NIU basking in the glow of Orange Bowl berth
DEKALB — Northern Illinois defensive end Alan Baxter walked into a finance class the other day and wound up dodging oranges. Not exactly what he was expecting, but, hey, these are unusual times.
His teachers were having fun. And, really, who isn't around campus these days?
The Huskies are headed to the Orange Bowl, a mid-major school that's now crashing the BCS party and creating quite a stir around the country.
To some, they're unwanted guests. To others, they're the quintessential feel-good story, along the lines of Boise State and Texas Christian, or Butler in basketball with a chance to show up the big boys.
Either way, it's been quite a week.
All they did was capture a conference championship, lose a coach and land a golden ticket.
Now, they're headed to Miami to face Florida State on Jan. 1 after going 12-1 and winning their second straight Mid-American Conference title. They're coming with a record-setting quarterback in Jordan Lynch and a debuting head coach in Rod Carey after they squeezed into the top 16 of the final BCS standings.
Wild times? Definitely. And the Huskies are enjoying the moment.
"Everyone's just really excited," Baxter said. "Never has this happened."
It's the first BCS game for Northern Illinois, the first for a MAC team, and in a town of 44,000 where barbed wire was invented and Cindy Crawford was born, it's all about the Huskies at the moment.
Even so, Baxter wasn't anticipating this.
He was in that finance class on Monday when some teachers yelled out, "Hey Alan!" Next thing he knew, they were throwing oranges at him.
Usually, Lynch said, "It's pretty dead out here."
"Probably the craziest 48 hours I've been involved in," defensive end Sean Progar said early in the week.
It hasn't always been this way, and if anyone can appreciate just how far the program has come, former coach Joe Novak certainly can.
It's fair to say he wasn't thinking about a major bowl when he took over in 1996. Back then, he was just trying to collect a few wins — and it wasn't easy.
The Huskies went 1-10 in Novak's first year after finishing with a losing mark the previous five, and the record actually got worse the following season at 0-11. Things weren't much better, either, in 1998 at 2-9.
"Most of the western suburb high schools had better facilities than Northern Illinois did," Novak said. "(Our old offices) were a joke. It was awful, but you know what we did? We kind of used that as a chip on our shoulder to be honest with you and we made due without it. From Day One, I started right out saying we needed facilities."
Over time, that changed. So did the mindset in general.
From 1969-99, Northern Illinois had just seven winning seasons. Only twice since then have the Huskies have failed to finish above .500.
"We had to clean it out, to be honest with you," said Novak, 63-76 in 12 seasons. "We got rid of some players. To start my second year in 1997, I think we probably were legitimately the worst Division I football program in the country. I'm not proud of that, but it's a fact."
Now, they're in new territory. A program that's clawed its way into the Top 25 occasionally over the past decade is about to step onto a bigger stage.
And University President John Peters gets an assist. He argued for more access to the BCS for mid-majors as a member of the presidential oversight committee. Now, NIU gets its moment.
"Let me tell you, it's electric in Nebraska when it happens and it's electric in Tennessee," said Peters, who was an administrator at both schools. "But for us, it compares with winning the national championship at Nebraska and Tennessee."
In the three-day period after the Orange Bowl announcement, the school saw a 53-percent rise in applications over the same time frame as last year, and there was a big spike in Huskie paraphernalia sales this week — double at the school bookstore and about five times the norm online.
For the players who got passed over by the major programs, there is a feeling of vindication.
Take Progar, for example.
He committed to play for Lloyd Carr at Michigan during his junior year at Glenbrook South High School near Chicago, only he never did suit up for the Wolverines. Carr retired after the 2007 season, and Progar said he never heard from Rich Rodriguez so he had to move on. Now, he's in a BCS game, only he'll be wearing cardinal and black instead of maize and blue.
"It's crazy. I didn't come here expecting that, but I knew the program was on the rise," he said. "Two MAC championships in a row, I couldn't ask for more. My last game I'll ever play here is a BCS game. It's unreal. I'm still trying to process it."
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