The NIU Huskies have a message for anyone interested in their Orange Bowl matchup with the Florida State Seminoles.
“The bandwagon is as big as you want it to be,’’ said a smiling NIU athletic director Jeff Compher. “Hop on board. We have room for everyone. Join us, cheer for us, enjoy it with us. We’ll take any and all who want to be a part of this.’’
It has become that sort of party for Northern Illinois, embraced by a nation that loves the underdog, encouraged by the rants of a few ESPN analysts who trashed the Huskies within moments of NIU being included in the BCS bowl bonanza.
Rather than turn sentiment against NIU, ESPN only served to galvanize support for the best Cinderella story in college football since the BCS was formed to annoy and exclude.
“The way it was handled on the broadcast certainly put us on the national stage, though not the way you would necessarily want,’’ Compher said. “You don’t want to be criticized for being invited when all you did was follow the rules and earn your way in, but it certainly ignited our fans in the process.
“That was tough, but we have a saying here that we do it the hard way, and we’ll continue to do it the hard way. We’ve had a lot of success that way.’’
Despite the early beating NIU took from the network, the Huskies’ story quickly became a positive one, a dream season for the first MAC school ever invited to a BCS bowl.
And while the Huskie faithful celebrate it as their own, the conference is taking ownership as well, most schools understanding it’s the greatest accomplishment in MAC football history.
It says a lot about the magnitude when your biggest rivals take pride in a conference triumph.
“The MAC has been great. Virtually every athletic director has called to congratulate us and thank us for representing the MAC,’’ Compher said. “The support from the conference office has been wonderful and friends from across the country have called.
“It’s very positive as a national story for our university. It’s been gratifying professionally and more important it’s gratifying for the university to be in the spotlight like this.’’
While many of us alums are simply thrilled with the opportunity to travel somewhere warm, don’t mistake anyone close to the program for feeling the same way. The Huskies are in Miami to win a football game.
“There’s no doubt this team isn’t satisfied with an invitation to the party,’’ Compher said. “We want to make an impact, and the team is approaching this game like they approach every game of every week.
“The players want to show what we can do as a program and they love the challenge. They look at this as a team and individually, position by position, as a great opportunity for us.’’
There’s not a college football expert around who’s going to give the Huskies a chance against a legendary ACC opponent with all its speed and size, but NIU isn’t concerned with what anyone outside the locker room believes.
“We’ve played in big venues before and we’ve played some great teams the last three years,’’ Compher said. “We’ve had a lot of success and there’s no reason to be intimidated.
“We have great respect for FSU and we should. They’re the ACC champs and they’ve played in what, 31 straight bowl games? There’s a lot of respect there, but that just makes the opportunity bigger.’’
Regardless of what occurs New Year’s Day, this is a huge recruiting victory for the Huskies. People around the country who had never heard of Northern Illinois before Selection Sunday, certainly know of the university now.
“From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s an opportunity to capitalize on the great publicity we’ve received. The coaches tell us that everyone’s returning their calls these days,’’ Compher laughed. “The Orange Bowl legitimizes us in so many ways and it will help us get people who want to be part of a great program.’’
And for all Huskies fans, from the past to the current, it’s an enormous source of pride that many of us have dreamed about feeling for decades.
“We have 26 buses of kids going to the game from here, and thousands of students are traveling to the game,’’ Compher said. “There’s an incredible spirit at the university and around the community and within the entire alumni base.
“It’s just such a great feeling and everyone is sharing in it. It’s what we strive for. We want everyone to be proud. We want everyone to hang their NIU flag and hang that diploma on the wall.’’
Done. Now all I need is an Orange Bowl hat.
ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.