Try telling NIU it doesn't belong
DEKALB, Ill. -- There are eight items on Northern Illinois' 2012 team goals board in the McCareins meeting room.
Among them: go undefeated at home; a team GPA of 2.75 or higher; no off-the-field distractions; win the MAC West division title; and, of course, beat archrival Toledo.
Busting the BCS is nowhere to be found, but it's not a foreign concept, either.
"We wanted to be the first team from the MAC to go to a BCS bowl game," athletic director Jeff Compher said. "And now that's come to fruition."
It became official Sunday night after a weekend that included the Huskies winning their second consecutive MAC championship Friday night -- in two overtimes, no less; losing head coach Dave Doeren to NC State on Saturday; a day of scoreboard watching followed by another of poll watching; Compher and school president John Peters interviewing assistant coach Rod Carey for the Huskies' coaching vacancy and then officially hiring Carey on Sunday.
The whirlwind culminated with Northern Illinois finishing at No. 15 in the final BCS standings and, because of BCS rules, earning a spot in the Discover Orange Bowl against No. 12 Florida State, the ACC champion.
"People lose and you sit there and wonder," cornerback Demetrius Stone said, "can we jump in?"
Players erupted into cheers upon seeing the NIU name appear on two big-screen televisions in the McCareins meeting room. They stood on the tables and tossed around oranges.
"You don't know it's real or not," Stone said, "until you actually see it on ESPN. It's still just a surreal feeling."
Those oranges soon were headed back toward the television screens as several analysts, most notably Kirk Herbstreit, questioned NIU's place in the BCS mix. Herbstreit called NIU's qualification "a joke," prompting one player to chuck an orange at his face on the screen.
Several players muttered Herbstreit's name in disgust as they left the complex.
"We expect that," defensive end Sean Progar said of the criticism. "We've dealt with that ever since we've been at NIU."
Added star quarterback Jordan Lynch: "We already came into this program with a chip on our shoulder. A lot of people felt they could have went [to bigger schools] coming out of high school. Maybe they were too small or too short, whatever it was. It just seems like a lot of people doubted you your whole life."
Northern Illinois might not be Boise State, but the Huskies aren't a one-year wonder, either. They've won 34 games since the start of the 2010 season. NIU is the only FBS program to win 21 of its past 22 games and is one of just two programs (Oregon) to record three consecutive seasons of 11 or more victories. Lynch is among the nation's most productive offensive players.
Yet they don't belong. And Louisville and Wisconsin do?
"What's the sense of putting us in consideration if no one wants us here?" Lynch said. "You need to recognize and congratulate a team that goes 12-1. It's hard to win 12 games, let alone eight or nine."
Peters was part of the BCS oversight committee that implemented the rule affording programs from non-automatic qualifying conferences greater access to the big bowls. Since NIU finished in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and two champions from AQ conferences -- Louisville (Big East) and Wisconsin (Big Ten) -- did not, the Huskies punched their BCS ticket.
We already came into this program with a chip on our shoulder. A lot of people felt they could have went [to bigger schools] coming out of high school. Maybe they were too small or too short, whatever it was. It just seems like a lot of people doubted you your whole life.
--Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch
Peters has lived the life of a college football blue blood as an administrator at both Nebraska and at Tennessee, but he and others fought to give smaller schools some hope.
"I think back to the negotiation session when we put that access rule in," he said. "The rules did work, and we had a chance to be on the big stage. These kids really deserve it."
Nine years ago, Northern Illinois earned national recognition during a 10-2 season in 2003. The Huskies beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and also defeated Maryland and Iowa State, but because they didn't win the MAC and the league had only two tie-in bowls, they stayed home for the holidays.
Coach Joe Novak called it "bowl-oney" at the time.
"That was hard," Peters said. "I was very angry about that."
Novak, who retired following the 2007 season, spent the weekend wondering if NIU could crack the top 16. The Huskies entered the MAC title game at No. 21 and needed teams like Texas and UCLA to lose.
A Harris Poll voter, Novak put the Huskies at No. 15 on his ballot but wasn't sure enough others would do the same.
"I knew there was a chance, but I still thought it was very remote," Novak said Sunday night from his home in North Carolina. "Going from 21 to 16 or 15, I just really felt a lot of people would be reluctant to vote that way. The computers would do their thing, but I thought the human element might work against them. Obviously, it didn't, and I'm glad to see that."
Novak called NIU "legitimately the worst program in the country" during his second year in 1997, when the Huskies went 0-11. But then future NFLers like Justin McCareins and Ryan Diem came along, followed by others like Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner.
"It's kind of like going from the outhouse to the penthouse," Novak said. "I don't think I ever really envisioned an Orange Bowl bid. That's a little bit beyond what I had hoped for, but I think it's just fantastic."
"I might go to Miami tomorrow," he added.
Carey, who served as NIU's offensive line coach before taking over the coordinator duties in September after Mike Dunbar was diagnosed with cancer, will make his head-coaching debut in the biggest game in school history.
"It'll be fun," he said.
It'll also be an opportunity to show NIU belongs.
"We're looking to prove," Stone said, "we're one of the best teams in the nation."
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