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Novak’s reputation still growing

Random thoughts to ponder after Northern Illinois’ historic appearance in the Discover Orange Bowl:

Thought No. 1: Let me get this straight, ESPN immediately apologizes for Brent Musburger’s harmless and flattering on-air comments about Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend – the former Miss Alabama, Katherine Webb – during the BCS title game Monday night.

If that’s the Twilight Zone case, I imagine our ESPN buddy Kirk Herbstreit must have received a pay raise for all his Huskie invectives on the Bowl Selection Show last month. What a world we live in.

Thought No. 2: This is no secret. Joe Novak’s reputation seems to grow better each day. With his former Northern Illinois assistants Scott Shafer (new Syracuse football coach) and Mike Priefer (candidate for the Bears’ top spot) in the news, I pulled out a vintage NIU media guide to reminisce about the good old days.

Check out Novak’s 2001 Huskie coaching staff: Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar (now Michigan State offensive coordinator), defensive coordinator Shafer, quarterbacks coach Matt Canada (now North Carolina State OC), tight ends coach Frank Kurth (now athletic director at Elkhart, Ind., Memorial High School), wide receivers coach George McDonald (now Arkansas wide receivers coach), linebacker coach Pat Narduzzi (now Michigan State defensive coordinator), defensive interior coach Priefer, running backs coach DeAndre Smith (now New Mexico RB coach), defensive end coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Sabock (interim NIU aide for Orange Bowl), plus grad assistants Mike Uremovich (now North Carolina State offensive line coach) and Greg Bower (now Wisconsin-River Falls health and performance faculty). Impressive list.

Thought No. 3: Hate this role-playing Northern Illinois “bully” shtick, but I can’t help it sometimes. For the most part, I thought ESPN play-by-play man Joe Tessitore and analyst Matt Millen were fairly objective (at least for ESPN) on the Orange Bowl telecast.

Except, and there’s always an “except,” in the first quarter.

Tessitore made a cutesy reference to NIU grad Dan Castellaneta, i.e., the voice of TV’s famous Homer (“doh”) Simpson.

Joe, are we just informing the ESPN viewers or making wry comment on my alma mater’s football academics (nationally ranked APR and graduation rates, hint, hint) which, by the way, made Florida State resemble a junior college by comparison? Speaker of the House (Denny Hastert) not good enough for you? Just curious.

Thought No. 4: More class discrimination from the inebriated Orange Bowl rep who dissed the Huskies at an official function (“You guys don’t deserve to be here. We didn’t even want you here”). Anybody see the record TV ratings in Chicago for ESPN’s coverage that night?

I also read how some of the FSU players could not locate DeKalb on a map during bowl week. Maybe some of the adults in Florida need geography lessons, too. Chicago? Nation’s No. 3 media market and population center. Where’s that?

Question No. 1: I’m curious. How many Northern Illinois fans actually were among the announced 72,073 attendance figure in Sun Life Stadium on January 1? Columnist Barry Rozner of the Arlington Heights Daily Herald said 35,000. Some friends who went to Miami estimated between 15,000 and 20,000. Either way, there seemed to be a lot of cardinal red in the stands on TV. Awesome. And, if that’s the case, why can’t NIU duplicate those standing-room only Huskie Stadium crowds from 2002-04?

Question No. 2: Bar bet time. Guess how many different football programs have played in the Orange Bowl since the first one in 1935 to the present? The answer: Fifty-one schools.

Over the decades in the ebb-and-flow of college athletics and football, there’s some present-day surprises on the Orange Bowl participation list - Bucknell (Pa.) (1935), Catholic (1936), Duquesne (1937), Georgetown (1941), Holy Cross (1946), and Santa Clara (1950). FYI to Mr. Herbstreit: NIU and your Ohio State alma mater are tied with one Orange Bowl appearance apiece. Just a reminder.

Thought No. 5: Somebody on campus got it. Finally. During Orange Bowl week, new Northern Illinois football coach Rod Carey put this Boise State-envy in the program’s rearview mirror. Permanently, I hope. To paraphrase, the 41-year-old Carey astutely observed that the Huskies are not Boise State or TCU, but rather “the new NIU.”

Okay, maybe Northern Illinois did not pull the viral upset, ala underdog Boise State over Oklahoma in the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, against FSU in the Orange Bowl. There’s no doubt the “hard way” Huskies validated their initial BCS experience with integrity, grit, tenacity, and fight unlike others this bowl season (I won’t mention Notre Dame, promise).

To reiterate, most of us wouldn’t trade this last Northern Illinois decade for anything TCU or Boise State has done in a similar time frame. Honest. Back-to-back Mid-American Conference titles, seven bowls, an historic BCS postseason, a first-ever Top 25 team ranking(s), Heisman Trophy candidates, national TV appearances, on-field and classroom All-America picks, NCAA statistical records and landmarks, plus numerous
team academic accomplishments.

The first step in any hierarchy is identifying who you are. Carey knows. Right now, there are some fledging mid-majors thinking about being the “next Northern Illinois” - particularly in light of the Cardinal and Black’s ascent from the depths of ultimate despair (1-10, 0-11, and 2-9 in 1996-98).

Thought No. 6: The most compelling graphic or comment during the Orange Bowl telecast didn’t pop up until the fourth quarter with NIU’s 2012 schedule ranking No. 120 out of 124 nationally in the FBS. Not flattering, but true.

There are two MACs - the strong, competitive one and the weaker version. I read the press notes about the record seven MAC bowl teams (which went 2-5), etc. I used to write those. It’s difficult to hide the weak sisters in this league sometimes.

With eight of NIU’s 14 opponents this season finishing below .500 (a combined 19-77), no wonder naysayers such as Herbstreit howled on Bowl Selection Sunday. Instead of venting last month, Kirk, you might have mentioned the Mid-Am scheduling issue.

Overall, the 2012 Huskie grid opposition went 74-99. This is nothing new for the major MAC sports. To be relevant in the BCS realm, the league athletic directors and presidents need to evaulate their schools’ schedules and national perception in football and both basketball programs and make that an immediate priority.

Thought No. 7: Perspective time. In the Northern Illinois euphoria over the Orange Bowl and a 12-win season, it’s easy to dismiss the past. I understand. Looking at the final polls from 2003, there were three Mid-Am programs in both Top 30s - Miami (10th in AP and 12th in USA Today), Bowling Green (23rd in both), and NIU (26th in USA Today and 29th in AP).

That’s not the case today. C-USA types Marshall and Central Florida were still in the Mid-Am. Future All-Pros Michael “The Burner” Turner and Ben Roethlisberger were the showcase performers.

Consider the Huskies’ significant nonconference triumphs that same year - Top 25 Maryland and Alabama, plus Iowa State. You cannot put NIU’s 2003 and 2012 schedules in the same sentence, in my opinion. Somebody might react and say: Whose side are you on, Mike?

If you’ve read this column the last five years, you should know by now: The Huskie side. Many of us have witnessed Northern Illinois reach the football apex in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2011, and now 2012. Then seen it go the wrong way too many times.

With the new Chessick Center, the IHSA football playoffs, the stadium improvements in 2013, it’s the perfect time for NIU to build on this unprecedented success.

• Mike Korcek is a former Northern Illinois University sports information director. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle.

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