Upon their arrival in Miami earlier this week, it didn't take long for Northern Illinois University Athletic Director Jeff Compher and Co. to have their "We're not in DeKalb anymore" moment.
"We sure did," Compher said with a laugh. "Especially when we pulled up to the hotel and saw how beautiful it was. I just imagined our guys, when they do have some down time, being able to sit around the pool or go down to the beach and how much they're going to enjoy this.
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"This is the place to be in Miami Beach, and we'll be there during one of the best times of the year. That place is rocking on New Year's Eve."
While the rest of the college football world may be surprised that NIU will spend its holiday in Miami preparing to take on Florida State in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day, Compher and his staff aren't.
"One of our goals since I got there (2008) was to be the first team to represent the MAC in a BCS bowl game, and it all came through this year," he said. "It's really kind of special."
But it's not an easy proposition, and it's definitely an expensive one.
"You're basically moving thousands of people to one destination, and all of them are anticipating a great time," he said. "You have to really be prepared and be in a good planning mode.
"We have this saying in our department -- it's actually one of our core values -- it's called 'expect success.' We started planning for this about 2½ weeks ago because we felt it could happen. It was literally a possibility. And because of that, we had to get ready."
It's quite a project, though, from transporting loads of people to trying to move thousands of tickets -- NIU is responsible for filling 17,500 seats in the 72,000-plus stadium -- and the reality is the whole project is just picking up steam.
Already more than 2,000 students have put in for free tickets, which range from $75 to $225, and Compher estimates there are about 190,000 NIU alums in the Chicago area alone.
"Right now we have at least six charter flights coming here," Compher said from Miami. "There are two charter flights for our team and our official party, the band has its own charter flight, and our fans have really responded well, so we have three charter flights for them and we may add a fourth."
Pretty expensive, huh?
"Yeah, it's very expensive," he said.
According to a FoxSports.com report, Virginia Tech took a $2.2 million hit playing in the 2009 Orange Bowl in Miami, and West Virginia lost about $1 million competing in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
"I think for most schools, a break-even proposition is a good thing when you go to a bowl game," Compher said. "You have to remember: It's more than just an away game. We're there for eight days and seven nights.
"And because of that and with the expenses associated with that, and the number of tickets we're obligated for … luckily our conference has really come through for us. They said to us, 'Look, we want to take that ticket burden off your shoulder.' They've become our financial safety net, if you will.
"They said, you're not going to take a loss off this game as many other institutions have the last few years. I really want to thank our conference and MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher for that. Because of them, we're able to offer free tickets to our students."
With the Mid-American Conference expected to collect between $7 million and $8 million in the Orange Bowl revenue, Steinbrecher has promised NIU officials they will receive a bigger share from the conference to help cover their expenses.
The secondary ticket market, however, is not doing NIU or Florida State any favors at the resale level. Upper-level tickets were selling Thursday afternoon between $5 and $10 on stubhub.com, which means some NIU fans may not choose to buy their tickets through the school. At the high end, executive suite tickets are commanding $1,500 and more at stubhub.com, with lower bowl seats going for $500 and more.
In 2011, playing in the Fiesta Bowl left Connecticut with a $1.8 million loss, according to figures obtained by the Daily Campus newspaper. While the Big East granted UConn with a $2.5 million payout, the university spent $4.3 million. When the school was able to sell only 2,771 tickets from its 17,500 allotment, it was left with a $3 million charge for unsold tickets.
According to records obtained by the Daily Campus, travel costs to Glendale, Ariz., were $685,195, and the university spent an additional $460,941 on meals and lodging for the team, administrators, cheerleaders and the band.
Northern will be playing its fifth straight bowl game and the continuity in the school's athletic department has made the entire process much easier to control, Compher said.
"We've maintained our staff the last three years, so they're very experienced with what they do," he said. "And our university is very good at it as well. From our legal office to our procurement people to our accounting office -- everybody knows what their jobs are because we've gone through this so often."
That wasn't always the case.
"When I first got here, it was almost like a surprise and I told myself I'm never going to let that happen again," Compher said. "It was like we were afraid of talking about the possibility of going to a bowl because if we did, we were afraid we would disappoint people. Now we start talking about it as soon as we get bowl-eligible.
"But this one? This bowl? There's a lot more people planning to come here. The Orange Bowl is a whole different animal -- any BCS bowl is -- because of the expectations, the media presence, the kind of venues that you're playing in and the kind of cities that you're playing in. You have to kind of prepare yourself for that."
That includes a weeklong, jam-packed schedule of events for NIU fans, players and staff -- all in sunny Miami. And the NIU team will be staying at the sold-out Fountainbleau Miami Beach hotel, which has rates that start at $399 per room.
That will be a far different experience than the GoDaddy.com Bowl appearance in Mobile, Ala., last season for NIU. That bowl payout was a mere $750,000.
"The timing is perfect for our fans," Compher said. "A Jan. 1 bowl is a normal holiday, people can travel. Warm weather, a great location and a tradition-rich bowl against an unbelievable opponent."
And regardless of what the talking heads on ESPN say, Florida State will be going up against one tough opponent.
"When we found out we were going to go to the Orange Bowl," Compher said, "I said we've gone from becoming a pretty good team to being a great program."