Many college football fans will awake New Year’s Day, glance at the TV listings, and then face a pressing question.
If it’s, “Where did I put the aspirin?” good luck.
But if it’s “How did Northern Illinois sneak into the Orange Bowl?” you’ve come to the right place.
The story of how the Huskies wound playing Florida State in a big-money BCS bowl stretches back more than four decades. But the short version covers just a few days. It began with a 44-37 double-overtime win against Kent State in the Mid-American Conference championship game in Detroit on Nov. 30, and got crazier from there.
The next morning, NIU athletic director Jeff Compher set out on Interstate 94 toward the campus at DeKalb, Ill., with only one thing on his to-do list: Take out his wife Cathy for a 22nd wedding anniversary dinner in Chicago that night.
“That was the first casualty,” Compher chuckled during a phone interview from Florida, where the Huskies were wrapping up preparations for Tuesday’s game. “It’s been rescheduled for February.”
When he set off from Detroit with son C.J. in tow, Compher knew his life was about to get complicated. What he couldn’t have known until his cellphone began ringing non-stop was how complicated, and how fast. In the first of a string of good decisions, he turned the wheel over to C.J.
“I knew we’d be going to a bowl, but there were so many combinations in play, I wasn’t going to try and figure out which one. In the back of my mind, I thought we might have to find a new coach, because that’s how things happen in the MAC. If you’ve got a good one, and believe me, Dave Doeren is one helluva coach, the big schools come calling quick.”
Quick in this case turned out to be an understatement. One of the first things Compher learned during that Saturday morning drive was that Debbie Yow, his counterpart at North Carolina State, had already beat him back to campus, determined to be the first to interview Doeren. A few hours later, it was a done deal. All Compher asked for was a delay of a few hours so he could be in the room when Doeren told the team. When that meeting ended, he began another one, asking the players what they wanted in a coach, not who.
That’s because Compher began working up a just-in-case scenario months earlier, settling on Rod Carey, NIU’s offensive coordinator. But he wasn’t going to make the call without the players buying in.
“The question in our business, at our level, is how does a good team become a great program? And I’ve always believed the answer is continuity. We were already a good team. This will be our fifth consecutive bowl appearance. We’re one of only two teams (along with Oregon) to win at least 11 games the last two seasons,” Compher said. “In this case, the last thing you want to do is rush into a big decision.”
Already exhausted, Compher decided to sleep on it. When he went to bed, NIU was solidly inside the Top 20 and likely to move up with the win over Kent State. Plus, Texas was losing and Wisconsin was en route to an upset over Nebraska. Compher knew a slot in the Orange Bowl was a possibility, but still a dizzying one.
“I dozed off thinking, ‘I’ve got to hire a coach tomorrow,” Compher recalled. “That’s all I knew for sure.”
By the time he awoke Sunday morning, both Texas and Nebraska were out of the picture. Between negotiations on a new contract for Carey, he began checking bowl projections. Word that NIU was going to the Orange finally came in a call from the MAC office in mid-afternoon, with a warning to keep it quiet until the official announcement Sunday evening. That’s when Compher decided to add a flourish of his own. He sent an athletic department assistant down to the grocery with instructions to buy 100 oranges and not leak a word about why to anyone.
Just minutes before the bowl selection show began on ESPN, Compher introduced Carey as NIU’s new coach. A roar went up, followed by a second a few minutes later as the team learned what Compher already knew: that the Huskies would be the first MAC team accorded a chance to bang shoulders with the big boys in a BCS bowl. A few minutes after that, as ESPN’s commentators roundly panned the BCS’ decision to include NIU, those oranges Compher sent out for came in handy, just not the way he’d expected. Players hurled them at the TV set.
“Of all the things running through my head, I guess hadn’t figured on that,” Compher said, “but I understand it. Here, people know the MAC and how good it can be. But the further you get away from Midwest, the less knowledge there’s bound to be and the less respect some people have.
“So, yeah, I’m sure there will be some head-scratching when we pop up in the Orange Bowl, some ‘Who are they?’ ... But we’ve played in some big games before,” he added, “and we know we’re responsible for representing the MAC. We won’t let people down.”
And no matter the final score, there’s already a silver lining. As news of Compher’s action-packed few days made the rounds, someone at Hilton Hotels heard about it, saw the original cancellation and invited the Comphers to pick a weekend in Chicago as their guests.
“I already owed my wife big-time,” Compher said, “so how great is that?”