With two weeks left in the season, Northern Illinois began to prepare for a BCS bowl game.
So when the Huskies beat Eastern Michigan, then Kent State in the MAC championship game, then squeaked into the top 16 in the BCS standings, they were into the Orange Bowl to play Florida State.
"We didn't care about jinxing ourselves," said Jeff Compher, Northern Illinois' athletic director. "We knew that to capitalize, we had to plan.”
What capitalizing means really isn't clear at this point.
It's not known whether the school will make money from the game alone. Compher says he's still working out the bowl budget, and he insists that seeking to profit won't come at the expense of making sure the players have the best experience.
The immediate task is to sell the 17,500 tickets the school has to buy from the Orange Bowl, which is not an easy task. In its six home games this season, the school averaged only 15,670 fans per game. Combine that with the fact that there's a glut of absurdly cheap tickets to the game on ticket-resale sites like StubHub. By Tuesday morning, there were more than 500 tickets available on the site for less than $12. The face value of the cheapest ticket the school sells is $75.
Unlike the other BCS games, the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar, all of which have decent fan bases that want to watch the games no matter which teams are involved, the people in Miami don’t have the affinity for attending the Orange Bowl. So those who buy the tickets before the teams come out are often speculators looking to flip the seats at a profit. Complicating things this year: To buy a ticket for the BCS title game in Miami, a person had to buy a ticket to the Orange Bowl for the past two years. Brokers wrote off the Orange Bowl tickets at a loss to get the BCS ticket, which might now pay off royally thanks to the Notre Dame-Alabama matchup.
"We think our students and alumni should buy from us because they are used to sitting together, and it's a big part of the experience," Compher said. The school has already bought advertising online and in newspapers and has sent emails and text messages to alumni in its database. "This is a group effort across the entire campus. Some people from the Orange Bowl came to campus and said we were among the most prepared they have ever seen."
But there is some solace for Compher: If he can't persuade fans to spend more by going through the school and can't sell out the allotment, NIU won't be left with a budget crisis. MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher told ESPN.com on Monday that he expects the conference presidents to approve a disproportionate revenue-sharing plan that will cover NIU's costs. Steinbrecher said the five non-BCS conferences will split $12 million, and the MAC will get roughly two-thirds of another $12 million bucket.
In the past 72 hours, media mentions for the school are closing in on an all-time high, as Compher could anecdotally tell from his communication devices.
"Our email and Twitter accounts have blown up, and my phone won't stop ringing," said Compher, who has been the athletic director for 4½ years. "It's the most response I've ever seen."
According to Google Trends data, more people have searched for Northern Illinois than any time in the past eight years, save for a campus shooting in February 2008 that resulted in six deaths and injured 21.
Figuring out what all this is worth to Northern Illinois is complicated.
The sustained success has facilitated a coaching carousel, one that resulted in Jerry Kill going to Minnesota before the 2011 season and the Huskies' current coach, Dave Doeren, leaving to coach NC State before the Orange Bowl. But the Huskies haven't really turned the corner.
Attendance has been lackluster, even though a large portion of its alumni base lives and works relatively close to the school's campus in Dekalb, Ill.
"What I'm most excited about is that I believe this will re-energize our fan base," Compher said. "I want people to jump on the bandwagon because it could be as big as we want it to be. We have 180,000 alumni that live within an hour drive of our campus. People think that we're a little school. We're not."
If there's a common theme among non-BCS schools that burst into college football's biggest spotlights, it's that playing in those games has enabled them to at least have a chance to enjoy sustained success through greater revenues. The big prize, it seems, has been getting wooed during all the realignment that has shaken the college sports world.
There's obviously a greater chance of seeing a significant bump if Northern Illinois somehow beats Florida State. The Huskies are a 13-point underdog, the biggest underdog of this bowl season. But going back to a BCS game is where it really makes a difference. TCU, for example, which played in two recent BCS games and beat Wisconsin in the 2011 Rose Bowl, got a spot in the Big 12 and raised $164 million to expand the school's stadium. Or Boise State, which won both its BCS games over Oklahoma and TCU, was picked up by the Big East and also gave its stadium a $3 million upgrade. Or Utah, which beat Pitt in 2005 and Alabama in 2009 in its two BCS appearances and parlayed that success into getting one of two spots that turned the Pac-10 into the Pac-12.
Although there's much talk of Northern Illinois raking in the dough, it's really not the reality in Compher's office.
"We operate so that we can balance our budget," Compher said. "We budget conservatively and spend conservatively. If we have money left over, it will go into operational enhancements for our program."