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Northern Illinois rises through ranks the hard way

Published: Monday, Dec. 10, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST
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(Kyle Bursaw — kbursaw@shawmedia.com)
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch does a footwork drill as former Huskies quarterback Chandler Harnish looks on during a Dec. 14, 2011 practice at the DeKalb Recreation Center in preparation for the GoDaddy.com Bowl against Arkansas State. The Huskies will return to the DeKalb Rec Center for Orange Bowl practices during bad weather conditions.

DeKALB – Alex Kube remembers the 3-mile bus ride between Huskie Stadium and the DeKalb Sports and Recreation Center lasted only about six minutes.

As did most of his Northern Illinois teammates, Kube grew up dreaming of playing big-time college football.

Most Bowl Championship Series-level programs prepare for bowls in elaborate indoor facilities.

But in 2010, as the Huskies readied themselves for the Humanitarian Bowl, Kube was part of an NIU team that practiced in rented space not large enough to allow a full team to practice at one time. It’s the same facility they’ve practiced in for every bowl game since 2004 and will use again this season when the weather forces them inside.

Kube, who graduated after the 2010 season, remembered arriving at the rec center with his defensive teammates and running through individual drills, practicing for a half hour as a full team and then riding back to campus, turning the field over to the offense.

Former placekicker Mike Salerno wasn’t able to attempt field goals longer than 30 yards without the ball striking the ceiling. Instead, he tapered his preparations by focusing on technique drills or driving 90 minutes to kick on a full field at the Lake Barrington Fieldhouse.

“You had to make do with what you had,” Salerno said.

NIU’s $9.5 million Chessick Center is scheduled to open next fall, but this year, as the Huskies prepare for their fifth bowl appearance in as many years, players are again making do.

The Huskies (12-1) began practice Saturday in preparation for playing Florida State (11-2) on Jan. 1 in the Orange Bowl. When weather gets bad they will continue the tradition of paying the $125 an hour rental fee to practice at the Recreation Center, early or late enough to not interfere with youth soccer leagues.

MAKING DO

In college football, there are the haves and the have-nots.

The Huskies are the latter.

Athletic director Jeff Compher oversees an athletic department with a $20 million budget – about a third the budget of NIU’s Orange Bowl opponent, Florida State.

Most BCS schools have large media contracts. The Huskies pay The Score (670 AM-WSCR) to broadcast football and basketball games.

Most BCS schools plan on a hefty bowl-game payday. Not including the Orange Bowl berth, NIU made four consecutive bowl games and lost more than $63,000 combined from those, according to NIU financial records.

Most BCS schools can count on uninterrupted practice time. The Huskies used to be rushed off their field Thursday nights when DeKalb High School – which used to play home games at Huskie Stadium – needed the field for practice.

At NIU, that’s just a way of life.

“We didn’t have some of the things other programs had,” Kube said. “But we made it work – we understand it wasn’t the nicest place to practice, but if we didn’t practice well, we weren’t going to win a bowl game. We worked hard – we didn’t make excuses.

“We just had to get it done.”

That attitude is what helped propel the Huskies to the Orange Bowl, where they are a heavy underdog. Players are relishing the role as the outsider that won its way into a flawed BCS system, becoming the first MAC school to compete in a BCS bowl game.

BUILDING CREDIBILITY

The road to building a Huskies team that could get to the Orange Bowl started years ago.

Former Huskies coach Joe Novak said he took advantage of the underdog mentality NIU has always embraced when he started with the team in 1996. He set about leading an athletic department-wide effort to change the culture of a team that had posted winning records only six times in the previous 33 years.

Former athletic director Jim Phillips – who is now the top athletic administrator at Northwestern – had the Huskies play at major Big Ten locales such as Michigan and Ohio State, in front of national TV audiences.

Phillips brokered the radio deal with The Score, choosing to pay for radio broadcasts on a station that reached multiple states rather than a smaller regional area. To be considered a major player in college athletics, Phillips understood the university had to think like one.

“It’s about credibility, and you have to take advantage of every opportunity you have,” Phillips said.

“It’s tremendously difficult when you think about the [limited] resources and you think about what you’re competing against. But that’s the fun of it – that’s the challenge – you hope for a better day and you hope for an opportunity that’s in front of Northern Illinois now.”

The potential of success became the pitch NIU coaches used to attract players to DeKalb and that Compher relied on to draw talent such as former coaches Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren.

Novak has remained the program’s biggest fan, watching from afar as Kill and Doeren continued to build the Huskies into one of the nation’s top mid-major programs. During his 12-year tenure in DeKalb, Novak survived a 23-game losing streak and guided the team to its 10-win 2003 season.

“I don’t think I ever thought about a BCS bowl game to be honest with you,” Novak said. “I thought that was a little bit out of reach.

“There’s just so many factors that had to fall into place to get a [MAC team to a BCS bowl] and I just wasn’t sure how realistic that was to dream about. I knew we could get facilities, I knew we could win MAC championships, but I wasn’t sure about the possibilities of a BCS bowl berth.”

Now, that possibility is here.

BCS DREAM COMES TRUE

Two days after the Huskies’ MAC Championship game win over Kent State, Jordan Lynch – NIU’s Chicago-born junior quarterback – watched as his Twitter feed exploded with Northern Illinois mentions.

But even when Sports Illustrated reported the Huskies’ invitation to the Orange Bowl, Lynch waited.

About 7:40 p.m. Dec. 2, just 15 minutes after Compher announced his decision to hire Rod Carey as head coach – the BCS standings, with Northern Illinois slotted in the No. 15 spot, appeared on a large projection screen in a classroom inside the Yordon Center.

As Compher watched players celebrate, he could finally exhale, having learned of the Huskies’ selection a few hours earlier.

“I could hardly speak,” Compher said. “It’s one of those moments you don’t forget because you feel kind of choked up because you know what it’s going to mean for everybody. But it really happened. It was almost too hard to believe.”

It’s a fitting chapter for a college football program that has found a home – at least this year – among college football’s elite despite not operating at the same level as many of its bigger BCS brethren.

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