NIU alumni celebrate Orange Bowl bid at holiday party

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NIU alumni celebrate Orange Bowl bid at holiday party

By Jack McCarthy
CSNChicago.com

Festive white lights twinkled on a 25-foot Christmas tree rising towards the arches of the University Club's Cathedral Room as Northern Illinois University alumni gathered for a holiday party on Thursday.

But forget about the traditional Christmas hues and highlights.

Orange -- as in Orange Bowl -- was the color to celebrate as several hundred alums saluted the NIU football team's historic berth in a major college bowl game.

"I got a little emotional about it when I found out," admitted athletic director Jeff Compher as the party got under way. "This is a seminal moment in the history of our university. It's one of those defining moments that validates everything we've been doing and how we've been doing it."

The Huskies (12-1) vaulted into Bowl Championship Series contention following last Friday's Mid-American Conference double overtime title victory over Kent State.

The reward was a No. 15 spot in the final BCS rankings announced last Sunday and an unprecedented Orange Bowl berth -- the first major bowl appearance by any MAC team.

Northern Illinois, also ranked in the top 15 in two major national polls, will face No. 12 Florida State in prime time (7 p.m. Central) on New Year's Day.

The Huskies inclusion generated plenty of controversy. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit called it a joke and college football message boards have been awash with criticism of the Huskies selection, strength of schedule, mid-major status and a broken BCS system.

"So what?" says NIU alums like Dave Heide, who played under coach Bill Mallory on the 1983 California Bowl championship team.

"The thing that kind of befuddles me a little is that you look at college basketball and everybody roots for VCU, they root for Butler, they root for Gonzaga," he said. "Why not in college football? I think Herbstreit's (negative) comments were very strong that I think the country has rallied around Northern.

"I couldn't be more proud of this program, they do everything the right way."

Besides, Northern Illinois legitimately qualified under current BCS rules. And under a new system set to debut in 2014, the Huskies would also be in the field.

The past decade has seen the most successful seasons since Northern Illinois was a NCAA College Division power in the 1960s, winning a national championship in 1963 behind College Football Hall of Fame quarterback George Bork.

In 2002, the Huskies were emerging as a Mid-American power under coach Joe Novak and finished 8-4 with a MAC West championship. Two years later, Northern Illinois made its first bowl appearance since 1983 with a 34-21 victory over Troy in the Silicon Valley Classic.

Novak guided NIU to the Poinsettia Bowl in 2006, then stepped down after the Huskies slipped to 2-10 in 2007.

The three-year Jerry Kill era began the next year with the revived team finishing 6-6 and reaching the 2008 Independence Bowl, the first of five straight postseason appearances.

Northern dropped a 27-3 decision to South Florida in the 2009 International Bowl and beat Fresno State 40-17 in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl. The next year, under former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren, NIU went 11-3, won a MAC championship and beat Arkansas State in the 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl.

Doeren guided the Huskies to a 12-1 record and another MAC title this season before resigning to take the top job at North Carolina State.

Now its up to new head coach Rod Carey -- still adjusting to his quick promotion -- to continue Northerns winning ways.

A week ago I was buried in film figuring out to block Kent State's tackles, said the 42-year-old Carey, who spent the last two seasons helping guide two of the most explosive offenses in program history. "I don't have a sense of this yet, but it's fun."

NIU alumni, meanwhile, see good things to come out of the Orange Bowl experience.

"When you go to a university like NIU, it's a great institution," said Joseph Matty, NIU associate vice president for university advancement and CEO and executive director of the school's alumni association. "Our athletic program is allowing the rest of the country to see how great it is."

Jonathan Toews' late goal sends Blackhawks to win over Canucks

Jonathan Toews' late goal sends Blackhawks to win over Canucks

Jonathan Toews recorded a four-point night, including the game-winning goal, and Corey Crawford recorded his 200th career victory as the Blackhawks beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-2 on Sunday night.

Crawford, who had struggled in recent starts, stopped 25 of 27 shots in this one. Brian Campbell garnered his 500th career point with his primary assist on Panik's goal. Toews recorded two assists, moving ahead of Jeremy Roenick for 13th among the Blackhawks' all-time assist leaders (330).

Marian Hossa, who recorded an empty-net goal late, garnered his 400th point in a Blackhawks uniform.

The Blackhawks had one of their best first periods on Sunday night, outshooting the Canucks 18-9 and taking that 2-0 lead. Richard Panik scored his 11th goal of the season from the slot off Campbell's feed and Patrick Kane scored his 15th goal of the season.

The third wasn't nearly as good as Troy Stecher scored a power-play goal and Bo Horvat scored 46 seconds later. But Toews scored off a carom off the backboards with 1:18 remaining to regain a 3-2 lead, and Hossa’s empty-net goal sealed it.

Bad blood fueled Bears-Vikings playoff bout profiled in 'Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon'

Bad blood fueled Bears-Vikings playoff bout profiled in 'Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon'

From the high ground of hindsight, what unfolded in the Metrodome that day in 1995 was actually quite a big deal. But not for reasons that you could have really understood at the time watching the Bears stun the Minnesota Vikings 35-18 in the wild card round of the 1994 playoffs.

It was not so much the game alone. It was the overall context of the time for the Bears, before and after.

Though the 1995 season would get off to a 6-2 start for the Bears before their near-historic collapse, the Minnesota game would prove to be the high-water mark for the coaching tenure of Dave Wannstedt. This was the postseason, and the Bears looked to be going where then-president Mike McCaskey envisioned when he made the play to beat the New York Giants in securing Wannstedt, who was unquestionably the hot coaching prospect coming out of the Dallas Super Bowl pantheon after the 1992 season.

To fully grasp the situation, you need to understand the undercurrent of venom that had developed between the Bears and Vikings. Bears-Packers might have been the glitzy rivalry, but what had grown between the Bears and Vikings was true hostility, with little of the respect that the Bears and Packers had managed. The Vikings carried grudges for Pro Bowl slights going back almost to the Bears' Super Bowl win. One Bears defensive lineman remarked that his most hated opponent was Minnesota right tackle Tim Irwin, adding, "He's a guy that, if I ran over him with a car, I'd back up over him to make sure I got him." Dwayne Rudd's backpedaling taunt after an interception came a couple years later, but you get the idea.

What's easily forgotten looking back through the mists of time was the epic decision made by Wannstedt to make a quarterback change, from a quarterback he wanted in free agency to one he knew well from their time together at the University of Miami. That was every bit the turning point of the season and the real reason the playoff trip and win ever happened.

The Bears had been annihilated in their first game against the Vikings in the 1994 season — 42-14 — and something was really, really wrong, which become glaringly more evident just a few weeks later, even though the Bears were reaching a 4-2 mark under quarterback Erik Kramer, the centerpiece of an aggressive offseason foray into free agency. But the Bears then lost — badly — to the Lions and Packers, with Kramer throwing three interceptions against Detroit and two against Green Bay, the latter in only 10 pass attempts.

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I talked privately to Kramer after the Green Bay game, specifically about why it was that he was playing his absolute worst against Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, all teams with which he was intimately familiar. My thought: You know those defenses and where their people are going to be.

Kramer shook his head: "The 'other guys' I know. It's my own guys. I don't know where they're supposed to be."

It wasn't a comment on his receivers whatsoever. It was Kramer admitting bluntly that he was not getting the West Coast scheme of coordinator Ron Turner and its timing element.

Wannstedt knew it wasn't working and made the change to Steve Walsh, who'd been the Hurricanes' quarterback under Jimmy Johnson when Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator.

That was the tipping point, and Walsh and Wannstedt are among the principals of "Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon," airing on Monday at 8 p.m. on CSN.

Anyone with any time spent in or around the NFL knows that beating a team three times in a season is incredibly difficult. The Bears had been blown out in the first Minnesota game but had pushed the Vikings to overtime in the second and would have won had Kevin Butler not missed a 40-yard field goal try.

The playoff meeting was No. 3, and after the Vikings put up a field goal in the first quarter, the Bears scored with a Lewis Tillman touchdown in the second and just pulled steadily away from the winner of the only NFL division that produced four teams with winning records.

From there it would be another decade-plus — 2006 season — before the Bears would win a playoff game.