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NIU goes from obscurity to Orange Bowl

Caption
(Kyle Bursaw — kbursaw@shawmedia.com)
With hopes of being in a BCS bowl game still alive after NIU's 44-37 victory over Kent State on Nov. 30, Northern Illinois linebacker Bobby Winkel holds a sign from one of the fans at Ford Field in Detroit. NIU later was invited to the Orange Bowl.

DeKALB – Alex Kube remembers the 3-mile bus ride between Huskie Stadium and the DeKalb Sports and Recreation Center lasted only about six minutes.

Like most of his Northern Illinois University teammates, Kube, a 2006 Cary-Grove graduate, grew up dreaming of playing big-time college football.

Most Bowl Championship Series-level programs prepare for bowls in elaborate indoor facilities.

But in 2010, as the Huskies readied themselves for the Humanitarian Bowl, Kube was part of an NIU team that practiced in the rented space not large enough to allow a full team to practice at one time. It’s the same facility they’ve used to practice for every bowl since 2004 and will use again this season when the weather forces them inside.

Kube, who graduated after the 2010 season, remembered arriving at the rec center with his defensive teammates and running through individual drills, practicing for a half hour as a full team and then riding back to campus, turning the field over to the Huskies’ offense.

Former placekicker Mike Salerno, Kube’s teammate, wasn’t able to attempt field goals longer than 30 yards without the ball striking the ceiling. Instead, he tapered his preparations by focusing on technique drills or driving 90 minutes to kick on a full field at the Lake Barrington Fieldhouse.

“You had to make due with what you had,” Salerno said.

If it were 2013, that wouldn’t be a problem: NIU’s $9.5 million Chessick Center is set to be open by the fall.

But this year, as the Huskies prepare for their fifth bowl appearance in as many years, players are again making do with what they have.

The Huskies (12-1) began practice Saturday for playing Florida State (11-2) in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1. When weather gets bad, they will continue the tradition of paying the $125 an hour rental fee to practice at the Recreation Center, early or late enough to not interfere with youth soccer leagues.

HAVE-NOT HUSKIES

In college football, there are the haves and the have-nots.

The Huskies are the latter.

Athletic Director Jeff Compher oversees an athletic department with a $20 million budget – about a third of NIU’s Orange Bowl opponent, Florida State. The game costs a school upward of $4 million between guaranteed ticket sales, blocks of hotel rooms and other requirements.

In the past, Atlantic Coast Conference champion Virginia Tech twice lost money on Orange Bowl appearances. In 2009, the department lost $2.2 million before watching another $1.6 million disappear in 2011.

NIU had to guarantee it could sell 17,500 tickets, costing as much as $250 apiece, costing NIU a total of $2.4 million. For the 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl, the Huskies sold just 738 tickets.

“We had read the stories about Connecticut and other schools who took it on the chin financially,” Compher said. “We didn’t want to be in that position.”

The Mid-American Conference has guaranteed that NIU won’t lose money on the game. League commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said the MAC will cover the costs of bowl-associated expenses while splitting the $8 million the league receives for the game.

“You’re not going to read articles about a Mid-American Conference team in one of those bowls losing money like you have seen with other conferences,” Steinbrecher said.

Most BCS schools have large media contracts. The Huskies pay The Score (WSCR-670 AM) to broadcast football and basketball games.

Most BCS schools plan on a hefty bowl-game payday. Not including the Orange Bowl berth, NIU made four straight bowl games and lost more than $63,000 combined from those, according to NIU financial records.

Most BCS schools can count on uninterrupted practice time. The Huskies used to be rushed off their field Thursday nights when DeKalb High School – which used to play home games at Huskie Stadium – needed the field for practice.

At NIU, that’s just a way of life.

“We didn’t have some of the things other programs had,” Kube said. “But we made it work – we understand it wasn’t the nicest place to practice, but if we didn’t practice well, we weren’t going to win a bowl game. We worked hard – we didn’t make excuses.

“We just had to get it done.”

That attitude is what helped propel the Huskies to the Orange Bowl, where they are a 13 1/2-point underdog. Players are relishing the role as the outsider that won its way into a flawed BCS system.

Until recently, there was little reason to believe the BCS would pay attention to Northern Illinois’ 12-game winning streak and second consecutive MAC championship.

Those who follow Huskies football had learned not to get their hopes up. In 2003, led by NFL-bound star running back Michael Turner, the Huskies won 10 games. That included wins over Alabama, Maryland and Iowa State and a BCS ranking as high at No. 10. Yet there was no postseason bowl game appearance.

But nearly a decade later, that conversation has changed: Nine BCS-friendly scenarios – including losses by No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon – turned in their favor, the Huskies beat Kent State, UCLA lost to Stanford and Texas lost to Kansas.

That added up to the Huskies headed to the Orange Bowl. They are the first MAC school to compete in a BCS bowl game, sparking a national debate of how deserving NIU really is of such an honor.

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit suggested the Huskies’ inclusion was part of everything that is wrong about college football. The former Ohio State quarterback questioned how Northern Illinois – even at 12-1 - could be part of the BCS landscape when more high-profile programs like Louisiana State and Oklahoma were left out of the equation.

While Herbstreit – who was not made available by ESPN to be interviewed – quickly became the face of DeKalb’s disdain after the Dec. 2 announcement, he was not alone.

Rather than competing in powerhouse leagues like the SEC or Pac-12, MAC schools tended to face major programs only in guarantee games paying hundreds of thousands of dollars that help bolster meager operating budgets.

“At some point, you have to decide how serious you want to take some of the comments, and in my mind, some of the stuff being discussed was so over the top, I figured it would really boomerang, and that’s what’s happened, “ Steinbrecher said. “We’ve got a team that did everything it was supposed to do, and the rules haven’t changed for heaven’s sake, and the rules are the rules.”

BUILDING CREDIBILITY

The road to building a Huskie team that could get to the Orange Bowl started years ago.

Former Huskies coach Joe Novak said he took advantage of the underdog mentality NIU has always embraced when he started with the team in 1996. He set about leading an athletic department-wide effort to change the culture of a team that had posted winning records only six times in 33 years.

Former athletic director Jim Phillips – who is the top athletic administrator at Northwestern – had the Huskies play at major Big Ten locales such as Michigan and Ohio State, in front of a national TV audience.

Phillips brokered the radio deal with The Score, choosing to pay for football and radio broadcasts on a station that reached multiple states rather than a smaller regional area. To be considered a major player in college athletics, Phillips understood the university had to think like one.

“It’s about credibility, and you have to take advantage of every opportunity you have,” Phillips said.

“It’s tremendously difficult when you think about the (limited) resources and you think about what you’re competing against. But that’s the fun of it – that’s the challenge – you hope for a better day and you hope for an opportunity that’s in front of Northern Illinois now.”

The potential of success became the pitch NIU coaches used to attract players to DeKalb and that Compher relied on to draw talent such as former coaches Jerry Kill, who now coaches Minnesota, and Dave Doeren, who was an assistant coach at Wisconsin when he took over the Huskies two years ago and will coach North Carolina State next year.

Despite the city’s rural surroundings, part of NIU’s appeal was tied to its proximity to Chicago. The greater metropolitan area is home to 180,000 of NIU’s 250,000 alumni and to a wealth of high school football talent.

Novak has remained the program’s biggest fan, watching from afar as Kill and Doeren continued to build the Huskies into a perennial Top 40 program. During his 12-year tenure in DeKalb, Novak survived a 23-game losing streak and guided the team to its 10-win 2003 season.

“I don’t think I ever thought about a BCS bowl game to be honest with you,” Novak said. “I thought that was a little bit out of reach.

“There’s just so many factors that had to fall into place to get a (MAC team to a BCS bowl) and I just wasn’t sure how realistic that was to dream about. I knew we could get facilities, I knew we could win MAC championships, but I wasn’t sure about the possibilities of a BCS bowl berth.”

Now, that possibility is here.

BCS DREAM COMES TRUE

Two days after the Huskies’ MAC championship game win over Kent State, Jordan Lynch – NIU’s Chicago-born junior quarterback – watched as his Twitter feed exploded with Northern Illinois mentions.

But even when Sports Illustrated reported the Huskies’ invitation to the Orange Bowl, Lynch waited.

About 7:40 p.m. local time Dec. 2, just 15 minutes after Compher announced his decision to hire Rod Carey as head coach – the BCS standings, with Northern Illinois slotted in the No. 15 spot, appeared on a large projection screen in a classroom inside the university’s Yordon Center.

As Compher watched players celebrate, he could finally exhale, having learned of the Huskies’ selection a few hours earlier from Steinbrecher.

“I could hardly speak,” Compher said. “It’s one of those moments you don’t forget because you feel kind of choked up because you know what it’s going to mean for everybody. But it really happened. It was almost too hard to believe.”

Lynch has thrown 353 passes this season. That night after hearing Herbstreit’s opinion regarding NIU’s berth, he picked up one of the more than 100 oranges in the room and fired the piece of fruit at the projection screen at the front of the room, squarely hitting his target.

NIU was the only place to recruit Lynch as a quarterback. Lynch grew up watching Northern Illinois play on TV and followed former Huskies running back Garrett Wolfe during his four years in the NFL with the Bears.

Yet Lynch never traveled to DeKalb until invited to a one-day football camp. By day’s end, he was offered a scholarship. Three years later, he’s part of BCS history.

It’s a fitting chapter for a college football program that has found a home – at least this year – among college football’s elite despite its location and despite not operating at the same level as many of it’s bigger BCS brethren.

“With all the cornfields – it’s pretty dead here,” Lynch said. “But our team is such a family and we have fun with that. And here, you’re always around your family.”

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