Dave LaCerra's Mount Prospect basement is covered in Northern Illinois University football memorabilia, including a piece of the goal post from a big 1983 game (in which he played for the NIU Huskies), framed prints, a collection of hats from every NIU bowl game, and game ticket stubs stapled to the ceiling. This week, he added a small Christmas tree decorated with Huskies ornaments.
"I bleed Huskie red," said LaCerra, 48.
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Fans vs. critics on TwitterESPN's Kirk Herbstreit got Northern Illinois University fans riled up by saying the Huskies being in the Orange Bowl is "a sad state for college football." Besides him, there are plenty of other critics and supporters of NIU on Twitter. Among the recent tweets:
Ÿ "If they were playing in my bathroom, I'd shut the door and not watch." -- ESPN personality Colin Cowherd, @ESPN_Colin
Ÿ "Wow, NIU is going to the Orange Bowl? It must take a really great team to beat them! Oh wait, we already did" -- Iowa Hawkeyes football star Mark Weisman, @MarkWeisman45
Ÿ "My teammates and I would like to thank @Espn for the extra motivation! We have a job to do and that's win the Orange Bowl!" -- NIU running back Jamal Womble, @ReadytoWomble
Ÿ "The Orange Bowl is great for NIU. It changes our identity from a college that had a tragic shooting to a small school that made the BCS." -- NIU student Nick Renville, @NRenville87
Naturally, LaCerra will be traveling to Miami to watch NIU play Florida State in the Orange Bowl Jan. 1.
Whether there'll be enough Huskies fans to fill the other 17,499 seats allotted for NIU in Sun Life Stadium remains to be seen. On average, an NIU football game draws about 16,000 fans, a school spokeswoman said. The university has about 22,000 students, along with an estimated 190,000 alumni in the Chicago area alone.
Getting them to the team's Bowl Championship Series debut isn't a question of ticket price or availability. Student tickets are free, and non-student tickets start at $75. But booking a last-minute trip to Miami over the New Year's holiday isn't cheap, with airfare from Chicago to Miami running around $500 and rooms getting harder to find.
Yet, a student bus-hotel-game package announced Thursday is just $150, and five different travel packages offered through NIU are sold out as fans make plans to witness their team's unexpected and unprecedented Orange Bowl appearance.
"If (your favorite team) was playing ... would you or would you not sell a kidney?" LaCerra said, laughing. "This is monumental, once-in-a-lifetime, have-to-move-mountains stuff."
Even broke college students plan to make the trek. They've been lined up all week outside the campus ticket office, reserving free tickets that can be picked up only in Miami with their student ID.
"The whole campus is just trying to figure out how they're going to get down there, and figure out where they're staying," said Jim Tennenbaum of Buffalo Grove, whose son, Kevin, a sophomore, plays on NIU's football team.
Students are excited about the $150 bus package, said NIU senior Nick Pascolla of Naperville, but he gets to travel with the football team as a videographer for NIU Media Services.
Seeing the $800-and-up airfare and hotel packages aimed at alumni, students figured their travel package would cost more like $250 and are happy about the lower price, he said.
"I hope we pack the place," Pascolla said. "It's history for our school, going to a BCS bowl. It should be the highlight of the college career."
So far, demand for tickets has been high -- the school received more than 3,000 ticket orders in the first 48 hours -- and there's been a huge surge of interest in NIU football, university spokeswoman Donna Turner said.
She believes it's possible, and even likely, that NIU's entire fan section will be filled Jan. 1.
"We're going to get as many people there as we possibly can," Turner said. "We're going to have a great showing, and our fans are excited and energized."
NIU alumnus Howard Blietz of Des Plaines says the prevailing thought among his 30 friends going to Miami with him is, "If the Huskies are going to Orange Bowl, then so am I."
The former NIU alumni association president said his phone has been ringing nonstop with people asking about tickets and travel arrangements. Like many fans and alumni, Blietz booked his airfare and hotel within hours of the Orange Bowl announcement.
"It'll be a fun party," said Blietz, who also went to Alabama last year to see the Huskies play in (and win) the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This is a not-to-be-missed event," said Blietz, who co-founded the tech firm Greenbrier & Russel, named after the corner where he lived as an NIU student in DeKalb.
In the meantime, fans like LaCerra -- who had an NIU-themed wedding -- can barely contain their Huskie pride. Even outside his basement Huskies refuge known as "Dudeland," LaCerra (whose nickname is "The Dude") wears NIU hats and shirts everywhere, even to his job at Sears Holdings Corp.
"I am loyal to that school forever," said LaCerra, a walk-on player in 1982 who later earned a full football scholarship and a business degree and has his heart set on a great showing for the Huskies.
"If they win," he said, "there better be someone with metal paddles close by to say, 'Clear!'"