DEKALB, Ill. — 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 some 60 miles west of Chicago 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 consecutive 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.
There was a double overtime win over Kent State for the conference championship, a game in which Lynch set the single-season record for yards rushing by a major college quarterback. And the Huskies found themselves barging into the party when a few more chips fell their way, with Nebraska losing badly in the Big Ten title game and UCLA and Texas both falling over the weekend.
Northern Illinois made the top 16 by 0.0404 points and wound up jumping from 21st to 15th in the BCS standings. Finishing in the top 16 and ahead of the champion of a qualifying conference – they actually placed ahead of two, Big East winner Louisville and Big Ten titlist Wisconsin – meant the Huskies were automatically headed to a BCS game, earning them a date with ACC champion Florida State.
Meanwhile, SEC runner-up Georgia was left out of the BCS after falling just a few yards short of the national title game with a loss to Alabama, while Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma and ACC power Clemson are on the outside looking in. That led to ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit blasting the Huskies’ inclusion as “an absolute joke” and Lynch responding by throwing an orange at the TV, a perfect strike that might have been his best pass.
“I was actually dead on with that one,” he said. “It felt good. It was one of those things disrespecting our family. It was all out of fun, just playing around, throwing oranges.”
By then, the Huskies had already learned that Dave Doeren was on his way to North Carolina State and that Carey would be making his head coaching debut at the Orange Bowl, a scenario he would have never envisioned when the season started.
After all, he was the offensive line coach when it began and assumed the coordinator role after the first game when Mike Dunbar left the team for health reasons. Now, he’s moving up again after Doeren led NIU to a 23-4 record and MAC championships in each of his two seasons.
“My head hasn’t stopped spinning,” Carey said. “You’ve got a million things going on. You’re trying to get a team ready. All those things wrapped up into one and then you put it into a 36-hour window, it’s been nuts.”
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 <0x2014> 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 1, I started right out saying we needed facilities.”
Over time, that changed. So did the mindset in general.
From 1969 through 1999, 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.”
In 2003, with a future Pro Bowl running back in Michael Turner leading the way as a senior, the Huskies won at Alabama and knocked off Maryland and Iowa State on the way to a 10-2 record. They followed that up the next year by going 9-3.
Even after they managed just two wins in 2007 before Novak retired, NIU didn’t stay down long.
The Huskies won 11 games in Jerry Kill’s third and final season before he left for Minnesota. They followed that up with 11 last year under Doeren, who was Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, and their only loss this season was the opener to Iowa at Soldier Field in a game they led until the end.
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.
The only other time Northern Illinois got this much national attention was for the worst of reasons – a campus shooting in 2008 when former NIU student Steven Kazmierczak stepped onto a lecture stage during a geology class and began firing, the word “Terrorist” scrawled across his T-Shirt. Five students were killed as others frantically dived behind their seats or ran for the front doors.
The shootings haunted the school to the point that there was talk of tearing down the building. Instead, it underwent a $6 million renovation that includes a memorial garden.
“I’m very proud of our campus and our community, the way we handled it,” said University President John Peters, who is stepping down at the end of June after 13 years. “It’s the same kind of grit and determination and common sense that got us through that and made us stronger - see some parallels to that and the way we built our football team.”
For the Huskies on-field opportunity, 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.”