Some members of the national sports media bristled when Northern Illinois University captured an unlikely bid to play in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day. But that hasn't dampened the spirits of Huskie students, faculty, alumni and fans anxiously awaiting the big football game. IPR's Jenna Dooley has more on what it means for NIU.
NIU may be an easy target to illustrate some frustration with the way the Bowl Championship Series are decided. Larger schools with winning records which have played bigger teams were left out. NIU plays in the Mid-American Conference, and a MAC team has never made it into a BCS bowl. But a lot of things had to go right for the Huskies get the nod. And they did. Orange Bowl Representative Larry Gautier spent last week in DeKalb to let students and school leaders know what to expect and to play down some of the criticism.
"They earned the right to be part of the BCS system. So Orange Bowl is extremely proud to have them down in Miami on January the First. The Huskie nation can be very proud of what they've done together."
Offensive lineman Logan Pegram says he's heard the national news media's take on NIU. Pegram says there have always been doubters, and that is what pushes his team.
"We are going to like playing the underdog role. That is what we have done our whole careers. Guys at Northern: an inch too short, a second too slow, and that's kind of what makes up this team so that's why we will embrace it. We'll enjoy it."
Back in the Spotlight
NIU hasn't always had the chance to shine brightly in the national spotlight. The last time Northern Illinois University was on the national stage was for tragedy after a campus shooting in 2008. NIU is making the headlines this time for a very different reason, a reason the campus wants to celebrate. NIU Sophomore business major Richard Moore passes Cole Hall on his way to class. He didn't make it to all of the home games this year, but he's still a big fan of the team, and what the bowl means for the university.
"With them, the football team, helping get the school recognized on a national level in a good way, it would be good to invest in them."
NIU administrators would like to see students at the game. So the university is offering a ticket free to each student for the trip to Miami and absorbing the cost. Travel packages also are being developed to help subsidize the cost for students to get to Florida. NIU's Jordan Lynch has become the unofficial spokesman for the university.
"We are so happy we made it and there's always going to be people out there trying to criticize us and we just try to focus on the positives."
President Peters Reflects
NIU President John Peters is leaving at the end of the school year. He says the success of the Huskies during his tenure is a good way to go out.
"Not that everyday has been easy. There have been some real lows, which everyone knows about. And there have been incredible highs. You know what it does? It shows something I believe in, that you should have big dreams, particularly at universities, we have such brain power, we have such history. We can do anything with hard work and persistence. That's the lesson in this. We had persistence with our program."
Peters doesn't expect NIU will get a windfall in the bowl payout. Some of the money will go to other MAC teams and some will be spent to go to the Bowl itself.
Another challenge for the Huskies is a coaching change. After the conference championship win, head coach Dave Doeren announced he was leaving for North Carolina State effective immediately. Offensive line coach Rod Carey will lead the Huskies at the Orange Bowl.
"We're excited about the Orange Bowl, as you can imagine. We are grateful for the opportunity to be there. We will represent the MAC well. We will represent NIU. We'll represent our families well and our team well."
Football at NIU hasn't always been polished. When the Huskies joined the MAC in 1997, they finished 0-11 that season, one of the worst programs in the nation. This time, members of the NIU community are hoping they can go from underdogs to top of their breed.
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