Suburban Wildcats, Huskies fans all over Florida
It'll be difficult to not bump into suburban college football fans in Florida because they've invaded the state to watch two local teams play in separate major bowl games.
Up first on Tuesday, the Northwestern University Wildcats battle the Mississippi State University Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. at Jacksonville's EverBank Field.
Then, about 350 miles south along the Atlantic coastline, the Northern Illinois University Huskies will face the Florida State University Seminoles in the Orange Bowl. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
While Northwestern has periodically appeared in major bowl games, it's new territory for NIU. The Huskies were in something called the International Bowl in Toronto in 2010, hardly a top-tier game.
This New Year's Day marks the first time NIU will play in a Bowl Championship Series game. In other words, they've hit the big time and are well beyond the International Bowl, which is why Huskies fans have traveled well to Miami.
After spending New Year's Eve with his NIU-graduate wife, Kathy, and three young boys at home, Pat Green of Geneva will fly out for the Orange Bowl. It's the first bowl experience for the 1996 NIU graduate, who will be joined by two friends in South Florida.
Green said he spent nearly $900 for airfare, a hotel room and tickets he purchased from NIU's athletic program for the one day of fun.
"Considering this is the first time NIU or any (Mid-American Conference) school has made it to a BCS game, it certainly is worth the cost because, although the team could be strong next year, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Green said. "And I am thankful that my wife insisted I go. It's one heck of a Christmas present."
Palatine resident Eric Wasowicz, a 1980 NIU graduate who started teaching entrepreneurship at his alma mater's business school this year, will be at the Orange Bowl with his son, Cole, and knows at least 50 others who traveled down for the action.
Similar to other fans, Wasowicz said a Huskies win in the Orange Bowl would be even sweeter to stick it to ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who played quarterback at Ohio State University. NIU's selection for the Orange Bowl led Herbstreit to pan the football team's credentials because it plays in a lesser-known conference.
"He is an Ohio State, big university bigot," Wasowicz said of Herbstreit.
Jim Tennenbaum of Buffalo Grove, who will be at the Orange Bowl with his wife, JoAnn, a 1980 NIU grad, also will find himself cheering even harder for the Huskies because of Herbstreit's questionable commentary. The couple's son, Kevin Tennenbaum, is a redshirt freshman tight end for the Huskies and they'll be with several other football parents in the stands.
"That guy (Herbstreit) had no business jawing off about NIU not deserving to be at a (major) bowl game," Jim Tennenbaum said. "He himself said he never saw an NIU game, so what basis is his opinion?"
ESPN happens to be carrying Tuesday's Orange Bowl, with Herbstreit a safe distance away for the network in California at the Rose Bowl.
As for Northwestern's fans, they'll be visible with purple pride in Jacksonville.
Dr. Tom Brown, an Elmhurst resident who graduated from Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine in 1970, is going to the Gator Bowl with his son-in-law, Paul Morrissey of Massachusetts.
Brown has been to three other Northwestern bowl appearances -- Rose, Citrus and Alamo -- and wouldn't miss this one.
"I just have a passion for Northwestern football, especially since the 1995 season and the (1996) Rose Bowl game," said Brown, who recently retired. "I sat through too many 0-11 seasons in the 1970s, 1980s."
Brown is confident the Wildcats will beat Mississippi State and win their first bowl game since 1949.
"This team is special," Brown said. "It is much more talented -- both offensively and defensively -- than what we have had the past few years."
Des Plaines resident Liz Kravis is a University of Notre Dame graduate, but she has a special reason to root for the Wildcats.
Her son, Bret, is a senior in the Northwestern band's drum line. The whole family is in Jacksonville for the game.
"This will be his last performance for NU," she said.
Wheaton resident Steven R. Johnson is in Jacksonville, too. A 1985 graduate who majored in communication studies, Johnson is taking his family to the game and meeting a slew of former classmates, including many from the suburbs.
He and his wife attended the 1996 Rose Bowl, the Wildcats' first bowl appearance in decades.
"Others in our group have attended each of the bowl games over the past 16 years," Johnson said.
Once you add tickets, airfare, hotel and other costs, going as a family to a bowl game is an expensive proposition -- but Johnson thinks it's worth every penny.
"This is a momentous occasion, after all," he said. "When the Cats win, the cost will not be an issue."
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