so many young players. What we're doing now is laying the foundation, getting the guys to be competitive, practice hard every day, understand our defensive mindset and philosophy, and bring more toughness to our program. This is the year we want to implement everything we want to do."
It will be an uphill battle, but Montgomery believes there are some built-in advantages some may miss at first glance. For one, Northern Illinois has a better-than-you'd-think arena, the $36 million NIU Convocation Center. The facility was built in 2002, seats up to 10,000, and plays host to the men's and women's basketball programs in addition to its role at the center of the DeKalb, Ill. campus's entertainment options.
Montgomery likewise praised his new school's practice facilities and his team's locker room, and he cited DeKalb's location -- about an hour's drive west of Chicago, two hours to Milwaukee and three hours from Indianapolis -- as perfectly situated amid major hotbeds of high school hoops talent.
Montgomery knows the area well from his days recruiting elite talent alongside Izzo at Michigan State, and he hopes to use some of those relationships to build out his own stable of tough but talented players. He also knows the MAC -- traditionally a wide-open conference with frequent transition in the top ranks -- from the four years he spent at Central Michigan prior to his tenure at Michigan State. Many of his new MAC opponents reside in a familiar footprint.
Despite those advantages, there's no question Montgomery's task is a tall one. But you can't help but feel his excitement at the prospect.
"You have to get the right players in," Montgomery said. "When you do that, you can have a chance to win in this league. And you look at teams like Butler and VCU making the Final Four -- we want to do the same things here.
"Of course it's going to be a challenge. But challenges bring opportunities."